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.
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.
February 13, 2003
Published as a pamphlet by Washington University Press, 1985. ↩
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. ↩