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  • The Literature of Revolution and the Origins of Ideological Origins
  • Eric Slauter

Cato's Letters were popular enough in the colonies to be quoted in every colonial newspaper from Boston to Savannah, and must have had no small share in bringing about that amazing unity of political feeling which we find by 1760 in civilizations so fundamentally opposed as those of Charleston and Boston. Indeed, these periodical papers of Thomas Gordon and John Trenchard, published in The London Journal before 1723, develop a theory of representative government similar in most respects to that which underlies the Declaration of Independence.

—Elizabeth Christine Cook, Literary Influences in Colonial Newspapers (1912)1

Fifty years ago, in late 1966 or early 1967, Bernard Bailyn took out a subscription to a new publication. For $2.00 a year, Professor Bailyn's mailbox at the Harvard History Department received three issues, each larger than the last, of a typewritten, staple-bound newsletter that printed lists of dissertations and other works in progress along with bibliographies, short research notes, and book reviews on behalf of a group of colonial American literature scholars who had come together at the annual Modern Language Association meeting in late 1965. By 1968 the publication had attracted enough subscribers and contributors to drop "newsletter" from its title and to become the journal Early American Literature. Bailyn was perhaps the first historian to subscribe. His name appeared (by virtue of the alphabet) near the top of a list of new members in the Spring 1967 issue, the fourth, joining what editor Calvin Israel of UCLA's English Department bragged was "the name of virtually every productive scholar in the area of early American literature studies." But if Bailyn was not the very first historian to subscribe, he was certainly among the earliest in a small cohort that also included David D. Hall (then an instructor at Yale) and Linda K. Kerber (then a graduate student at [End Page 303] Columbia), historians whose close attention to texts, to imagery and ideology, and to the transmission and circulation of printed artifacts helped remake the discipline of early American history and has assured them—as it has Bailyn—a wide reader-ship among scholars of early American literature.2

This curious fact suggests some of the peculiar collision of forces that helped bring Bailyn's great book into being and that has helped it find an audience beyond historians from the very beginning. Bailyn's project emerged not simply against a historiographic background primed to embrace idealism and turn away from a Progressive interpretation of motives, but at a moment in the development of what in October 1965 J. G. A. Pocock called "that vexed yet favorite topic of the relation of ideas to social realities"; it was a significant moment in the evolving relation of intellectual, social, and literary history.3 Readers of the brief notice of the first volume of Pamphlets of the American Revolution in American Literature in May 1965 learned that Bailyn's "project is of major importance to all students of Colonial literature" and that it had its origins in a suggestion from a literature scholar.4 What, after all, would early American historiography look like if Bailyn had simply declined the invitation from his colleague in the Harvard English Department, Howard Mumford Jones, to edit a collection of revolutionary pamphlets for a new series of books issued as the John Harvard Library? While The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution hardly reads like a revised introduction for a set of reprinted texts, the book's argument nevertheless clearly bears the marks of having been written by someone who had an uncommon level of intimacy with those texts—an editor who had traced all of his authors' references and followed all of their footnotes. The book also records the traces of his intense engagement with a body of older and more recent scholarship on eighteenth-century English and American literature that helped him make sense of what he found in his primary texts.

Bailyn described the revolutionary age as "the most creative period in the history of American political thought," but he did not find great literature.5 None of his...


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