A Good Cause

Pamphlets of the American Revolution (Volume I, 1750-1776)

edited by Bernard Bailyn, edited by Jane N. Garrett
Harvard (The Belknap Press), 771 pp., $12.95

In recent years, the American Revolution has again come to be regarded as an event of more than parochial significance. Its culmination was the establishment of enduring republican governments and the creation of a new form of federalism that combined the beneficent efficacy of a national government with the familiar freedom of local diversity. Today, with other peoples breaking the bonds of colonial subjection and facing the difficult job of creating new states, there has emerged an inclination to look back to the beginnings of the American republic to see what factors contributed to the success of its creators, what problems the latter confronted, and whether any portion of their experience is relevant for the statecraft of the present times. The comparative study of revolutions and of the creation of new states, stretching over two centuries and with enormous differences of geography and culture, is likely to make the social scientist very cautious about the transferability of ideas, institutions, principles, and policies, from one context to another. (The American colonies in 1776, for example, were extraordinarily prosperous in comparison with the colonial powers of their day, and although they were in a real sense “under-developed,” there did not exist between them and those powers the very great disparities of economy and culture which characterize the new states and their former masters of the present time.) Yet there appear to be constants in the political behavior of men, in their needs, desires, and problems, and in the ways in which they seek to satisfy these by constructing and operating political systems. Thus there may be something to be learned from the ideas and experiences of the men who made—or opposed—the American Revolution.

A four-volume collection of pamphlets of the Revolution will eventually present seventy-two selections from the much larger body of political literature produced between 1750 and 1776. The present volume includes fourteen pamphlets covering the period up through 1765, and an extensive introductory essay by the editor, Bernard Bailyn. The pamphlets vary greatly in form, style, and quality, but certain characteristics are common to them all. They are occasional, and emphatically polemical pieces. None was written as an academic exercise in political speculation, nor was any one of them intended to be “objective” in the sense of avoiding ethical judgments or of refusing to “take sides.” These are all essays of principle and policy: They argue against something—tyranny or the Stamp Act, or for something—liberty or constitutional government. For example, Jonathan Mayhew, the Boston minister who in 1750 celebrated the hundredth anniversary of the execution of Charles I, expressed his attitude toward that monarch in unambiguous language: Charles governed “in a perfectly wild and arbitrary manner”; performed “illegal and despotic measures”; supported the “hellish cruelties” of that “more than fiend,” Archbishop Laud; “(probably) abetted the horrid massacre in Ireland”; and—“authorized a book in favor of sports upon the Lord’s Day.” Very bad, that last. The point of the sermon, which stirred up a terrific …

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