We Are Not Free of History


Mr. Bailyn is Adams University Professor, emeritus, Harvard University. This address was given at Georgetown University.

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President DeGioia, Dean Barbari, graduates in the Arts and Sciences, ladies and gentleman:

Someone once said that

Heaven is where the chefs are French, the police British, the mechanics German, the lovers Italian, and it is all organized by the Swiss.
Hell where the chefs are British, the police German, the mechanics French, the lovers Swiss, and it is all organized by the Italians.

But please don’t go around saying things like that. It’s a form of essentialism, and it can get you into trouble.

Still, nations and peoples do have dominant characteristics, and it’s a good time, a necessary time, to think briefly about our own essential characteristics, since whether we like it or not the United States is fated to play a dominant role in world affairs for the foreseeable future, and what others think about us, and how we see ourselves, and how we actually are, matters, to the rest of the world as well as to ourselves.

The trouble is that it’s very hard to identify our dominant characteristics. People have been listing them, debating them, praising them, and cursing them since the nation was founded. It’s a strange business. We are seen as – or are supposed to be – pragmatic (that is, when we’re not idealistic) – tolerant (when we’re not racist) – diverse (when we’re not culturally homogenized) – enterprising (when we’re not complacent) – innocent (when we’re not corrupt) – naïve (when we’re not cynical) – friendly, gregarious, and kindly (when we’re not ruthless). So all that means – and it’s not surprising – is that we are full of paradoxes.

But I think the most common view of Americans by others is that we are a youthful people with little sense of history – little sense, that is, that the burdens of the past can be tragic, that the present merely deepens the tangles of the past which hopelessly repeat themselves. It is to say that we are not caught up – like the Hindus and Moslems in India, like the Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East, like the Protestants and Catholics in Ireland – in age-old struggles where the past surrounds one all the time, where living memory of past abuses and past brutalities lies so heavily it can never be lifted, and where hatreds are bred in one from birth.

But is it true? Are we a youthful people, insensitive to the past, without a powerful inheritance?

Quite aside from the burden of race conflict, which has been with us from our earliest years, we live under the oldest written constitution in the world, and we orient our public life to principles that are now two centuries old. We often refer our public problems back to the minds of men – the Founders of the Republic – who lived in the pre-industrial age, and who would have found Darwin blasphemous, Freud revolting, and Einstein mad. They knew about special interests and about social and political passions, but they had no idea how powerfully public opinion in a modern democracy can be manipulated, especially by instruments of communication they could not have conceived of. Much of their political thinking was based on assumptions about physical distance and its calming effect on political passions; but we live at a time when distance is obliterated and scattered forces can coalesce by instantaneous communication with intensifying effect.

Yet despite all these differences, we keep going back to the Founders, not only for patriotic celebrations, but for some kind of essential wisdom, some kind of guidance. Our judges – our Supreme Court justices – making decisions that affect our daily lives in this 21st century, study the Founders’ public documents written two centuries ago, for clues to what they would have said in our situation. The Federalist papers, which in fact were journalistic pieces thrown together wildly two hundred years ago in a bitter political battle over the ratification of the Constitution in New York, are cited by the Supreme Court as if they were a sacred writ, prescriptive for us and the problems of our own time.

Why? What do these historical figures of the time of Mozart and Frederick the Great have to say to us? Why do they continue to be so relevant?

The nation having so recently and elaborately celebrated the 300th anniversary of Benjamin Franklin’s birth, I think of him and of his life-long self-reinvention, at which he was a genius. He thought of himself, and made the world think of him, first as a striving, clever youth who conquered the provincial world by his wit and enterprise; then as a world class scientist and inventor; then as a politician and statesman; and finally as the embodiment of the Enlightenment’s hope for all mankind – which is not bad for a single lifetime.

But it’s his last phase that interests me particularly, enacted in Paris as our first ambassador abroad. He loved Paris, and Paris, especially the fashionable world there, was fascinated by what seemed to be this remarkable backwoods genius. Next to Voltaire he became the most famous man in Europe. He ambled amiably through high society and the world of cunning politicians and statesmen seemingly without effort. Everyone important knew him, and the women in their salons literally hung on his neck, wrote poems to him, and got back bantering love letters in poor French. His image appeared everywhere – on vases, snuff boxes, watch fobs, medallions, statuettes, and dish towels. He loved it all, but he knew what he was about, and in the quest for a sense of the relevance of his generation, what he did there and what he came to mean to the enlightened world are more revealing than many of our most famous state documents.

Franklin knew that for all of his casual ways and happy socializing he embodied and symbolized the highest ideals of the European Enlightenment – its commitment to reason, to the rule of law, to the freedom from tyranny of all kinds, mental as well as physical, and to the realization of individual capacities and aspirations. And he knew too that he embodied his own country’s paradoxical combination of realism in the pragmatic control of the material world and the idealism of enlightened aspirations. He knew what power was and the satisfaction of enjoying it. But he knew too that power without the limitations of humane goals dissolved into power for its own sake and led to the erosion of personal liberties. He knew, as did the best of his generation, that freedom of the individual in the face of the power of the state was a fragile thing, difficult to attain, more difficult to sustain, and most easily destroyed in times of danger when security is threatened and fear is common.

It was a generation whose greatest achievement was to have created a system of power that was narrowly specified and tightly confined in a written constitution, and then to have checked those powers with a system of rights that were both specified and left open-ended so that future generations might protect not only the freedoms that were known to the Founding generation but those that would emerge in later years and in different circumstances. Bounded powers and unbounded freedoms, all contained within a system of laws – that was the great gift of Franklin’s generation to posterity.

It did not come easily. It was the product of a bitter struggle that climaxed in the year-long debate on the ratification of the Constitution. That extended controversy involved hundreds of people in all the states and produced thousands of pages of broadsides, pamphlets, newspaper columns, and sermons, all centered on the fear that the powers of the proposed new federal government, executive and legislative, might be excessive. The discussants and debaters saw dangers to personal liberties in every crevice of the powers created by the Constitution, in every turn of phrase and possible implication, all of which they explored, challenged, and brought under control as far as possible.

Their commitment to the saving grace of checks and balances between institutions of government was profound, but they went beyond that to ensure that the separation of, and competition among, institutional powers not be bridged by plural officeholding: that is, by individuals who might both sit in Congress and hold office in the administration, a construction that in Britain had made possible the notorious corruption of the 18th century House of Commons and that would prove to endow the modern British Prime Minister with more power than any American President has ever had, at least in peacetime. To prevent this they introduced a brief sentence in the Constitution: “No person holding office under the US shall be a member of either house during his continuance in office.” It ended the problem at a stroke and established one of the pillars of American constitutionalism.

But fears that the whole delicate system might collapse and that the precarious balances of power would be destroyed persisted. They had no choice. They knew that to survive as a nation they had to create strong powers in a central government, but what is most striking is that they created those powers so cautiously and carefully, so parsimoniously, as they felt their way along a dark and dangerous path.

All of this took place in a far distant and far different world from ours, a world so alien to us in so many ways that we have to struggle to understand it. Yet, despite all the differences, these figures of a pre-industrial, pre-technological age speak to us directly, and they do so because their main concern is still ours. Their language and their purpose need no translation. Their aim in everything they did was to control the uses of power – to prevent the state, the government, from overwhelming society. They meant to force the government to serve, not the interests or ideas defined by those who controlled it, but the public’s interests defined by delgates freely chosen by the people. They did not need a Stalin or a Saddam Hussein to show them what the dangers were. They knew all about arbitrary arrests, secret courts, confessions by torture, official lies, and the suppression of dissent. Free elections and trial by jury, John Adams wrote, were the only security we have “against being ridden like horses, and fleeced like sheep, and worked like cattle, and fed and cloathed like hoggs and hounds.”

Adams and his contemporaries also knew about the constructive uses of power – its essential role in the maintenance of order, its necessary support for the rule of law, its capacity to support the exploration and preservation of the natural world and its assistance in the release of the individual’s creative energies. But their ultimate concern was that, while the exercise of power was necessary and can be constructive, its uses must be carefully and constantly controlled if a civilized way of life was to be preserved. Their solution to that elemental problem is the great legacy they left us.

I believe commencement speakers are supposed to deliver a charge to the emerging graduates – though I usually think that a charge has something to do with car batteries, or the Light Brigade, or what you do with credit cards. But since that is my obligation, I perform it, by saying to you, that fortunately we are not free of history and that you and your generation will have the obligation to carry forward, knowingly and deliberately, a heritage two centuries old. Some of you will have the privilege of working directly in government, but all of you, as citizens in whatever sphere of work, have the obligation to engage, in any way you can, in preserving this vital heritage.

Never in American history has the nation faced such threats to its survival as a free society as it does now, and never has the danger been greater that, in the effort to protect ourselves, we will allow the power of the state to override the liberties of the people. While we must support the programs of national security, we must never allow them to destroy the freedoms they are designed to protect.

My charge to you, therefore, as citizens educated in this great university, is simple: continue, in any way you can, the Founders’ struggle to make the power of the state express human aspirations not crush them.

© Bernard Bailyn, 2007

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Randll Reese Besch - 7/10/2007

He doesn't even mention the 'Anti-federalist Papers' for the Constitution by itself wasn't supported like the 'Declaration of Independence' was with unanimaty.It was Madison distilling the anti-feds views of a distrustful Federalists wanting to 'hobble' the inherent power,of the type like Hamilton wanted. A neo-monarchy.
It took a civil war and several other wars to strengthen the powers of central gov't & the near total dissolution of the Bill of Rights and Sepration of Powers at this juncture.
Add to that the growing imposition of the theocrats in the USA using 21st century weapons against car bombs fightting a 'war on terrorism' even though bombing and missile attacks and war itself is a terror weapon.
Just iimagine WORLD WAR 3 & the 10th crusade in one!

Michael Almer - 7/10/2007

I say Bailyn did not say what you say he said. He complained that the Federalist Papers were being taken as "holy writ", not the Constitution. And I don't see anything in his address that strikes me as disrespectful to the document. In fact, Bailyn's own great faith in the Constitution was a point I think he made quite well in this piece.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 7/9/2007

What he does not say, and should, is that the practice of treating the Constitution and Federalist Papers like holy writ for the past 218 years has served us quite well, and should be continued. Further, that most Americans have great faith in their Constitution, and neither Harvard graduates nor anybody else is going to get anywhere trying to wean them away from this allegiance.

Ray Smock - 7/9/2007

Bernard Bailyn's insightful remarks on the vitality of many of the Founding Era ideas in shaping us as Americans suggests to me that we need a New Enlightenment movement. One where office holders would take seriosly their oaths, where reason and the rule of law would govern the affairs of state, where knowledge and wisdom would dominate dogma, and where national interest and global interest would take precedence over partisan gain and corporate greed. Benjamin Franklin was a celebrity with substance. Today's celebrities are merely mass market faces. Imagine a newspaper today that would publish something as serious as the Federalist essays. This is not to suggest a return to the 18th century. We need a New Enlightenment with a new context but with the spirit that marked this great new experiment in government and the creation of a new nationality. We are supposedly an inventive people. It is time to re-invent ourselves, for ourselves and our posterity.

Jonathan Dresner - 7/9/2007

The joke at the beginning of this address is actually an old Georgetown joke: at least it was when I was there in the late 80s, passed down by generations of international students.

The rest of the commentary is interesting, too: We are not used to monarchy, particularly to monarchy which is mediated instead of absolute, so we don't recognize it when it begins to form.