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  • The Ideological Origins and the History of Political Thought1
  • Eric Nelson

I first read Bernard Bailyn's The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution when I was a nineteen-year-old student in the Harvard History Department's sophomore tutorial. The text was assigned by my late friend and teacher Mark Kishlansky, who began our discussion of the book by posing the same deceptively simple question that he asked about each historiographical masterwork on the syllabus: "What kind of book is this?" I remember thinking rather smugly that, in this case at least, the question had an obvious and straightforward answer: surely, Ideological Origins was a work of intellectual history—and, more specifically, a contribution to the history of early American political thought. But it now strikes me that this answer, while not incorrect, was, and is, quite beside the point. Mark was not asking us a banal question about the genre to which Bailyn's monograph belonged, but rather a deep one about how Bailyn understood that genre. To present Ideological Origins as a history of political thought is, implicitly, to defend a particular conception of what sort of thing "political thought" is and what its history looks like. What, Mark wished us to ponder, is that conception?

I found myself asking this question with a renewed sense of urgency more than fifteen years later as I grappled with a puzzling feature of my own contribution to the history of early American political thought. Ideological Origins is standardly presented as the urtext of the radical Whig or republican reading of patriot political theory, and it was this account that I chiefly intended to challenge in The Royalist Revolution.2 And yet, as I made (or tried to make) my revisionist case, I noticed something odd: while my disagreements with later Whig historians were quite numerous, I only rarely found myself dissenting from Bailyn himself. Surprisingly few of my claims seemed to contradict his, and vice versa. Instead, our accounts seemed to be largely orthogonal to each other. We were not, I came to see, giving rival answers to the same question, but rather answering fundamentally different questions.3

I was proposing an answer to the question: "What did American patriots think about politics?" That is, what were their constitutional views and theoretical commitments about ideas such as representation, monarchy, rights, and prerogative? This is likewise the question that Whig intellectual historians have taken [End Page 314] themselves to be answering, albeit in a very different fashion. Bailyn, to be sure, is not uninterested in what patriots thought about politics. But in Ideological Origins he chiefly asks instead: "How did patriots think about politics?" In other words, what worldview and habits of mind caused them to interpret political events as they did? At issue here is the distinction between political theory and what we might call political consciousness. Bailyn's argument is that the radical Whig intellectual culture of British America produced an "articulated worldview" that "constituted in effect an intellectual switchboard wired so that certain combinations of events would activate a distinct set of signals—danger signals, indicating hidden impulses and the likely trajectory of events implied by them."4 Patriots were "hard wired," for various reasons, to interpret the measures of the British administration as "evidence of nothing less than a deliberate assault launched surreptitiously by plotters against liberty both in England and in America."5 They had been taught to regard the political world as a site of conspiracy and corruption, in which the real intentions of government were rarely, if ever, publicly acknowledged. But this sort of political consciousness is, in principle, quite modular: it can be attached to any number of different substantive views of what liberty is and what would in fact threaten it.

My basic claim is that, while Whig political consciousness remained a constant feature of the American intellectual landscape throughout the imperial crisis and the revolution, it came eventually to be paired with an anti-Whig political theory. American patriots (or a great number of them, at any rate) thought as Tories but like Whigs. I cannot of course offer an adequate defense of this claim here, but I hope...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-315X
Print ISSN
0013-2586
Pages
pp. 314-317
Launched on MUSE
2017-04-04
Open Access
No
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