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Sources and Traditions

Thank you for reading this essay.  It is part of an ongoing series titled Old Friends and this is the second contribution on Barnard Bailyn's The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution.hank you for reading this essay. 

Ever ask the question, “What is behind their thinking?”


Revolutions are born of the same stuff. They just don’t pop up. Before V.I. Lenin stood on the railroad platform in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1917, he and others had spent decades mashing out the theoretical basis that would eventually present to the world the most systematic totalitarian regime in human history. Our revolution was much different. As with the Bolsheviks in Russia, the American Revolution did not just happen. It was the culmination of more than a decade of ardent debate. Yet it was different because the source of their thoughts was profoundly the opposite of Marxism. What directed their thoughts is important for us to examine if we are to better appreciate the result that emerged in 1787 as the U.S. Constitution.


So we proceed to the second chapter of Barnard Bailyn’s book, “Sources and Traditions,” and he addresses the question of where did their ideas come from. For Bailyn, it was most apparent that our founders were steeped in the “heritage of classical antiquity.”1 Ask anyone who considers themselves “educated” these days if they have ever read the writings of Homer, Sophocles, Plato, Euripides, Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, Aristotle, Strabo, Lucian, Dio, Polybius, Plutarch, Epictetus, Cicero, Horace, Vergil, Tacitus, Lucan, Seneca, Livy, Nepos, Sallust, Ovid, Lucretius, Cato, Pliny, Juvenal, Curtius, Marcus Aurelius, Petronius, Suetonius, Caesar, Gaius and Justinian.2


Believe it or not, the writer of this essay has read most of those authors. How did those men affect me? Some people would ask, “What is the point?” Some on that list wrote Greek plays which I first encountered in high school. What we learned was that people 500 years before Christ could be articulate and witty. The template of drama that we see at the cinema or on our television screens was first laid by the ancient Greeks. When we proceed through the list we see the struggle that people suffered through as the Roman Empire emerged. What I learned was that people are complex. We have noble intentions, but our human nature is at war with them. The seeds of Communist Russia and China were laid in Plato’s Republic. The foundation of science can be seen in Aristotle. The construct of the study of history was laid by Herodotus, Tacitus, and Livy. The supreme paradox of deep reflection amidst ruthless power were captured by Seneca and Marcus Aurelius. It can be argued that the foundation of western law was established by Justinian. And that is what I gathered from my own experience. Project that, if you will, to 18th century America where there were no computers or televisions and your primary source of entertainment was your library and you will begin to appreciate how having possession of the classics was treasured, and that men found pleasure in sharing their observations with their colleagues. In such circles, knowledge of the classics compounded.


Access to this sort of information was expensive. So you will have to excuse our founding fathers for appearing “elitist”. They were elite! The common person would not have access to the classics until libraries were formed in their communities and schools emerged that included them in their curriculum, much of which would not emerge until the latter half of the 19th century. Yet it was for this reason that men endowed with such resources and knowledge thought it was their obligation to govern wisely.


This mindset, this search into the past, was not just a concern of the colonists, but Brits and Europeans. This would be captured in the phrase “Enlightenment rationalism.” The Enlightenment was a period of European history that saw the emergence of ideas that would lay the foundation of modern Western civilization. When and where it started is subject to debate. It evolved, more than gave birth. The 17th century left Europe in a bit of quandary. A lot had changed. The continent and England had gone through a century of wars driven by religion in some respects, but also by new concepts of governance and nationhood. We begin to see the emergence of parliaments which start to challenge monarchs in the writing of laws and the issuance of taxes. Places like Switzerland, the Netherlands and England will see serious challenges to absolute monarchies. A growing middle class were seeing the old laws as obstructive and were demanding representation. In essence, much of what would make the American Revolution had stewed in the pot of Europe for two centuries. From that tangle of controversy would emerge the Enlightenment where thinking men (and women) began to question the status quo and dare to offer alternatives.


Bailyn noted the following were often quoted by the pamphleteers: Voltaire, Rousseau, Beccaria, Montesquieu, Locke, Delolme, Grotius, Pufendork, Burlamaqui and Vattel. Amongst English writers were included Edward Coke, Matthew Hale, John Vaughan and John Holt, as well as Blackstone’s commentaries. I must confess that I have not read as much of the Enlightenment resources as did the founders of our nation. But out of what I read, I was able to see the first hints of the America that would begin to take shape in 1776. The phrase “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” was derived from John Locke’s “Life, liberty and property.” The concept of the division of powers would be an amalgamation of the English experience (the English do not have a written constitution) and the speculations of the French philosophers. The French, in particular, offered rich material. It is ironic that it would be the French who would offer up such gold because they ultimately failed to solve the problem of governance while an absolutist monarchy and aristocracy ruled France.


At this point we need to pause for thought. The colonists would take the writings of the French and English and construct a republic that would survive and prosper. The French, however, would take the same material, virtually the same structure of governance, and produce the Reign of Terror. The icons of the American Revolution are pieces of parchment in the Smithsonian. That of France the guillotine.


That, my friend, should point out the enormous risk that was being taken in 1776. The republic that would emerge in its final form in 1787 would truly be a revolutionary event – in the history of mankind! It is no wonder that the events of 1776 through 1787 would provide a vital source of inspiration to thinkers throughout the world to this very day. As I write this document, people starve to death in Venezuela, genocide is being practiced in China, thousands getting shot in Myanmar and Lebanon and Syria a crumbling shell of humanity. Yet the idea of liberty is still there. It will not die.


Another consideration returns to the editorial change made by Jefferson of Locke’s phrase “Life, liberty and property.” The evolution of that phrase speaks volumes of what had changed in the debate. First, English society still had not understood that “property” was rapidly becoming more abstract and dynamic. Anyone who follows English documentaries can’t help but pick up the pattern of recognition in England. A person becomes suddenly wealthy, purchases land, builds or purchases a manor, then purchases political influence. People like John Hancock found that rather puzzling. Why build a big house when you can build a fleet of ships? Why is money not property? And why is it that a piece of land has anything to do with political rights? Jefferson also understood the double entendre of “property” in the colonies. People were property. He felt very uncomfortable with that reality and considered it nothing to aspire to. He was a man of his times, filled with contradictions and a handsome roster of slaves working on his plantation. Yet he was not wanting to inject those contradictions into the Declaration of Independence. In this Jefferson continued the tradition of the French philosophers but declaring a nobler standard.


The importance of understanding the theoretical foundation of our revolution is critically important. The two ideologies of the modern era are that of liberty and tyranny. Notice I did not say Marxism and Capitalism. The problem that the founding fathers wrestled with revolved around such concepts as “liberty” and “freedom,” terms that are conspicuously absent in Marxist regimes and dictatorships. The revolution of 1776 focused on the individual. That of 1917 destroyed the individual. It is interesting to hear critics of our heritage advance the notion that we must start from a clean slate, yet the slate they hold in their hand began with the scribblings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the ponderous works of Karl Marx, and the dark thoughts of Friedrich Nietzsche. Are we to so casually discard centuries of struggle, faith and philosophy and legal experience? Fortunately for us, our founding fathers embraced their history.


1IOAR, p.23

2IOAR, p.24, referring to Charles F. Mullett, “Classical Influences on the American Revolution,” Classical Journal, Vol 35 (1939-40), pp. 93, 94.

Additional Resources:


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By Eric Niewoehner

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