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  • Bailyn, the Republican Interpretation, and the Future of Revolutionary Scholarship
  • Craig Yirush

Has there ever been a book on the American founding as influential as Bernard Bailyn's The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution? Perhaps Charles Beard's iconoclastic 1913 An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States, but by midcentury its central argument that the framers wrote [End Page 321] the federal constitution in order to serve their narrow economic interests had been subjected to a series of withering critiques that left its once towering reputation in tatters.1 Bailyn's Ideological Origins, by contrast, still shapes the way we understand the revolution fifty years after it was first published. Despite the best efforts of his many critics, Bailyn has not been "besieged in his bunker" as the New Left historian Jesse Lemisch claimed in a fiery bicentennial critique.2

Far from it. Bailyn's sweeping reexamination of the ideas at the heart of the revolution launched a long and productive debate about the meaning of republicanism and liberalism in the American political tradition. That debate kept the study of the political thought of the founding alive in the 1970s and 1980s, a time when, with social history in the ascendant, intellectual historians despaired for the future of their field. Although the republicanism-liberalism debate eventually outlived its usefulness, it is not too much of an exaggeration to say that all of us who continue to explore the intellectual contours of the revolution owe Bailyn a debt of gratitude. Nor was the influence of Bailyn's Ideological Origins confined to the academy. Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers in the early 1970s, was reportedly moved to tears by Bailyn's affecting account of the liberating force of revolutionary ideology.3

Yet on rereading Ideological Origins after many years, I was struck by the disjuncture between its arguments and those of the two books on republicanism with which it is often lumped—his student Gordon Wood's The Creation of the American Republic and John Pocock's The Machiavellian Moment.4 Unlike them, Ideological Origins is surprisingly unconcerned with civic virtue, the key concept in the republican reinterpretation of the American founding. Indeed, the original edition of the book contains no index entry for virtue. Rather, Bailyn, drawing on the pioneering work of Caroline Robbins, focuses on a small group of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century commonwealth or "country" thinkers whose central concern was the tension between power and liberty.5 In their world, power was always restless, always grasping, and liberty was always endangered by it. To the extent that virtue played a role in the political vision of these thinkers, it was instrumental—a means to secure liberty by giving men the character to resist the blandishments of power. Nor in Bailyn's account did these "country" or "opposition" thinkers evince any interest in a positive or communitarian conception of liberty. Indeed, he describes John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, the authors of Cato's Letters (a text which, thanks to Bailyn, became central to the republican-liberalism debate), as "spokesmen for extreme libertarianism," a term that recurs frequently in the book.6

Bailyn's embrace of thinkers like Trenchard and Gordon had less, I think, to do with identifying the formal ideas, whether liberal or republican, that influenced the revolutionaries, and more to do with explaining their behavior. For Bailyn, Americans in the late eighteenth century drew on an eclectic array of intellectual traditions—classical philosophy and history, Enlightenment liberalism, English constitutionalism—but, he contended, it was these "country" or "opposition" thinkers who "dominated the colonists' learning and shaped it into a coherent whole." Their thought was "unique in its determinative power," for they "more than any other single group of writers shaped the mind of the American Revolutionary generation" (IO, 34, 35). In a 1973 essay Bailyn elaborated on this point, drawing on Clifford Geertz's understanding of ideology (a term Bailyn had not previously defined despite it being in the title of his book). According to Bailyn, "formal discourse becomes politically powerful when it becomes ideology: when it articulates [End Page 322] and fuses into effective formulations opinions and attitudes that are otherwise...


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