Thank you for reading this essay. It is part of an ongoing series titled Old Friends and this is the fourth contribution on Barnard Bailyn's The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution.
acts that might by themselves have been upon many considerations excused or extenuated derived a contagious malignancy and odium from other acts with which they were connected.
– John Dickinson
When Bernard Bailyn decided to put together a book on the ideological origins of the American Revolution, he embarked on a bold venture. How does one explain the American Revolution? Even I, as a devoted student of history, still find it mystifying. So Bailyn charted out a path to help us understand what might have been in the minds of the revolutionaries. Rather focusing on events, he attempted to challenge us to think of the various elements that make up any revolution. And using historical evidence, he makes strong arguments, encouraging us to think.
First, he asserts that there was a relatively new technology that made control of the population difficult, if not impossible. It was the pamphlet, the Internet of its day. It is interesting how the major events of world history seem to be correlated to significant changes of how we communicate. The invention of the printing press affected the rapid spread of Protestantism. The dramatic decline in the cost of print and paper would lead to the explosion in knowledge and the seeds of the scientific revolution. But alongside those trends would be the rise of the pamphlet and political unrest. The invention of the telegraph would lead to the development of warfare strategy that was continental in scope, and telephony would be introduced to warfare in World War I. The radio would enable the advancement of totalitarianism and mass propaganda. And, today, the Internet is literally turning the world upside down. For the British of the late 18th century, it was the problem of how to control the decimation of revolutionary ideas in a land that was far away and unfamiliar with central control. The printing of pamphlets was key to communicating events amongst the colonies. They were a vital platform for new ideas that were actively debated. And they would eventually be used to stir the population into resistance, protest and eventually revolution.
Second, Bailyn undergoes a journey of the sources of knowledge that the revolutionaries used to develop their ideas. The concepts of which we are so familiar like liberty, justice, freedom and rights, were all referenced by writers in Europe as far back as the Roman era. Appreciating what resided in their libraries is crucial to understanding what they thought and why. The revolutionary leaders were not impulsive and emotionally driven men. They were rationalists and well-read. The government they would form would be innovative and unique for their time. What they conceived was a well thought out philosophical basis of governance.
Third, the author explores the basis of liberty and its greatest threat – power. The colonists had a highly developed awareness of the importance of liberty because they had a long history of experiencing it. Contrasted to England (or Great Britain), the day-to-day liberties of the average American was literally and figuratively in a different world from their counterparts in Britain. While the British had made considerable strides in the rule of law and of protecting a broadening range of liberties, the Americans were well ahead of them. The colonists also had a keen awareness of the greatest threat to liberty which was an unconstrained government. Bailyn makes it clear that if you are to understand why the revolution ever happened, it was over the tension of power and liberty
So with that foundation, Bailyn begins to explore the logic of revolution. Every revolution has various elements which cause it to arise. You can go into any country and find something in which people are contentious, but to have that tension suddenly translate into open armed resistance against the authorities is a big step. Probably the most interesting example of revolution in our day is the Arab Spring which began in late 2010. As I observed the news reports and read opinion pieces, I found it fascinating how most of the uprisings shared some common elements: the sudden rise of social media, a generally shared foundation of ideology communicated through trans-Arab organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood, authoritarian socialist governments, and sudden economic changes where the general population lost confidence in the State. The American Revolution had a similar “logic” to it. This fourth chapter in Bailyn’s book begins to get more specific, how various events triggered reactions that made a rational discussion and resolution increasingly difficult to achieve.
So that brings us to this interlude. It appears at this point that Bailyn chooses to pause the narrative to reflect on his observations. What is most interesting is that “A Note on Conspiracy” does not appear as a separate chapter of the book, but rather as a continuation of “The Logic of Rebellion.” No doubt, he is stressing the importance of this point – that the colonists saw in the wind a conspiracy, a threat to the liberties they had grown accustomed to experiencing.1 It is important for the reader to understand that these fears were present many years prior to the Revolution. For some time the colonists perceived the Parliament and the Crown as highly corrupt. Their mistrust of the appointed ministerial officials was increasingly grounded on hard experience. But conspiracy? The word almost adds a mystical sense to the discussion, ringed with rumor, innuendo and emotion. If rebellion had a “logic” to it, conspiracy had a life of its own.
As my own personal reflection, we are seeing some fundamental elements of what would constitute insurrection.
1) A lack of confidence in the governing institutions
2) Perceived corruption
3) Cancellation of viewpoints and persons who challenge the authorities
4) Local magistrates who answer not to local sentiments, but to the distant governing authority.
5) The perception that the rule of law has deteriorated
What is vital to understand is that revolutions are not caused by the passage of a Stamp Act or a Townsend Act, or a tax on tea. These are mere ornamentation. Specific acts of legislation, court rulings and police actions are the catalyst that sets on fire a highly volatile mix of sentiments. The list above can apply to any time, nested within different events, languages and cultures. The result could be the same – open revolt.
At this point we must reflect on our current circumstances in the United States. Is history repeating itself? Is the federal government too powerful? Has it been corrupted? Is there a trend where whistleblowers and critics are canceled, censored or simply purged? Are representatives of the federal authority appearing to be less responsive, more arbitrary and intrusive into our affairs? Is there a loss of confidence in the laws and in the judiciary that should be in the position of implementing constitutional standards?
Answering those questions in the affirmative is disturbing. Yet there is one word that encapsulates these concerns. Confidence. Granted, most people these days are thankfully non-violent. They are not revolutionaries. But many are today less confident about the federal government and less confident that the federal government has their welfare in mind. If that is the case, then it is indeed a great concern.
I appreciate the frequency Bailyn quotes John Dickinson who he brands as “the most cautious and reluctant of Revolutionary leaders.” Dickinson did not sign the Declaration of Independence. Yet he was one of the most articulate advocates for liberty in the colonies. He was a student of rebellion. For him, the logic of rebellion had a precedent in the revolt against Charles I, where he noted
“acts that might by themselves have been upon many considerations excused or extenuated derived a contagious malignancy and odium from other acts with which they were connected. They were not regarded according to the simple force of each but as parts of a system of oppression. Every one, therefore, however small in itself, became alarming as an additional evidence of tyrannical designs. It was in vain for prudent and moderate men to insist that there was no necessity to abolish royalty. Nothing less than the utter destruction of the monarchy could satisfy those who had suffered and thought they had reason to believe they always should suffer under it. The consequences of these mutual distrusts are well known.”2
An added dimension to this progression to revolution is whether the concerns of the colonists are reflected in any way amongst critics of the Crown in Britain. It is rather peculiar that two individuals from opposite poles ideologically had similar observations regarding the Crown and Parliament: John Wilkes and Edmund Burke. Wilkes, as we have already seen, was an outsider, a “radical” of his day. He was denied a seat in Parliament despite being elected on several occasions. Burke was part of the “establishment.” Touted as the “father of conservatism,” Burke was the big surprise in the American Revolution. He voiced the same concerns that corruption was destroying the rule of law, the “constitution” as the English would know it, provoking unrest and thus threatening the welfare of the empire.
The tragedy was that despite having reasonable people on both sides of the Atlantic wishing to avoid conflict, the level of distrust between colonists and the Crown had grown beyond the point of no return as early as 1769. They were, in essence, talking through each other. The committees of correspondence, informally evolving to address the concerns of the colonists, were seen not as conduits of representation, but as seditious threats to empire. Burke would say it well:
“The Americans have made a discovery, or think they have made one, that we mean to oppress them: we have made a discovery, or think we have made one, that they intend to rise in rebellion against us … we know not how to advance; they know not how to retreat … Some party must give way.”3
He stated this in 1769. It dissolves the notion that the colonists were impulsive. The evidence that Bailyn presents shows that dissatisfaction with Britain began to brew in the mid 1750’s, but came to a head when the British attempted to recover the cost of the French and Indian War. Several things happened during that conflict that shook the confidence of the colonists. By 1769 it was clear the authorities in Britain were not listening. Yet another six years would pass before a shot was fired. In the interregnum this “contagious malignancy and odium” would continue to ferment.
The ideological basis of revolution was in place. But what every successful revolution requires is a path to victory. For the colonists, it was much more profound. What if they won? What would they be putting in the place of the Crown and Parliament? They were attempting to do what no people had done before, inventing a form of governance not seen since the days of the Greek democracies. They were attempting to answer questions that the Cromwell revolution failed to resolve.
2IOAR, p. 145
3IOAR, p. 158
By Eric Niewoehner
© Copyright 2022 to Eric Niewoehner.
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