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  • The Importance of Being Ideological
  • Caroline Winterer

What did Bernard Bailyn mean by "ideology" in The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (1967)? This is a surprisingly difficult question to answer, since Bailyn himself never precisely defined what he meant by ideology. The closest he got were descriptions in four publications over the 1960s: an article in the American Historical Review (1962), Pamphlets of the American Revolution (1965), his Charles K. Colver lectures at Brown University (1965), and finally the Ideological Origins.1 In that decade, Bailyn unfurled a subtle but increasingly coherent [End Page 308] argument about what distinguishes "ideas" from "ideology." This argument influenced subsequent scholarship far beyond the now-canonical interpretation of the book's historiographical bouleversement. The canonical interpretation is that Bailyn used the anthropological ideas of his contemporary Clifford Geertz—about how people construct meaning—to demolish the reigning economic explanation for the American Revolution associated with Progressive-era historians. In fact, however, Bailyn's influence extended further still. His formulation of "ideology" also shaped how subsequent American historians approached the study of ideas in eighteenth-century America, most especially the ideas of the Enlightenment. Today, as the worldview of the mid-twentieth century recedes from us—the atomic imaginary, the anxieties over mass society and totalizing thought structures—we can begin to reevaluate one of the era's core hypotheses about the place of ideas, and especially enlightened ideas, in the era of the American Revolution.2

First, a brief encapsulation of what Bailyn seems to have meant by ideology. Destroying the distinction between "ideas" and socio-economic "realities," Bailyn saw ideology as an urgent, meaning-constructing intellectual response to a particular set of political conditions, social locations, and economic interests. Everyone had ideas, but it took a historically specific set of circumstances for people to distill those ideas into an ideology.

Based on these assumptions, Bailyn explained the American Revolution as the product of ideology. Ideological Origins traced back into the early eighteenth century "the specific attitudes, conceptions, formulations, even in certain cases particular phrases, which together form the ideology of the American Revolution."3 Up until the mid-1760s, Americans had access to many ideas—from antiquity, from the Bible and other religious sources, from Enlightenment Europe, and from the Commonwealth writers in England who taught colonists to be jealous of their liberties and suspicious of encroaching power. After the Seven Years' War, persistent British policy affecting all the North American colonies triggered widespread colonial alarm about concerted malevolence brewing in London. The Sugar Act of 1764 marked the last point when colonial objections to Britain could be "voiced without reference to ideology."4 Colonists shaped by the particularities of the American political, economic, and social context fused British actions into a "coherent intellectual pattern" that appeared to be a dark conspiracy to extinguish their liberties.5 Colonists' perception of this pattern—their ideology—led them ineluctably to a "logic of rebellion" (the title of chapter 4) that culminated in the American Revolution. The appeal to ideology performed a key function. It allowed the colonists to explain with greater confidence from year to year what the British were up to, providing a self-fulfilling explanation of the meaning of political events.

Thus in Bailyn's scheme "ideas" were thoughts, arguments, concepts, impressions, and intellectual traditions. But "ideology" was something more: it was a particular way of interpreting reality, urgently fashioned in response to specific pressures. Its outcome could be explosive. Writing well into the Atomic Age, Bailyn sometimes reached for modern metaphors to explain the processes by which colonists converted ideas into ideology. Like uranium atoms splitting in "chain-reacting" fashion, ideas subjected to the proper conditions released latent intellectual energies to form an "incendiary" new phenomenon: ideology.6

This conception of the nature of ideas is already fully present in Bailyn's 1962 article, "Political Experience and Enlightenment Ideas in Eighteenth-Century America." Here Bailyn demolished what he would later call "Enlightenment platitudes."7 Enlightenment platitudes were perhaps most clearly showcased in the [End Page 309] Progressive historian Carl Becker's The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers, the most influential book on the Enlightenment in the United States between...


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