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Creating the Revolution

Believing that history-writing about the Revolution was approaching the “ultimate stage of maturity in historical interpretation where partisanship is left behind, where the historian can find equal humanity in all the participants, the winners and the losers,” Bailyn next wrote a sympathetic study of the arch-loyalist opponent of the Revolution, entitled The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson, which won the National Book Award in 1975. With works such as these Bailyn came to dominate his field to a degree that few if any American historians in the modern era of professional history-writing have ever matched.2

During the 1980s Bailyn launched an ambitious transatlantic project involving worlds in motion over two centuries—not simply to tell a story about the origins of North America but also to bring under some sort of narrative control the ever-enlarging forces of current scholarship, indeed, nothing less than “the whole world of cultural-anthropological, social-structural, and demographic history, which lies scattered in hundreds of books and articles written over the past quarter century by scholars in several disciplines pursuing separate paths of inquiry.”

Two works of this project have already appeared—The Peopling of British North America: An Introduction (1986), and Voyagers to the West: A Passage in the Peopling of America on the Eve of the Revolution (1986), which earned Bailyn his second Pulitzer Prize in 1987. Based on a governmental register of 10,000 emigrants from Britain between 1773 and 1776, the Voyagers volume, among its many other findings, described in detail the different groups of emigrants and their patterns of movement—where they came from and in what number, and where they went. The book, which is a tour de force of historical presentation, using graphs, charts, pictures, structural analysis, and narrative, showed how different parts of Britain sent different kinds of emigrants to the New World. Although nothing else of this gargantuan project has yet appeared, at least one other volume on the seventeenth century is waiting in the wings. Even though he is now eighty years old and retired from teaching at Harvard University, as Adams University Professor Emeritus he is still furthering his grand project by directing the International Seminar on the History of the Atlantic World—an annual meeting of international scholars presenting papers on the history of the early modern Atlantic world. In some sense his career has come full circle. His first book, The New England Merchants in the Seventeenth Century (1955), which laid bare a remarkably complicated web of personal and kinship connections tying the Atlantic trading community together, seems to have anticipated his current concern with the larger Atlantic world.

Bailyn has always tried to bring the broadest, most cosmopolitan perspective to bear on his writing—as, for example, in his comparison of the huge modern editions of the works of the Founding Fathers with Theodore Besterman’s edition of Voltaire’s writings, P.S. Allen’s Letters of Erasmus, or Theodor Mommsen’s great editions of Latin and Greek inscriptions. To his many graduate students, of whom I am one, he has always seemed to be a historian’s historian, a professional’s professional, totally dedicated to the craft of history-writing. He has done nothing by halves. The editorial expertise and the breadth and depth of scholarship that he brought to the first volume of his edition of the Pamphlets of the American Revolution (1964) rival the work of the great original editor of the Jefferson Papers, Julian Boyd.

Bailyn looks down on historians who work only with secondary sources and revels in his involvement in the archives and his command of the concrete details of the past. As if to prove that, like any of the four creative historians he admires, he can both conceive of an entire past world and at the same time “locate, control and absorb very large quantities of hitherto unused or underused data,” for his Voyagers to the West Bailyn immersed himself in the manuscripts of dozens of archives, ranging from locations in Orkney, Scotland, to Charlottesville, Virginia. Throughout his career he has had no interest whatever in using history as a form of social or cultural criticism. In fact, he has had nothing but scorn, as he once wrote, for the “self-conscious intellectual posturing” and the “pretentiousness and pomposity” of those, like some French Annales historians, who seek to be “intellectuals” instead of working historians. He has turned down numerous opportunities to write or review in the popular or intellectual press, and he has remained freer of the enticements of the larger society and more committed to the exclusive world of scholarship than any other historian of his rank and renown that I have known.

So it is entirely fitting that this imaginative historian should apply his interest in the creative imagination to the Founders of the country. In his new collection of essays Bailyn is not satisfied simply to assert that the Founders were “truly creative people.” He wants to know the conditions that account for their remarkable burst of imaginative energy. He uses a distinction that the art critic Kenneth Clark once drew between metropolitan and provincial art to help explain what he thinks happened in North America at the end of the eighteenth century. In a 1962 essay Clark argued that metropolitan art, emerging from dominant centers of culture, sets the styles and standards that initially no one in the world has dared to challenge. But in time such metropolitan art becomes repetitive, overrefined, and self-absorbed, while out in the periphery provincial art develops free of these excesses. Provincial artists introduce concreteness and common sense to styles that have become too scholastic and self-centered; they are stimulated by the ordinary facts of life as they know them rather than by academic styles that have taken on lives of their own. They come to visualize reality in newer and fresher ways.

Bailyn believes that Clark’s insight into the creativity of provincial artists can be applied to the political creativity of the American Revolutionary leaders, who lived three thousand miles from the centers of civilization. In order to demonstrate the derivative and provincial nature of colonial North America, Bailyn has supplemented his text with numerous illustrations, contrasting the magnificent dwellings and portraits of the British aristocracy with those of what passed for aristocracy in colonial America. So he juxtaposes pictures of the British nobility’s magnificent palaces—Marlborough’s Blenheim, the Devonshires’ Chatsworth, the Marquesses of Bath’s Longleat, and Walpole’s Houghton—with pictures of America’s small-scale versions of aristocratic great houses—Longfellow House in Cambridge, the Wentworth-Gardner House in Portsmouth, the Van Cortlandt Manor on the Hudson, William Byrd’s Westover, Carter’s Grove, and George Mason’s Gunston Hall in Virginia. Without such contrasting visual representations, Bailyn says, we who live in America’s powerful cosmopolitan present, with all our global authority and expanded social consciences, are apt to forget how small, unsure, and provincial eighteenth-century American society was.

Yet its very provinciality, Bailyn suggests, enabled its leaders to think freshly. Drawing on a comparison between eighteenth-century Scotland and North America that he and John Clive made a half-century ago, Bailyn points out that the colonists, like the Scots, were living simultaneously in two cultural worlds—the larger world of metropolitan England and the provincial world of their localities, and that this discontinuity of experience was disturbing and unsettling but ultimately exhilarating and fruitful. It enabled both James Madison and the Scot David Hume, for example, to think originally and imaginatively and to break through the conventional wisdom of Montesquieu, who assumed that republics had to be small in size and homogeneous in interests.

In his next lecture, “Jefferson and the Ambiguities of Freedom,” Bailyn offers a succinct and convincing explanation of Jefferson’s struggles and contradictions. Jefferson, says Bailyn, has always been “the clear voice of America’s Revolutionary ideology, its purest conscience, its most brilliant expositor.” Yet no one of the Founders has been so criticized and so vilified as Jefferson has. From Hamilton in the eighteenth century to Conor Cruise O’Brien in our own day, Jefferson has been denounced as a crafty, unprincipled, inconsistent hypocrite, who preached one thing and did another. He said he opposed slavery but did little to end it. He declared his belief in free speech but was quick to suppress voices he disagreed with. He welcomed a little rebellion now and then but turned his back on the Haitian people when they rose against their masters.

The anomalies and apparent inconsistencies seem endless,” concludes Bailyn. The key to explaining the contradictions, he suggests, lies in the fact that Jefferson was not simply a radical idealist, a brilliant intellectual who set forth soaring visions of what the world might be, but a shrewd, practical, down-to-earth politician as well, indeed one of the most effective and efficient administrators among the early presidents. It was this dual character of Jefferson—being “simultaneously a radical utopian idealist and a hardheaded, adroit, at times cunning politician”—that accounts for “the complexities of his public career and…the strange oscillations of his fame.” Trying to carry out in the real world his visionary hopes, Jefferson, “above all others, was fated to confront the ambiguities of the Enlightenment program.” Whether or not this argument will convince the critics of Jefferson, it is certainly a very powerful defense of the man.

In his third lecture, which was originally dedicated to the historian Felix Gilbert, Bailyn continues this theme of contrasting idealism with realism and applies it, as Gilbert once had, to early American foreign policy. The chapter focuses on Benjamin Franklin’s successful combination of realism with idealism during his mission to France between 1776 and 1784. Franklin came to realize that in the eyes of the French aristocracy he symbolized enlightened America as nothing else could, and he brilliantly used that image of himself to gain French support for the American cause. Perhaps no one before had had his likeness reproduced at one time in so many different forms. His face appeared everywhere—in statues and prints and on medallions, snuffboxes, candy boxes, rings, clocks, vases, dishes, and handkerchiefs. Bailyn spends much of this chapter enthusiastically describing, with illustrations galore, these many visual portrayals of Franklin.

The most vivid example of the blending of realism and idealism in the Revolutionary era, Bailyn writes, is not Franklin’s diplomacy, however, but the drafting, ratification, and amending of the American Constitution that took place between 1787 and 1791. Bailyn’s next chapter deals with the most significant work of political thinking to have come out of that remarkably creative period, The Federalist. Bailyn offers us a superb study of this work, one that perfectly situates the eighty-five papers that Alexander Ham- ilton, James Madison, and John Jay wrote between October 1787 and May 1788 in the circumstances of the time. “Far from an integrated, systematic treatise on basic principles of political theory produced in calm contemplation, the Federalist papers,” writes Bailyn, “were polemical essays directed to specific institutional proposals written in the heat of a fierce political battle which every informed person knew would determine the future of the new nation.” So helter-skelter was their creation, so much were they a product of the particular circumstances of the late eighteenth century, that their veneration in our own time, indeed their invocation in even our courts of law, is extremely puzzling, to say the least. Our world is not the world of the Federalist papers, and our Constitution is not the Constitution Hamilton and Madison were defending. What gives the Federalist papers their remarkable staying power? What, if anything, accounts for their authority even in the twenty-first century?

Bailyn believes that the Federalist papers remain relevant “because they address masterfully our permanent concerns with political power—under our Constitution and in general.” We share with the Federalist writers “their cautious optimism that personal freedom and national power—the preservation of private rights and the maintenance of public safety—can be compatible.” As long as the struggle to maintain that balance continues, the Federalist papers will have something to teach us.

In his final chapter Bailyn takes on the conventional wisdom that the imaginative constitutional achievements of the American Founders had very little influence on public life elsewhere in the Atlantic world. Drawing in part on the work-in-progress of historian George Billias, Bailyn presents a dazzling picture of the various ways the North American achievement entered into the thinking of constitution makers and reformers throughout the Atlantic world in the decades following 1787. Governments as different as Switzerland and Argentina invoked some American ideas and copied some parts of American institutions, but more often than not they ultimately rejected what they had invoked and transformed what they had copied. Although Bailyn admits that the early-nineteenth-century experiments with the American constitutional model were usually short-lived and often, as in Latin America, disastrous, nevertheless from the beginning, he says, the North American model “had been there—an essential, if endlessly disputed, resource, a central force in the continent’s public life.”

Today, Bailyn concludes,

American constitutionalism, having radiated throughout the Atlantic world, has become a classic formulation for the world at large of effectiveness and restraint in the humane uses of power. But like all classic formulations, it has been and is now being questioned by people with other values, other aspirations, other beliefs in the proper uses of power.

These challenges will continue and intensify in the years ahead, he predicts, but he thinks an equally important challenge is our own responsibility to probe the character of our constitutional system. He ends by saying that we need “to recognize that for many in our own time and within our own culture,” our constitutional establishment—the people and ideas that dominate the interpretation of the Constitution—has come to resemble the British establishment of the eighteenth century—“scholastic in its elaboration, self-absorbed, self-centered, and in significant ways distant from the ordinary facts of life.”

This is a startling and rather unsettling conclusion, and one wonders how justified it is. Are we on the verge of having some imaginative provincial reformers within our own culture challenging our entire encrusted establishment? Who are these challengers, with other values and other ideas about the proper uses of power, that threaten to undermine our constitutional system that, according to Bailyn, has become self-absorbed and distant from the ordinary facts of life? Bailyn doesn’t tell us, and consequently we are left with a sense of ominous foreboding.

In order to ease some of this sense of foreboding and to get a better perspective on our present constitutional system, perhaps we need to play down some of the creative imagination of the American Founders. We Americans are used to celebrating the Founders as insightful leaders, with a special responsibility for creating our constitutional system. But I think we overdo our praise for the Founders and miss the real sources of our constitutional achievement. The success of our political system cannot be located in the thoughts and deeds of men who framed the Constitution over two hundred years ago, great and creative as they might have been. Instead, it lies in the entire historical experience of the American people over the past two centuries. Ultimately our system works because we continue to respect the laws and conventions that we have collectively created over the past two hundred years, including some things that many of the Founders strenuously opposed, such as judicial review and political parties.

Moreover, it is important to emphasize that we are not the only people who have created constitutional democracies that have promoted and protected individual liberty. That metropolitan bastion of establishment in the eighteenth century, Great Britain, despite its overrefined, self-centered, age-old, and arcane entanglements and commitments, managed to muddle through into constitutional democracy without ever experiencing moments of imaginative creativity, without ever constructing a written constitution, without ever separating the powers of government, and without ever abandoning its belief in the sovereignty of Parliament.

No doubt American democracy from the beginning has had a powerful impact on the world—as a beacon of liberty and as an asylum for those seeking a better life. But as a constitutional model the United States has hardly been very successfully emulated. Indeed, if we are to compare the influence of constitutional structures on the world, it is Britain’s parliamentary system of democracy that has had by far the greater resonance. Ultimately even our own system of constitutional government owes most of its stability and respect for liberty to its English heritage.

The most important fact about the Founders may not have been the creativity of their imaginations but their Englishness. The English had worked out a respect for the law and a semblance of popular self-government, however flawed by modern standards, long before the Americans. Whatever innovations Americans made to their English heritage, and they were undeniably considerable, their ultimate success in governing themselves and protecting individual freedom owed more to their colonial experience as Englishmen than it did to their constitutional inventions in 1787. From decades of experience they had acquired an instinctive knowledge of English liberty and the English common law, and this inherited and inherent knowledge, this long experience with English political culture, was what ultimately enabled them to succeed as well as they did in establishing new governments.

If the Founders’ success were due simply to the new political institutions and divisions of power they created in 1787 and 1788, then presumably these inventions could be transplanted anywhere; but we know from experience that this is not possible. It’s time that we realize that our so-called Founding is not the source of our political and constitutional achievement. We owe our success to the common sense of the American people throughout our entire history, and our continued success will depend upon that common sense and not upon the creative moment of the Founding.

  1. 2

    For a fuller appreciation of Bailyn’s career, see my article, “The Creative Imagination of Bernard Bailyn,” in The Transformation of Early American History: Society, Authority, and Ideology, edited by James A. Henretta, Michael Kammen, and Stanley N. Katz (Knopf, 1991), pp. 16–50.

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