The Great Political Fiction

Commons Debates 1628 Volume I: Introduction and Reference Materials Volume II: March 17-April 19, 1628 Volume III: April 21-May 27, 1628

edited by Robert C. Johnson, edited by Mary Frear Keeler, edited by Maija Jansson Cole, edited by William B. Bidwell
Yale University Press, Vol. III, 641 pp., $35.00

Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774-1789 Volume I: August 1774-August 1775 Volume II: August-December 1775

edited by Paul H. Smith
Library of Congress, Vol. II, 585 pp., $9.00

The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution Volume I: Constitutional Documents and Records, 1776-1787 Volume II: Ratification of the Constitution by States, Pennsylvania

edited by Merrill Jensen
State Historical Society of Wisconsin, Vol. 2, 779 pp., $27.00

The Documentary History of the First Federal Elections, 1788-1790, Volume I

edited by Merrill Jensen, edited by Robert A. Becker
University of Wisconsin Press, 896 pp., $30.00


The current fashion in American historical research is to discover things about the past that the people who lived in it are not likely to have known about themselves, things like the mean or median age at which they married, how much longer they could expect to live at any given age, how their wealth was distributed, in what ethnic or geographic or economic patterns they cast their votes, and so on. In the midst of all this counting and computing a number of historians and archivists have been quietly carrying forward a work that contributes very little to it but that tells us more completely and more reliably than ever before what some people in the past did know, and what they thought, about themselves and the world they lived in.

The first great enterprises of this kind in our time were the new editions of the papers of the founding fathers, Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, Hamilton, Madison, and most recently Washington, editions that include the letters a man received as well as those he wrote, so that the reader can follow the course of his thinking and his exchange of thoughts with his contemporaries. These editions, some of them now moving past the twentieth volume, have already made it possible to get inside the mind of eighteenth-century America in a way that was never before available to any but the most assiduous student.

Now we begin to get the first fruits of another kind of editorial enterprise that offers extraordinary excitement to anyone who still cares what people in the past thought about themselves and in particular what they thought about the way they were governed. These are editions, not of the papers of a particular man, but of the surviving documents that concern crucial political episodes or developments, editions that offer the reader virtually all the surviving evidence of what was said and done. Here are four of the first examples, and a splendid achievement they are.

The first of them may seem out of place in this review. Why consider debates in the English House of Commons in 1628 along with documents on American developments in the late eighteenth century? The juxtaposition is not capricious, because the Commons during this period generated many of the ideas that were later embodied in the government of the United States. This is not the place to pursue that lengthy line of descent. Instead, merely to suggest the richness of these collections, it may be enough to draw from them a few of the fictions by which Englishmen and Americans have governed themselves from the seventeenth century to the present.

All government, of course, rests on fictions, whether we call them that or self-evident truths; and political fictions, like other fictions, require a willing suspension of disbelief on the part of those who live under them. The suspension is seldom total, and when it is the results are disastrous. For the individual, total suspension of disbelief in any fiction…

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