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The Lamp of Experience

Trevor Colbourn

Publication Year: 2012

In a landmark work, a leading scholar of the eighteenth century examines the ways in which an understanding of the nature of history influenced the thinking of the founding fathers.

As Jack P. Greene has observed, "[The Whig] conception saw the past as a continual struggle between liberty and virtue on one hand and arbitrary power and corruption on the other." Many founders found in this intellectual tradition what Josiah Quincy, Jr., called the "true old English liberty," and it was this Whig tradition—this conception of liberty—that the champions of American independence and crafters of the new republic sought to perpetuate. Colbourn supports his thesis—that "Independence was in large measure the product of the historical concepts of the men who made it"—by documenting what books were read most widely by the founding generation. He also cites diaries, personal correspondence, newspapers, and legislative records.

Trevor Colbourn is President Emeritus of the University of Central Florida.

Published by: Liberty Fund

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. ix-x

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Preface to the Liberty Fund Edition: 1943 and All That

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pp. xi-xx

Much has happened in the more than thirty years that have passed since The Lamp of Experience was first published by the Institute of Early American History in 1965. Many who helped shape that volume have passed on-notably, Douglass Adair (to whom The Lamp of Experience was properly dedicated), ...

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Preface to the 1965 Edition

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pp. xxi-xxiii

The American Revolution has never wanted for attention, but important chapters of the intellectual history of the Revolution have yet to be written. The political philosophy of the Revolutionaries is familiar; their historical justification for independence is not. ...

Part One: The English Heritage and the Colonial Historical View

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Chapter I. History and the Eighteenth-Century Colonist

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pp. 3-24

One of John Adams's favorite questions was, "What do we mean by the revolution? The War?" No. "That was no part of the revolution. It was only an Effect and consequence of it." As he told Hezekiah Niles, "the real American Revolution" was the "radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people." ...

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Chapter II. The Colonial Perspective: Ancient and Medieval

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pp. 25-47

Truth is the eye of history." Polybius said it, Jefferson read it in the two separate editions of Polybius he owned, and American readers studied it in four recent printings of Polybius's General History.1 Citizens of the greatest, the latest of empires, Americans opened Polybius for information about earlier empires ...

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Chapter III. The Colonial Perspective: Tudors, Stuarts, and Hanoverians

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pp. 48-68

If for their time Americans were well informed on antiquity and medieval English history, they were no less aware of their more recent past. Appearing more immediate to present problems, recent history embraced the multitude of sins recorded since Magna Charta—those contained in the history of the Reformation, ...

Part Two: The Revolutionary Use of History

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Chapter IV. The New England Historical Conscience

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pp. 71-99

The Revolutionary generation of New Englanders was deeply absorbed in its historical origins. Just as seventeenth-century New Englanders had been understandably proud of their Puritan faith and the founders of their colonies, so eighteenth-century New Englanders maintained that pride and developed a keen interest in their English origins. ...

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Chapter V. John Adams: Political Scientist as Historian

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pp. 100-128

For men anxious to pursue a path of legality, for men seeking security for property against British depredations, for men looking for stability at home and abroad, John Adams was a logical and a persuasive leader. Educated at Harvard (class of 1755), trained in law (under James Putnam), ...

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Chapter VI. Three Pennsylvanians: John Dickinson, James Wilson, Benjamin Franklin

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pp. 129-162

Pennsylvania made important contributions to the intellectual origins of the American Revolution. The first and second Continental Congresses met in Philadelphia; the famed Library Company served as the first Congressional library; and Pennsylvanians made notable additions to the political literature of the Revolutionary era. ...

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Chapter VII. The Historical Mind of the South

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pp. 163-192

The intellectual history of the American Revolution was largely a history of political ideas, English history invoked against each new policy inaugurated by a British ministry. After 1765, colonial reactions to imperial regulations varied little from New Hampshire to Georgia. ...

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Chapter VIII. Thomas Jefferson and the Rights of Expatriated Men

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pp. 193-225

The earth Belongs always to the living generation," Jefferson reminded James Madison.1 Thomas Jefferson is perhaps best known for his commitment to this belief. Dedicated to the proposition that man had a right to happiness and fulfillment in this world, Jefferson strove to emancipate the present from the tyranny of the past. ...

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Chapter IX. The Whig Historical Tradition and the Origins of the American Revolution

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pp. 226-236

In seventeenth-century England men found history peculiarly instructive and useful. By the eighteenth century, history had become the practical study for gentlemen on both sides of the Atlantic. Americans praised history as "the least fallible guide," and their "oracle of truth."1 ...

Appendix I: The Saxon Myth Dies Hard

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pp. 237-244

Appendix II: History in the Colonial Library

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pp. 245-286


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pp. 287-305

E-ISBN-13: 9781614877899
E-ISBN-10: 1614877890
Print-ISBN-13: 9780865971592

Page Count: 328
Publication Year: 2012

Edition: None

OCLC Number: 61704227
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The Lamp of Experience

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • United States -- History -- Revolution, 1775-1783 -- Causes.
  • Statesmen -- Books and reading -- United States -- History -- 18th century.
  • Great Britain -- History -- Study and teaching -- United States -- History -- 18th century.
  • Great Britain -- Politics and government -- Historiography.
  • United States -- Intellectual life -- 18th century.
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