• Email
  • Print

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 furor when it was delivered and published, was that Christians owed no duty of obedience to such a monarch as Charles was alleged to be. The problem of what to do about a tyrannical monarch was at one time an extremely difficult one for Christians, for there are several passages in the New Testament which appear to counsel absolute obedience to “the powers that be,” regardless of who they are or how they rule. Mayhew’s sermon presented in classic form the Anglo-American liberals’ refutation of this interpretation of the Scriptures. It proclaimed what was then already accepted as traditional doctrine, that rulers are servants and not masters of the people, that the latter have natural and legal rights which government is instituted to protect, and that they may rightfully withdraw their allegiance from any government that fails in that protection. Thus does Mayhew provide a link between the ideas of the English radicals of the 1640s and the American revolutionists of 1776.

IN ADDITION TO and partly because of their common polemical quality, many of these pamphlets share another characteristic which will, I believe, make them a delight to the modern reader. Their language is frequently vigorous, colorful, and in fact sometimes down-right rude. A Tory, Martin Howard, Jr., described a pamphlet written by the Governor of Rhode Island as a “labored, ostentatious piece,” and its author “totally unacquainted with style or diction.” To which James Otis, the fiery, erratic lawyer of the Bay Colony, replied with such epithets as the “pedantry of a quack,” the “halfthought of a petit-maître,” and the “exhibitions of a monster monger.” One cannot know a revolution or a people by its literary record alone, but neither can one know them without that record. These pamphlets are the working papers of the Revolution, without which the later eloquence of the Declaration of Independence would have remained no more than the solo performance of a gifted stylist. When the prominent Philadelphia lawyer John Dickinson argued that the primary rights of man were to life, happiness, liberty, and property, and James Otis wrote that government was “above all things to provide for the security, the quiet, and happy enjoyment of life, liberty, and property,” they were articulating the convictions of that American mind to which Jefferson said he had meant to give expression in the Declaration.

Until about 1763, the Americans produced very little in the way of political theory, although they had acquired much experience and great skill in the practice of politics during the period Burke described so felicitously as a century of “salutary neglect.” As that period ended, and the British Government embarked upon a new and more activist policy of colonial regulation and taxation, the Americans emerged suddenly as an extraordinarily articulate people. They wrote, talked, discussed, deliberated, and argued for more than a decade before they finally resorted to force, and when the shooting finally began at Lexington and Concord they had produced a coherent set of political ideas widely disseminated and commonly accepted throughout all the colonies from Massachusetts to Georgia. What these ideas were, and the process by which they were drawn from ancient tradition and shaped anew to meet changing conditions, is clearly revealed in these pamphlets.

Most of those in this first volume were written in response to the new British policy expressed in the Sugar Act of 1764 and the Stamp Act of 1765. The central issue was the nature and extent of Parliament’s authority over the colonies, especially with respect to taxation. The debate over this issue led inevitably into an examination of the nature of the British constitution, and that, in turn, into consideration of some of the fundamental problems of politics. It had long been accepted as a principle of the British constitution, agreed to by Britons on both sides of the Atlantic, that a man’s property could not be taken from him except by his consent or that of his representatives. The crucial point at issue between the Americans and the British authorities after 1765 was the nature of representation. The colonies were accustomed to being taxed primarily by their local colonial legislatures, to which they sent elected representatives. They argued that the Stamp Act was unconstitutional because it was a tax levied upon them by Parliament, in which they were not represented. To this argument the British replied that the Americans were “virtually” represented, just as were the inhabitants of Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham, and Halifax (none of which had a Member of Parliament, because of the existing malapportionment of representation within the British Isles). Parliament, it was argued, acted for the whole Empire and for all Britons, and it did not matter that some areas and many individuals had no choice in the selection of a specific Member of the House of Commons. The Americans rejected this theory in toto. Their experience had accustomed them to representation by locality, and the idea that a Boston merchant, a Philadelphia lawyer, a Virginia planter, or a Carolina farmer could be adequately represented by a Devonshire squire was very nearly incomprehensible.

FURTHERMORE, SUCH AN IDEA was completely inconsistent with a fundamental tenet of their political theory. They believed that men were predominantly egoistic, that self-interest ordinarily governed their political behavior, and that no representative could be trusted to remain faithful to his constituents unless his interests were identical to, or could be made to coincide with, theirs. The interests of the colonists in America were not only not identical with those of any member of Parliament, but were frequently at odds with those of the voters and non-voters of the British Isles. This was the case with the disputed revenue measures, which by levying a sepcial tax on the colonies reduced the amount that would otherwise have fallen on the inhabitants of the home country. Therefore, no member of Parliament could truly be said to represent them, and to subject them to taxes levied by that body was neither constitutional nor just.

The successful outcome of the Revolution can be partly attributed, I believe, to the toughly realistic theory of politics reflected and partially expressed in this American conception of representation. The Americans were not novices in the practice of self-government. During the century of salutary neglect they had acquired much experience in confronting and, to some extent, resolving conflicts between different groups within the society. This sophistication is clearly evident in these pamphlets of protest. The issues in dispute are analyzed with candor, the collective self-interest of each side discussed without embarrassment or apology. Appeals to the ancient principles of the Constitution stand side by side with shrewd appeals to the economic interests of British merchants and manufacturers. It was assumed that the protection of property and the pursuit of profit were legitimate functions of both individuals and groups, and that because of the universal selfishness of man, the formulation of just public policy required the representation of all interests in order that none should be ignored and that protection of the rights of life, liberty, and property be secured for all. Thus the dispute over taxation, which might superficially appear to be merely an economic issue, compelled the Americans to articulate their philosophy concerning the ends of government, and to begin the search for principles according to which means might be designed to achieve those ends. The eloquent idealism later expressed in the Declaration of Independence was accompanied by and grounded in a realistic sense of politics derived partly from their long experience in the sometimes grubby practice of colonial self-government and partly from their Augustinian conception of the nature of man.

This first volume contains about one-fifth of the seventy-two pamphlets scheduled for publication in the remainder of the series, and only a small fraction of the over 400 pamphlets now available. The value of this volume is immeasurably increased by the two-hundred page introductory essay of the editor. For this essay, drawing upon a vast body of literature, is an interpretive summation of the political ideas of the entire period, and it is a distinguished achievement. Mr. Bailyn writes with the authority and integrity that derive from a thorough mastery of the material. His meticulous scholarship is matched with perceptive analysis, and the result is an illuminating survey of Revolutionary thought. For example, in a splendid chapter on “The Contagion of Liberty,” Bailyn delineates the ideological dynamism inherent in the colonists’ reiterated appeals to the principles of liberty and equality. They could not use the word “slavery” to describe their own condition if they were subject to taxation without representation without becoming self-conscious about the existence of actual slavery within their midst. Thus very early in the controversy between the colonies and the mother country, James Otis expressed the conviction that the right to liberty belongs to all men:

The colonists are by the law of nature freeborn, as indeed all men are, white or black…. Does it follow that ‘tis right to enslave a man because he is black? Will short curled hair like wool instead of Christian hair, as ‘tis called by those whose hearts are as hard as the nether millstone, help the argument? Can any logical inference in favor of slavery be drawn from a flat nose, a long or a short face?…. It is a clear truth that those who every day barter away other men’s liberty will soon care little for their own.

BECAUSE OTHER AMERICANS thought as Otis did, the Revolutionary debate gave a significant impetus to the movement for the abolition of slavery. Similarly, American criticisms of the British theory of “virtual” representation made them look to their own qualifications for the franchise, and led eventually to an extension of the suffrage in several of the state constitutions of 1776. Dissenting religious sects in the various colonies quickly picked up the logic of liberty and used it to appeal for equal treatment of all religions—or, being themselves not always superior in either logic or tolerance to their alleged oppressors of the established churches, equal treatment for all Protestant sects. Thus the old ideas of government by consent, of no taxation without representation, which were not inherently or necessarily revolutionary, began to have a potent thrust for reform in domestic politics.

In addition to his excellent general Introduction, Mr. Bailyn has provided the other necessities and luxuries of editorial scholarship to which the public has become accustomed since the appearance of the first volumes in the critical editions of the papers of Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, and the other great men of the age. Hundreds of footnotes provide information that is sometimes essential, sometimes merely wished for. The headnotes to the separate pamphlets are distinguished for conciseness, clarity, and penetration. In a very few pages, for example, Bailyn unravels the puzzling career of John Dickinson, and in so doing, elucidates the complexity and variety of the convictions, the circumstances, the motives, and the temperamental inclinations that operated among the men who came finally to the end of a road in July of 1776 and had then to make a clear choice. Indeed, the sum of these introductory notes will eventually provide a series of penetrating studies of the various personality types that are caught up in a revolution.

Thus the reader who uses this volume and its successors, will be given not only easy access to a generous selection of Revolutionary pamphlets hitherto available only with great difficulty to the determined specialist. He will also have the inestimable assistance of a sophisticated guide into the complicated legal, philosophical, and pragmatic ideologies of the American Revolution.

  • Email
  • Print