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  • The Mood of the Cave:The Intellectual Legacy of Ideological Origins
  • Alison L. LaCroix

Most striking to the early twenty-first-century historiographical eye is the tone: sweeping, grand, certain. The voice is magisterial, omniscient—a narrator rather than a recorder. The picture is big, a forest, but densely planted with uncountable ranks of trees. The footnotes (footnotes!): crammed with pamphlets, addresses, and treatises; unconcerned with disgorging long strings of secondary citations or genealogizing conflicts among fellow scholars.

On page 322, in the "Postscript," there is a poem—not from Pope or Dryden or another period author, but a 1956 poem by Richard Wilbur titled "Mind":

Mind in its purest play is like some batThat beats about in caverns all alone,Contriving by a kind of senseless witNot to conclude against a wall of stone

It has no need to falter or explore;Darkly it knows what obstacles are there,And so may weave and flitter, dip and soarIn perfect courses through the blackest air.

And has this simile a like perfection?The mind is like a bat. Precisely. SaveThat in the very happiest intellectionA graceful error may correct the cave.

These mid-twentieth-century verses, we are told, are "perhaps the most subtle and penetrating depiction of the inner character of the drafting of, and the [End Page 317] original debate on, the Constitution." The drafters and ratifiers of the Constitution "did indeed weave and flitter, dip and soar, and they did indeed correct the cave of their ideological origins," Bernard Bailyn writes in The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. Then he asks: "But how?"1

Rereading Ideological Origins now, fifty years after its publication, one might ask the book to answer another question as well. It is the question most associated with the book's author, one that has become known as the "Bailyn question": "So what?"2 In the true spirit of rigorous inquiry, the query is intended as a sign of respect, as a request to play out the consequences of the argument. What does it mean to say that the drafters and ratifiers of the Constitution corrected the cave of their ideological origins? And why does it matter that they did so?

Since its publication in 1967, Bailyn's Ideological Origins has bulked as a monumental presence on the scholarly landscape of the American Revolution. Across a variety of methodological fields—including political, intellectual, and legal history—the book marks a particular way of understanding the revolution and the founding period more broadly. The "Bailyn view" is perhaps more accurately describe as a disposition, a tendency to comprehend the founders in terms of a collective political memory and a set of potential responses—some institutional, some emotional—that that memory in turn brought about.

This interpretive approach manifests itself most clearly in the book's focus on the mood of its subjects. Bailyn's North American inheritors of the Whig tradition—some of whom eventually become Federalists, some Antifederalists—are roiled by fear, suspicion, and other dark sentiments. Their brooding nature leads them to see threats from all directions. With their unceasing quest for the new-modeled and the perfectible, which their religious belief tells them is nevertheless doomed to fail in this life, Bailyn's Antifederalists are associated with New England. They are represented in Mercy Otis Warren, who "could never clear her mind of the dark vision of her ancient enemy, Thomas Hutchinson, who she never ceased believing had been a tool of absolutism and a willing servant of his despotic patron, the Earl of Hillsborough" (IO, 331). In a 1788 pamphlet attacking the Constitution, Warren likened the Federalists to Hutchinson (dead in his London exile eight years earlier), whom she termed the "great champion for arbitrary power with his machinations to subvert the liberties of this country."3

Few scholarly works of history can be described as possessing such novelistic attributes as ambience and mood. Yet these are unmistakable characteristics of Ideological Origins, and they are striking when one rereads the book after years of living with it as a background framing presence. The somber tone of Bailyn's story, with its almost gothic overtones of...


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pp. 317-321
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