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Creating the Revolution

Bernard Bailyn is one of America’s most distinguished historians and a new book by him is always welcome. This book is a collection of five lectures on the American Revolutionary generation that Bailyn presented at various conferences over the past decade or so. Despite their varied origin, however, the revised lectures, Bailyn says, have “a unity of purpose and a consistency of theme.” All of the chapters attempt to probe the ways in which the peculiar circumstances of the Revolutionary leaders, in Bailyn’s words, “stimulated their imaginations, freed them from instinctive respect for traditional establishments, and encouraged them to create a new political world.” The results of their efforts, he believes, “proved to be a turning point in the political history of Western civilization, radiating out through Europe and Latin America with effects that were as important as they are difficult to interpret.”

Although many historians have honored the American Founders, especially recently in response to criticism of them, seldom have they been celebrated with such depth and sophistication and with such keen awareness of their place in the larger history of Western culture. Bailyn’s opening essay establishes the theme of the collection by exploring the ways in which the creative imagination worked in the founding of the United States. Indeed, the creative imagination of the Revolutionary generation of leaders is the central theme of the book.

Bailyn says that scholars know something of the ways in which creativity has flourished in art, science, scholarship, and literature. But he believes that the same flourishing of the creative imagination has occurred in politics. By this he does not mean sudden changes in legislation or public policy. Instead, he means “the recasting of the world of power, the re-formation of the structure of public authority, of the accepted forms of governance, obedience, and resistance, in practice as well as in theory.”

Such a creative moment occurred, he believes, in North America a little over two hundred years ago with the founding of the United States. He knows only too well that the Founders recently have been condemned for their failures and weaknesses—for their racism, sexism, compromises, and violations of principle. “But,” he says, “we are privileged to know and to benefit from the outcome of their efforts, which they could only hopefully imagine.” We are privileged as well not to have to confront their main concern, which was the possibility, indeed the probability, that their imaginative efforts to create a new world of politics would fail, would collapse into chaos or autocracy. But bold and resourceful as they were, the American Founders dared to challenge the conventional wisdom of established authorities everywhere, and ultimately they were able to create something freer and more enduring than what was then known in the Old World.

They had no models to follow, the future was unpredictable, and nothing was assured. All they could do was struggle with a multitude of problems, some of which they solved and some of which persist to this day and may never be fully resolved. In the struggles of these Founders to create a nation, what impresses Bailyn is less what they failed to do than what they did. He has come away

from encounters with that generation, not with a sense of their failings and hypocrisies—they were imperfect people, bound by the limitations of their own world—but with a sense of how alive with creative imaginings they were; how bold they were in transcending the world they had been born into.

Bailyn describes the creative contributions of the Revolutionary generation, contributions that we today take for granted but that its members could only imagine—that power need not be absolute and indivisible but can be shared among states within a state and among branches of government; that written constitutions, upheld by judicial bodies, can effectively constrain tyrannies of executives and popular majorities; that rights can exist independent of privileges, gifts, and donations of the powerful, and that these rights can be defined and protected by the force of law; and that religion of any kind in the hands of power can be the worst kind of tyranny. “These,” Bailyn concludes, “were extraordinary flights of creative imagination—political heresies at the time, utopian fantasies—and their authors and sponsors knew that their efforts to realize these aspirations had no certain outcomes.” That uncertainty makes their achievement all the more impressive.

From the beginning of his career, Bailyn has been fascinated by the creative imagination not so much of political figures as of professional historians. Although some historians have seen imagination as opposed to scholarship, Bailyn has never done so. Nearly forty years ago he declared that

imagination…lies at the heart of all historical writing; but it must be disciplined imagination, working within the strict confines of facts, linking them and explaining them, not embroidering them, treating them always as restrictive not permissive.

Bailyn has never had sympathy with any fashionable postmodernist blurring of history and fiction.

In the mid-1980s Bailyn spelled out more fully the role of imagination in history-writing in an essay entitled “History and the Creative Imagination.”1 In this essay he defined the modern creative historian as someone who has enriched

a whole area of historical investigation by redirecting it from established channels into new directions, unexplored directions, so that what was once dark, vague, or altogether unperceived, is suddenly flooded with light, and the possibilities of a new way of understanding are suddenly revealed.

He selected four twentieth-century historians who he believes were truly creative in this way—Perry Miller, Charles McLean Andrews, Sir Lewis Namier, and Sir Ronald Syme. In their respective fields each of these scholars, says Bailyn, made a permanent difference in the writing of history. They did not necessarily write “the most widely read kind of history, the most commonly cited, or even the most generally admired.” What they did write, however, was the kind of history that “permanently shifted the direction of historical inquiry not by exhortation or fashionable trend-setting but by substantive and enduring discovery.”

These four historians were, first of all, old-fashioned professionals, dedicated to the craft of history-writing and its ways. They were masters of facts, of masses of information. “All had the capacity to locate, control and absorb very large quantities of hitherto unused or underused data,” and it was their immersion in this new or freshly examined data that enabled them to think creatively. They were alert to oddities, to surprises, to discrepancies in the data, and out of their detection of these anomalies they found the sources for their imaginative reconstructions of the past.

All these creative historians had technical skills, of course, and often great narrative powers, but in the end what really distinguished them from many other historians with longer bibliographies, says Bailyn, was their imaginative power, their “capacity to conceive of a hitherto un-glimpsed world, or of a world only vaguely and imperfectly seen before.” So Perry Miller created out of the great mass of previously ignored sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Puritan writings an imposing intellectual edifice that we scarcely knew existed. So Charles McLean Andrews extracted from beneath the vague generalities of the first British empire a living, functioning world of committees, boards, officials, reports, and papers—a coherent world scarcely dreamed of before—whose disclosure transformed our understanding of American colonial history. So too did Sir Lewis Namier cut beneath the formal surface of eighteenth-century British politics to reveal a world that had its own structure and logic, a world of patronage, shifting alignments, and fluctuating coalitions that explained far more about the workings of the British government than the earlier naive story of Whigs and Tories. And so also did Sir Ronald Syme in his masterpiece The Roman Revolution penetrate beneath a simplistic story of faithful republicans and greedy autocrats to disclose a complicated sociopolitical world of genealogical and provincial connections that ultimately shaped the political history of ancient Rome.

All of these historians, says Bailyn, were imaginatively creative. They did not simply define a new issue here or uncover a new problem there; instead they created out of the past “a veritable world of interconnections, of relationships which together add up to a different and better picture of the whole—more comprehensive, deeper, closer to the grain of reality—than had been seen before.” Their transforming achievement, he concludes, is the true mark of a great creative historian.

If so, then Bailyn is surely one as well. He fully fits his own definition of the modern creative historian. Although twice a Pulitzer Prize winner and the recipient of a Bancroft Prize and a National Book Award, he is certainly not the best known of contemporary historians. But unlike more popular historians who sell more books, he has made a difference—a permanent difference—in his field of early American history. He has transformed every aspect of the subject he has touched—from the social basis of colonial politics to early American educational history, from the origins of the American Revolution to early American immigration.

His 1959 article “Politics and Social Structure in Virginia” altered historians’ understanding of Bacon’s seventeenth- century rebellion. Bacon’s Rebellion had been previously interpreted as a struggle for liberty by oppressed yeomen or as a reaction to the Virginia government’s limitation on western expansion; but no one before Bailyn had described it as a response to the ways Virginia’s relatively egalitarian society was maturing and stabilizing, becoming more aristocratic, in the late seventeenth century. The rebellion, Bailyn writes, challenged the authority of those whose assumptions of political superiority and claims of aristocracy were too new, too sudden, and too weakly backed up by social superiority to be easily accepted. With this article, which has been reprinted in at least seventeen different collections of essays, Bailyn made colonial society itself a central subject of study and analysis and helped us understand the various ways in which early modern society tended to identify political with social authority.

By conceiving of education “not only as formal pedagogy but as the entire process by which a culture transmits itself across the generations,” Bailyn’s Education in the Forming of American Society (1960) revitalized a subject that had long been frozen in present-minded anachronism. He showed how early-twentieth-century scholars of colonial education had thought of the past as “simply the present writ small.” Conceiving of education as merely formal instruction and public schooling, they had gone back to the colonial past looking only for the origins of the public institutions of their present and thus had missed the varied and informal ways in which young people were actually educated in the colonial period. After the appearance of Bailyn’s short book, scholars’ understanding of colonial education was never the same.

In the most famous of his works, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, which won the Pulitzer and Bancroft Prizes in 1968, Bailyn uncovered a set of ideas and fears that we scarcely had known existed—radical ideas about power and liberty and deeply rooted fears of conspiracy and corruption that had originated in the turmoil of seventeenth-century England and had become inherent parts of American thinking in the eighteenth century. With this brilliant book he fundamentally recast our understanding of the intellectual sources of the Revolution, which could no longer be explained as a response to Enlightenment rationalism or natural rights philosophy.

  1. 1

    Published as a pamphlet by Washington University Press, 1985.

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