2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on June 6, 2003
This is the critically acclaimed book by Bernard Bailyn that stands in contradistinction to Charles Baird's Economic Interpretation. With unusual courage, Bailyn attempts to understand the founders as they understood themselves. In the preface, Bailyn recalls the "intense excitement" and "sense of discovery" he felt at Harvard Universtiy when he studied the ideological themes of revolutionary America. This excitement and sense of discovery is passed along to the reader.
This is a very scholarly work. The extensive footnotes are fabulous. I especially enjoyed the chapter called "Power and Liberty". Bailyn develops the pre-revolutionary idea that the ultimate explanation of every political controversy is the disposition of power. Power is defined as "dominion" or the human control of human life. With dozens of fascinating examples, Bailyn illustrates why power is essential to the maintenance of liberty, but dangerous and in need of restraint lest it extend itself beyond legitimate boundaries.
I found it refreshing to read a book about America's founding that didn't condescend or politicize. It wasn't until I read this book that I fully appreciated how impoverished my public school education was on the topic. You wont be disappointed.
on November 10, 2002
This book really opened my eyes to the 'ideas' behind the Revolution. There are so many books written on 'what' happened or 'how' it happened but really penetrating the 'why' of it has been a challenge or, at least, overly simplistic or optimistic.
It is arguable that a majority either did not want a break with Britain or were not overly aware that such a break was being considered. Most considered themselves to be English and thought that the English constitution had simply become corrupt, progressively moreso, and here in the land they had colonized was an opportunity for British subjects to replicate the best the English constitution held.
Bailyn approaches this topic from an angle that very few have thought about prior, at least not in such detail and on such a scale, that of reading through the writings of the pamphleteers. Orwell and Marx were pamphleteers. Remember, this was long before mass media. Television, radio and other forms of instant communication were not to be found. The pamphlets were one of the prominent means of communicating ideas.
It is in exploring these ideas and ideals that we begin to see from another angle just what it was that led to the break with Britain. It was gradual and it was subtle, not intentionally so in the beginning nor premeditated. Call it the Zeitgest, but it was not so simple as we are often led to believe. Bailyn explores in depth through what was written in the pamphlets and really seems to get into the minds of the writers and those whose ideas were the impetus toward a full scale revolution.
This book provided me with a fresh perspective. While his prose is lucid and clear, the subject matter is thick with detail and requires active engagement with the book. But this makes it all the more worth your while. I really believe that if you seek to understand the Revolution, you must have this book.
on March 14, 2002
This was an incredibly interesting book. Realizing that Bailyn is quite an accomplished historian-scholar, I put off reading this - I assumed it would be brilliant but very difficult to get through. Well, I was correct about the brilliant part - but wrong about the "difficult to get through" part. It was increadibly readable. Also, the main points of the book are important to understanding American political thought. Interestingly, the country's revolutionary thinking originated from the very country we were fighting againt - ENGLAND! In arguing the continuous debates over the tension between liberty and power, the pamphlet writers of the day turned to 17th and 18th century thinkers to make their case. The best parts of the book are the last two chapters. In the second to last, originally the last chapter until the enlarged edition came out, Bailyn discusses concepts like democracy, representation, and slavery. In the final chapter, "Fulfillment," apparently written much later, Bailyn focuses on the Constitutional Convention and the arguments between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists; particularly, what they felt about virtue residing among the country's people and how best to form a government. One final note: Bailyn's sources from other scholarly journals will lead the read to many interesting gems - especially a few of the articles from William and Mary Quarterly (a must-have journal for anyone interested in the time-period).
on January 4, 2002
When published in the 1960s, this book had a revolutionary effect on our understanding of the American Revolution. Its impact is undiminished by the passage of the last 40 years. Bailyn's scholarship and exposition remains as exciting as it must have been at the time of initial publication. Bailyn attempted to take a fresh look at the thinking of the individuals who made the Revolution. His work was based on an extensive survey and analysis of the large number of political pamphlets published in the years leading up to the revolution. His work benefited as well greatly from a number of other significant works of scholarship, such as Caroline Robbins' book on the Commonwealth tradition in 18th century thought. More than anything else, Bailyn succeeded in determining what key terms like 'power', 'liberty', and republicanism meant to the Revolutionary generations. In doing so, he was able to strip away anachronistic accretions from these terms and ideas and recover the actual thinking of the Revolutionaries and their opponents.
Bailyn's achievement is manifold. He was able to show that dominant intellectual influence on the Revolutionaries was a compound of classical models, Common Law legal tradition, Enlightenment ideology, covenant theology, and a strong tradition of British intellectual and political dissent that had its roots in the Commonwealth period of the 17th century. The latter tradition was especially important and acted as the binding matrix for other traditions and interpretative lens through which other received ideas were focused. Bailyn shows how these ideas were articulated in the specifically American context and how they led inevitably to confrontation with the expanding imperial authority of Britain. This conflict led to new expansions of the basic ideology, some of which would represent completely novel ideas. The traditional ideas of representation and consent, constitutional basis of society, and sovereignty were overthrown and replaced to a very large extent by the concepts we still uphold.
The development of these new ideas and the necessity to give them practical scope would lead to what Bailyn artfully termed "The Contagion of Liberty"; the expansion of concepts of rights and freedom well beyond the original categories of thought received by the Revolutionary generations. These would include attacks on slavery, the questioning of establishment of religion, speculation about democracy as a legitimate and potentially stable form of government, and an increasing emphasis on social equality generated from the realization of political equality. As Bailyn remarks, the thinking and writing on these topics provides the bridge between the world of the 18th century intellectuals and what would become the world of Madison and de Toqueville.
Bailyn's analysis and scholarship are superb. The organization and quality of writing in this book are outstanding. Just as important, Bailyn is very good at supporting his analysis with well chosen excerpts from contemporary political pamphlets. His judicious choice of quotations not only serves to support his conclusions but gives a fine idea of the words and thoughts of the Revolutionaries and their opponents.
This is a fundamental book for understanding the American past.
on October 29, 2001
Why did the American colonies declare their Independence from Great Britain?
Baylin's classic study tries to show that American Independence had its roots in the power of ideas -- of a rethinking of the proper role of government and a willingness to put thought into action with what became the uniquely American combination of idealism and realism. Bailyn's approach rejects certain types of other plausible explanations of the Revolution -- such as economic rivalry with the mother country or personal ambition on the part of colonial leaders --to tell his story of the origins of American ideas.
Bailyn finds the ideas that shaped the Revolution stated and debated in the ubiquitous pamphlets that appeared in the colonies between, about, 1760 -- 1776. But the source of the ideas are much deeper. Bailyn traces these ideas to the ancient Roman orators, through philosophical figures such as Locke and Vattel. The immediate source of the ideas which became America was in dissenting policitical thought in Great Britain in the later Seventeenth and Early Eighteent Century following the Glorious Revolution. The concern was political corruption in the Britain of the time and the fear that the monarchy would reassert its dominance over British life. Early in the 18th century, well before the French-Indian War, these concerns found their way to the American colonies and prepared the intellectual groundwork for independence. The colonists had a real fear that what they perceived as arbitrary British actions would reduce them to slavehood or vassalage.
Bailyn discusses in detail how the colonists took English political thought and applied it to the nature of representative government, constitutional thought, and the nature of divided sovereignty. He then explains how the manner in which the colonists transformed thinking about the nature of government had ramifications in the colonists' view of slavery, the disestablishment of religion, a classless society, and the nature of democracy. The intellectual transformation required for an independent United States thus occurred well before the Declaration of Independence and the Federalist Papers.
Bailyn's book is a work of detailed scholarship and not easy to read. It is a major achievement of intellectual history and will more than repay the effort. John Adams is among the major heros of this book. Readers that want to follow-up McCollough's popular biography and learn about the ideas of the time might well explore this book. Bailyn's study affirms the power of thought and of the American experiment. In our troubled times, it may help take us back to the origins of our country to learn where we have been so that we may intelligiently decide where we are going.
on December 28, 2000
This book is one of the best books I have ever read on the subject matter of American Revolutionary thought. Bailyn masterfully synthesises the source material to show the influences and assumptions the founding fathers and people of america were working under. He shows how they essentially took the thought process of the previous 100 years of English thought to the next logic conclusion for their situation. He shows how they didn't break from the past but harnessed it to their needs. Of course, the other large conclusion one takes from the book is just how much the thoughts behind the revolution were affected by Enlightenment thought: Montesqui, Locke, the ancient romans, and how little christianity influenced it in any substantive way. The obvious 'flaw' of this book is how it essentially ignores the questions of socio-economics and of how the founding fathers 'betrayed' their ideals on the question of slavery. But, I would contend that both are outside the realm of the argument. Socio-economics are obviously important but do not explain the forms that ideology take. and the betrayel of slavery is essentially a story of the constitution and the great sectional compromise, not of revolutionary idealogy. All in all, an excellent source of what our founding fathers were thinking when they founded the country.
on July 18, 2000
There is an unfortunate, somewhat politically correct, movement today attempting to 'prove' that the Founding Fathers, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution, were motivated by, and the documents based on, the Bible and Christianity.
This forlorn hope relies on tenuous ties to Biblical scripture to illustrate sections of both documents, and the alleged religious piety of the Founders. This is not only bad history, but it is nonsense and is giving a false picture of the background, motivation, and ultimate success of the American Revolutionaries. They are being misquoted, misrepresented, and quite frankly, lied about.
This excellent volume, written before all the present quasi religious whoop-de-do, dispels all of these misbegotten theories and presents in clear, concise, and documented prose what motivated the Founders to start a Revolution against the mother country and set out on 'the noble experiment.'
Bailyn is a noted historian, an accurate researcher, and a careful analyst of historic events. This is one of the best books on the American Revolution that has been written in the last fifty years. The author painstakingly takes the reader through the development of Enlightenment thought, the Founders preoccupation with classical antiquity, and where their theories of independence, the rights of man, and government came from and how they developed.
What they wrought was not a state founded on religion or religiuos principles, but on English Common Law, which had as its antecedents Roman Law, Saxon Law, and the Danelaw, none of which were based either on the Bible or on Christianity in any of its forms. What Bailyn has given us is a clear and concise history of the Founders that needs to be read and studied by present and future citizens to understand our bdginnings as a nation.
on May 22, 2000
I don't deny that this book is excellent work about American Revolution. Other reviewers wrote about the greatness of this book. Though I admit that points, I want to bring forward a few questions. First, was the Revolution done by elites alone? Baylin does not explain how the ideology spread among the masses. In any revolution, the role of people cannot be ignored - possibly the most important of all. He should have explained the phase of contagion of liberty to the below, in chapter VI 'the contagion of Liberty.' Second, was the eighteenth century an age of ideology?(in the end of chapter IV) In the viewpoint of an Asian, that premise is the means of justification of the Revolution. Did American in that age really think highly of liberty and justice? Then, why did they break the Molasses Act(1733) and smuggle? Why did they still exploit African-Americans as slaves and drive away the native Americans? Everybody knows that not a few the advocates of the Revolution depended on slavery for their farms. Third, is Baylin free from the criticism that he is concentrating the whole matters of Revolotion on the matter of Ideology? Of course, in chapter IV he mentions socio-economic side focusing the taxation. But this is the setting for explanation of the current of thought. Baylin himself makes it clear that 'the nucleus of this book is sources and patterns of ideas' in the foreword. Nevertheless, this book is great. Daringly I criticized the masterpiece of a great scholar, because I cannot express all of the beauty of this book with my poor English.
on December 12, 1999
This work is a classic. Bailyn brilliantly traces the ideological background of the revolutionaries. He shows how they were steeped in the radical libertarian and republican opposition literature of 17th and 18th century England. He overturms traditional interpretations that stress Locke as the primary influence by demonstrating the vital importance of such men as Algernon Sidney, John Milton, John Trenchard & Thomas Gordon, Lord Bolingbroke, and a host of others. Despite this, Bailyn does not deny the centrality of Locken natural rights philosophy, as many more recent scholars have. He sees the basic philosophy behind the revolution as one which views power as the eternal enemy of liberty. Power must be watched and restrained tightly, otherwise it will exceed its bounds and bring about the end of liberty and the initiation of slavery. He also delves into various issues relating to this philosophy that surrounded the break from Great Britain as well, including the unsettling consequences of their revolutionary agenda(e.g. new views of slavery). In the revised edition of the work, Bailyn extends his analysis to the new U.S. Constitution. Contrary to many other scholars, Bailyn maintains that the new Constitution did not represent a repudiation of the Revolution, but rather, its fulfillment. I myself am still a bit skeptical concerning this point, but his scholarship is sound, and his reasoning is suggestive and challenging. Above all, I would have to say that this work is an absolute *must* for any individual who is interested in early-American history or political philosophy. Moreover, it is also very instructive for liberty loving Americans, as it reveals the nature of the truly radical libertarian foundations of our nation.
on August 5, 2002
When it comes to American history, it is arguably so that the most important dates or events, whivhever you prefer, is the American Revolution. The dates run from about 1764, with the passage of the Sugar Act to 1783 the Peace of Paris was decided, or even as late as 1787 when Delaware became the first state in the Union. However you look at it, there is no one text that gives you a better, more thorough telling and understanding of the most important time in out history, before we officially had a country to even have a history, than The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution by Bernard Bailyn. This is the most thorough and most balanced fusion of primary documents and secondary analysis. Every topic is important every conclusion is crucial to understanding the truth about this great and terrible period in our history. It receives my highest recommendation.