Revolutionary perspectives

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Author: Michael Zuckert
Date: June-July 2003
Publisher: Institute on Religion and Public Life
Document Type: Book review
Length: 1,600 words

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TO BEGIN THE WORLD ANEW: THE GENIUS AND AMBIGUITIS OF THE AMERICAN FOUNDERS. By BERNARD BAILYN. Knopf. 185 pp. $26.

ABOUT TWENTY-FIVE years ago Bernard Bailyn transformed the study of the American Revolution with his Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. He not only swept the field of major awards for history (Pulitzer and Bancroft), but set scholarship on the founding era off in directions that are still being pursued by scholars in the field. He directed attention away from the influential approach of Charles Beard, which emphasized material conditions and economic causes of the revolution, and back towards what the colonists were saying were their grievances against Britain. (Edmund Morgan was a pioneer on the path that Bailyn broadened and developed.)

However, he did not merely restore the older intellectual perspectives, which had focused either on the constitutional conflict between the British and the colonists, as in C.H. McIlwain's The American Revolution, or on the more philosophic dimensions of their thought, as in Carl Becker's The Declaration of Independence Bailyn noted the constitutional and the philosophic sides of the dispute, but he argued that both of these were subordinate to another strand: Whig opposition thought, which was neither so technical as the constitutional arguments, nor so highfalutin' as the philosophical. The Whig thinkers picked up themes of both the philosophic and constitutional sort, but joined them to a popularly compelling story of the dynamics of political life as a contest between power and liberty, oppression and freedom.

The opposition writers told themselves a story of the tendency of power to corrupt and oppress; Americans then used that story as a template to process their understanding of the events of the 1760s and 1770s. This template accounts for the alacrity and ease with which they suspected the worst from British policy and reacted in ways that produced the evils they feared. The opposition ideology caused both the extreme sensitivity of the Americans to British policy (almost a paranoid reaction, Bailyn suggested) and the degree to which the American populace mobilized in reaction to these policies. The opposition tradition had a clear and easily graspable story, readily transferred from one set of historical events to another, and it had the simplicity, along with the appeal to passion, especially anger, that could move masses.

Bailyn's To Begin the World Anew: The Genius and Ambiguities of the American Founders is a collection of...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A102520588