Last month Yale University hosed a conference to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bernard Bailyn‘s landmark The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution.
Here is a taste:
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. Danielle Allen provided a compelling account of the thought of James Wilson, who was shown to have nurtured an account of unitary sovereignty based on the new American nation as far back as the Declaration. Equally, Daniel Hulsebosch’s paper made clear that the constitution of 1787 was also a product of the international legal dimensions of governance, in which commercial and financial obligations structured the process of constitution making despite contradicting imperatives of domestic politics. Across the Atlantic, debates over sovereignty were being fought out in the France in a similarly ideological vein. As Patrice Higgonet discussed, the work of Francois Furet a decade later, and the guiding emphasis his work placed on ideas and their expression in public life, led to the convergence of historiographical concerns in French and American history. But for Higgonet, Bailyn’s account of the ‘pragmatic idealism’ of the American style of national governance was fundamentally at odds with the radicalism of the French. Indeed, such a contrast recalls Hannah Arednt’s famous distinction between the political and social bases of revolutionary thought.
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