At the turn of the twentieth century progressive historians denounced that the American Revolution was fought over ideas. They unknowingly advanced the Tories version of events, according to Bernard Bailyn. For instance, the idea of personal gain was promulgated. These progressive historians had great influence until the 1950s. But it was not until the publication of Bailyn’s book in 1967 – The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution – that set the record straight. By studying and referencing over four hundred pamphlets, it became clear that the war for independence had a clear ideological core. And Bailyn’s book is largely based on those pamphlets.
Pamphlets were the major way to convey ideas; debate issues, and refine nuances. The pamphlet wars was not new to the colonists; they inherited that tradition from Britain – especially during the English Civil War (1642-1651). Contained in the pamphlets ranged from sermons, to poems, and to political debates. The pamphlet wars revealed three parts of the Revolution: pre-Revolution (1763-1776), after the war started, with each state setting up its own constitutions (1776-), and in (1787-1788) the restructuring of state constitutions and establishing a new Federal Constitution.
The central focus contained in the pamphlet wars were colonists’ Rights, in light of the British constitution. The British Constitution was the culmination of law and tradition over many years. It was the envy of the world. British subjects were the freest people in the world at that time. Thus, liberty was connected to it. Moreover, the British Constitution reflected a three level social order: the royalty, the nobility, and the commoners. It was a “mixed” and well balanced constitution. To tinker with the balance of power was to tip the scales of power; threatening the liberty of all. Based on this understanding, and others, the colonist saw the British constitution out of balance when Parliament began to interfere with their internal affairs.
The pamphlets – along with newspapers, sermons, speeches, and letters – reflected a plethora, and in-depth knowledge of the colonists’ rich cultural heritage and historical literacy. They knew their history. Greek and Roman ideas dripped off the pages. Constitutional issues were debated by laymen. The colonist were proud of being British subjects. They clung to the common law. The ideas of justice and liberty possessed their thinking. Puritan covenant theology helped frame their consciences. There were many intellectual strands that came together to form a clear opposition. Above all, it was the English Civil War that shaped the colonists constitutional understanding, John Locke’s treaties on government, and John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon’s letters, called: Cato’s letters.
One major feature Bailyn brought to bare were the shifts on the issues. For instance, from 1763 to 1776 (before the publication of Thomas Paine’s book Common Sense) much of the debate focused on Rights within a British Constitutional construct. Of course, the colonist understood Locke’s ideas of Rights being in nature, but once in a civil society laws were constructed to protect certain Natural Rights. Therefore, the colonist looked to the British Constitution to establish their Rights as British subjects. But Pain helped to change this paradigm. He gave the colonist another view of the constitution and liberty. Bailyn’s book is replete with these types of changes and nuances – that untimely carried the debate over issues of liberty, constitutionalism, and Rights to a new level. That eventually culminated to the ratification of the United States Constitution in 1788.
One interesting point Bailyn addressed is the issue of social norms. He adamantly rejects the notion that the Founders and most of the founding generation wanted to change societies’ social structure. For the most part, they fought on legal grounds. Constitutionalism is the central key to understanding the minds of the colonists, as established above. They did not set out to change societal norms, however, society was changed none the less.
Bailyn is a scholar. And because he is, sometimes he is difficult to follow – although it had a chronological and natural flow. Since it appears he did not use a lot of transitional words, his thoughts kind of flowed into the next – but this is just my opinion. Over all, this was a superb book. Bailyn showed both sides of each debate: whether they were Patriots and Tories or the Federalist and Anti-federalist. He seemed not to leave a stone unturned. It ought to be required reading for all undergraduate and graduate American history courses. It should be a classic.
© James Booker July 23, 2015