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 …