It’s been 50 years since Bernard Bailyn wrote “The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution”

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tags: Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution

On the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Bernard Bailyn’s The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, Peter Mancall of the USC-Huntington Early Modern Studies Institute and Steve Pincus of Yale University’s Center for Historical Enquiry & the Social Sciences, organized a conference to reappraise this groundbreaking work. The conference brought together important scholars of the American Revolution, many of whom were former students of Professor Bailyn. The following is a report of the two-day event held on April 20-21, 2017.

When The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution was first published, the role of ideas in understanding the momentous events of the 1770s and 1780s, were not central to historical writing on the subject. Instead, as is widely known to students of American historiography, progressive interpretations stressing the role of interests, especially economic ones, and the consensus school, highlighting the distinctively American and conservative character of the Revolution, dominated debate. Bailyn’s work set the scene for a fundamental departure in the historiographical landscape. Perhaps as a response to the sway Marxist theory held over American progressive interpretations, or as an early instance of what came to be known as the ‘linguistic turn’, Bailyn’s use of the term ‘ideology’ expressed his view of ideas assincere expressions of belief motivating action, rather than the rationalization of interest, or expedient propaganda. He provided a brilliant analysis of how intellectual reception, the interior life of the mind and emotions, could translate into revolutionary action.

Several distinct themes emerged over the course of the two-day event that aimed to examine the signature contribution Bailyn made to our understanding of the Revolution. First, Eric Slauter placed Bailyn in his historiographical milieu. The influence of Caroline Robbins and J.G.A. Pocock on Bailyn’s interpretation of radical whig thought are well-known. But it was his reading of the work of lesser known American literary scholars, which provided the impetus for Bailyn’s study of words and their changing meaning as a symptom of shifts in political culture and understanding. By adopting this strategy, drawn from the work of Moses Coit Tyler, Elizabeth C. Cook, and Perry Miller, Bailyn was able to provide an interior view of the revolutionary generation and an intimate excavation of its mentalite.

Originally published as an introduction to an edition of revolutionary pamphlets, entitled The Transforming Radicalism of the American Revolution, Bailyn’s work, together with the companion volume The Origins of American Politics, provided a periodization or intellectual chronology of the rise of revolutionary consciousness. In this way, Jack Rakove’s paper recalled his experience of teaching Bailyn’s text and how its pedagogical function served to underline key questions of causation, an analytic at odds with the dominant trend of histories of the last decade which have focused on the lived experience of the Revolution. Rakove described Bailyn’s text as providing two distinct modes of explanation for the Revolution. The first provided an account of the causes of the Revolution under the influence of a worldview, or ideology, which pushed Americans from fear and suspicion at the loss of liberties, to outright resistance, and finally revolution against the threat posed to liberty by Britain’s expanding imperial state. The other, faced only after Independence had been declared, involved the eclipse of ideology in place of debate over key political and social questions, including slavery, religious freedom, and democratic rights. The specific role played by Whig ideology could not provide the answers for constituting a new and powerful national government, especially since—as Bailyn made clear—the suspicion of governmental power was the cornerstone of radical Whig thought.

The transition therefore from colonies to separate states, was a mere preamble to a much larger transformation in the structure of politics, where the nation-state produced out of the ashes of revolutionary separation required some new conception of sovereignty capable of holding a union of states, each highly jealous of their liberty. ...

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