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EricN Publications by Eric Niewoehner
EricNPublications by Eric Niewoehner

The Contagion of Liberty

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

The fight for liberty could be a good thing. But contagions are generally uncontrollable. They seem to have a life of their own and can travel in unexpected directions.

For a revolution to get off the ground, it has to establish a broad appeal. History has demonstrated that a small group of activists can foment a revolution, but to succeed they have to project their cause to a wider audience. Consider the men who stood in the Lexington commons facing the British in April 1775. Who among them would have considered shooting a British soldier in 1767? How many more would do so in 1775? And what parts of the community did they represent? As the British returned to Boston they were peppered by an organic resistance. They had no friends in this place. How is it that the ideas presented on paper in 1767 would be transformed to a passion for liberty worth the cost of one’s life?


From the previous essays on Bailyn’s book, we established the following:

  • There was a theoretical basis for their cause

  • A general loss of confidence that the English government would be responsive

  • An emerging consensus of what would be replacing the English administration


In the beginning, in 1767, the American revolutionaries were at about the same level as the Marxist intellectuals sipping coffee in Switzerland in 1916, speculating on how they would overtake the establishment in Russia; or a circle of like-minded friends gathering in a salon in Paris in 1775, expounding on the latest from Voltaire. The big difference was that this dialog of revolution was pervasive. It was happening in South Carolina as well as New York. It’s scope included planters and shippers, printers and shopkeepers. Unlike the Marxists, it was theory that was for the most part well-tested. What the revolutionaries were proposing was in the historical context quite unprecedented, but the components were rooted in experience and a realistic understanding of human nature.


Yet from 150 years of experience in self-governance, the colonists were proposing some new ideas.1


  • Legislative assemblies should mirror society

  • That human rights exist above the law and, in fact, are a measure of the law’s validity

  • That written constitutions are the ideal design of government

  • That define a “permissible sphere of action”

  • That sovereignty could exist with a separation of powers


We take it for granted that these ideas always existed in centuries past. While this may ave been expressed, most notably by John Locke, they had never been put into effect. And all of this was being proposed against the most powerful empire on the planet.


By 1777, the colonies were now states, 10 of which had written constitutions.2 They had over a century of experience in representative assemblies. Their harsh treatment by British governors convinced them that rights needed to be specified and governments limited by law and the fragmentation of power.


Yet some lingering fears remained. Bailyn referred to it as a “contagion,” as if the passion for liberty could be transformed into a malignant pathogen. Unsettled would be the paradox of slavery, the lingering presence of established religion, concerns over unfettered democracy and a social revolution that many feared because they had no idea where all this would lead.

Washington with slaves at Mt. Vernon Washington at Mt. Vernon



No doubt, the one thing that hung over the cause was the presence of slavery. This haunted the debate before 1775 and it almost killed the presentation of the Declaration of Independence. The author who stated that “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights,” would agonize his entire life over his ownership of slaves. Men then, as they would in 1860, found ways to rationalize this paradox.


What is peculiar is that the institution of slavery served as a living example of what could become of all the colonists if things would continue as they were with the British. What bonded the owner of slaves with the merchants and farmers who did not was that everyone felt like their “property,” or the “pursuit of happiness,” was in peril as long as the British found ways to take property from them.3 The British seemed to have a problem with search and seizure of private property without warrants, and liberally conscripted private property for the use of the military. Add to that the frequent reminder from British authorities that the colonists were not citizens, but subjects.


The other element to add to this debate is that efforts to suspend the slave trade or to tax it out of existence proved fruitless with the English Parliament. On this front, the colonists were decades ahead of the British. For opponents of the slave trade, joining with American slave owners against the British was a pragmatic step toward abolishing the overseas trade. They could at least do so as states, if not come to some form of an agreement as a nation.4 In fact, several colonies had made such efforts in the 1770’s and would soon establish prohibitions after 1776.


Yet throughout the revolution, the British would use slavery as a wedge to weaken the colonists, offering freedom to slaves in occupied lands. Their lack of success in this area probably had a lot to do with their own duplicity being the predominant purveyors of the slave trade and masters themselves of slaves throughout the Caribbean.


As history has borne, this would be one issue left unresolved until the Civil War of 1861.

The Church of England The Church of England

Establishment of Religion


Religion was another area where the revolutionaries proceeded with some duplicity. Historically, over the history of the colonies, the mantra that the settlers came to “worship as they please” required some context. For most religious groups, to have the freedom to worship also inferred the privilege to extend the teachings of their preferred church to that of the broader community. As a result, men like Roger Williams experienced exile from the Massachusetts colony because he was “heretical.” Another thing to consider is the mechanics of representative government and the evolution of parliamentary procedure. Many of these practices came out of the self-governance of Presbyterians and Congregationalists, as well as Baptists. Finally, the various educational institutions that emerged in the colonies were almost all based on religion, including what would emerge as “public education”.


The framers of the Constitution no doubt were aware of the diversity of religious life throughout the states, if not amongst their own states. By 1787 there was considerable experience in constructing state governments that at least marginalized the establishment of a “state church”. What the Continental Congress pursued in 1776, however, was developing a federal government that was truly secular, without threatening the welfare of any particular religious group. Thus, the federal government never had an officially designated religious denomination, or state church.


If there was any concurrence on this issue, it was a universal distrust of the Church of England. To say the colonists were hyper-sensitive on this issue is an understatement. Almost all the colonists traced their roots to groups of people fleeing England primarily because they did not conform to the Church of England. While Virginians and other Southerners had stronger affiliation to the Church of England, they would agree with their northern brethren that the state church could be used by the Crown to circumvent local legislatures and the free practice of thought they had been increasingly fond of.


Which leads to the second aspect of this debate – freedom of conscience. The revolutionaries were fully aware that freedom of religion was tied to freedom of conscience. Bind the practice of religion and you will soon be restricting freedom of thought. This was no more profoundly evident in the broader debates, such as the nature of man, laws of nature and inalienable rights. The question of whether human beings could be trusted to govern themselves was tied intimately with whether a man could govern himself. Concepts of fairness and justice were also tied to religion. The proper rearing of children shaped education.5


In essence, religion was not in a distinct sphere from governance, but integrated into the very people who were citizens of the republic. Religious principles colored the debate on almost every aspect of the founding of the nation, from how legislatures conducted business to “inalienable rights”, limits to power and written constitutions. Yet the colonists were taking a radical departure by not declaring an official state church, something unseen in Europe.

Stamp Act Protest Stamp Act Protest

Democracy Unleashed


It can’t be emphasized more strongly to the reader that the American Revolution was more than a conflict, but a literal explosion of ideas and institutions unknown to mankind. We need to note that people like John Wilkes was denied a seat in Parliament because he represented what many construed as anarchy, the extension of voting rights to ignorant people driven by animal instincts. Their concerns were well-grounded, given the horror that would unwrap in France in 1789. Europe would deal with mob actions in 1832 and 1848, and countless times afterward, because they feared and experienced the worst in humanity. Give these people the vote? You can’t be serious.


But the American experience was far different. As was noted previously, the colonists had considerable experience in self-governance, and their need for self-reliance was such that they had to contrive solutions that similar folk in Europe had neither the need or luxury to pursue. The colonists were fully aware of this uniqueness.


What concerned many, however, was that they all knew how easily a mob could translate to tyranny, well before the French Revolution would prove the point. The question they had to answer was how to construct a form of government that would prevent the likelihood of mob democracy from turning into an authoritarian state run by rogues and villains.6 An undercurrent of this concern was the mob action that ensued from the implementation of the Stamp Act in 1765. While protesting crowds were welcomed by colonial activists, the violence against British officials and the destruction of property were not welcomed (does this sound familiar?). Mobs do not bring justice. One only has to look at John Adams to see where the founders stood on this. He defended the soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre.


The colonists had to address this question in much the same way as they had approached everything else – tradition. The revolution was not only going to dissolve a monarchy, it was also replacing a regime in Parliament and the Crown based on the presence of a “nobility.” Despite all the faults of Parliament, it was evident that the members of Parliament were far preferable to that of the peasantry. To run a country one required some attachment to its prosperity and to be knowledgeable. The peasantry (and a fledgling working class) had no such capabilities. America was no different and it is for this reason that the voting franchise was not universal amongst white men until the mid-19th century. Impelled to avoid mob-based democracy, the founders had to inject some element of “nobility” into governance.


What symbolized the nobility was the House of Lords, but at that time the House of Commons was largely consisting of similar stock. Yet the colonists saw a hint of what could be designed into their constitutions, an institution that did not operate on a mob impulse, whose members were selected under different terms. Thus would emerge the idea of a “senate”, whose members served different terms of service and whose selection was not based on pure democracy. Most of the revolutionaries would not have favored “life peerage” (as with the House of Lords), but definitely more long term service than of other elected officials.7 The Senate could address several concerns. First, it would deflect mob rule by extending terms from two years to six. Further, it would stagger those terms. Third, the positions were appointed, not elected per se. The state legislatures would elect their senator to represent the interests of the state. In other words, the new federal government would be a republic, not a pure democracy.


An added element for combating mob rule and the devolution toward tyranny was that the American constitution, unlike the British, would be on paper. Again, remember the context of history. What hope did principles inked onto parchment have against the whims of human nature? A strong executive and the Rule of Law. As history would demonstrate, the understanding of exactly what powers the executive would possess and how it could be controlled were not worked out until 1787. It is interesting to note that historians have observed that the U.S. President was not a powerful executive. With the exception of Abraham Lincoln, presidents were generally functioning literally as the constitution described – as enforcers of laws written by the legislature. It would not be until Franklin Roosevelt that you would begin to see an executive that could extend power to the degree we commonly understand today. The executive and the Rule of Law were inextricably tied together. There were few “executive orders” and the regulating bureaucracy would not emerge until the administration of Theodore Roosevelt.


So it is fair to say that Americans would struggle to find a balance to determine an executive office with sufficient powers to enforce the Rule of Law. The constitution itself was designed to make any changes to the government a deliberate and slow process requiring a broad consensus.

Election Day: George Caleb Bingham Election Day: George Caleb Bingham

A Social Revolution


A social revolution is a transformation of the citizenry: their values, their vision, their way of life. Was a social revolution an unintended consequence? A social revolution was not a conscious aspect of the American Revolution. Or was it?


Bailyn would begin this discussion pointing to something peculiar to the American experience – evangelical revivalism. While England also experienced religious revivals, it was always offset by the established institutions that did not give ground easily. In America, little or none of that existed. First, the Puritans were able to establish their idea of governance, projecting their experience in congregational governance to municipal self-governance. This transition was unknown in England. Then came the Great Awakening of the early 18th century, the first major revival in North America, an event that penetrated every aspect of colonial society. Rich and poor, farmer and shopkeeper, all shared in one event. These two factors “created challenges to the traditional notions of social stratification by generating the conviction that the ultimate quality of men was to be found elsewhere than in their external condition, and that a cosmic achievement lay within each man’s grasp.”8


For the Christian, the fundamental problem in the years prior to the revolution was justifying disobedience to secular authority. Later, how could a society that is largely “Christian” justify open revolt? Obedience to secular authority is, at first glance, directly instructed in at least two parts of the New Testament, as well as examples of submission demonstrated throughout the gospels and the epistles. So how does one get to this point, when fundamental rights being violated warrant a “duty to God and religion, to themselves, to the community, and to unborn posterity ... to assert and defend their rights by all lawful, most prudent, and effectual means in their power.”9


The answer lay amongst themselves. When the colonies were first formed, the colonists did not desire to have the Church of England involved in their affairs. But they still felt compelled to have a designated official denomination. This subject of the state church was hotly debated. As long as they had a place to run to, “heretics” could be shown the door and expected to leave town. But as the colonies populated and diversified, exile became increasingly impractical. Even when “remote”, their remoteness was not good enough as the Virginian House of Burgesses would discover, forming the first official declarations that affirmed the right of each person to practice their religion. It would be the non-established denominations that would voice the objection – “we are accountable to none but Christ.” It would connect the dots to an ideological imperative – that “liberty is the fundamental principle of our establishment.”10


This point can’t be over-emphasized. Europe had spent the previous 200 years racked by religious wars. The colonists solving this problem amongst themselves was no small thing. They had succeeded where every other western society had failed.


It would be the religious bent that would add a peculiar twist to the subject of “rights,” rights that were not granted by a government or inherited by status, but innate in each man. Richard Bland would note that social standing in America was derived from character, not appointed.


“Perhaps it is owing to this accidental manner of becoming rich that wealth does not obtain the same degree of influence here which it does in the old countries. Rank, at present, in America is derived more from qualifications than property; a sound moral character, amiable manners, and firmness in principle ...”11


It follows that one moral aspect of a politician is that they are to serve the needs of the people. “Submission” was not to a person or even to an institution, but to the laws that govern all. The religious colonists got into their heads the notion that what they submitted to were not persons, but laws. The “governing authority” were the People who wrote the laws.


To say that the opposite was true in Britain is not fair to them. As has been noted at the beginning, much of the foundation of American ideology was derived from thinkers and innovators in Britain. Reading the debates in Parliament from 1764 onward it was evident that many of the members of Parliament were fully aware of both the content and the merit of the colonist objections. Yet some in Parliament were also aware that something more fundamental had evolved in the colonies and, unfortunately, they were the minority in Parliament. But the experience of the 7 Years War had cross-pollinated the two sides of the Atlantic. Returning to Britain were British officers and administrators who had noted that the colonists went about their business much differently than that of Britain.


First, the concept of status through ownership of property. In Britain, property was largely inherited and granted by favor of the monarch, and through such access to political power. In America, ultimately, it was based on merit, earned by every succeeding generation. Membership to the colonial assemblies was largely based on minimal property requirements.


Second, the dynamism of wealth generation. Britain was just beginning the Industrial Revolution and it’s political structure still reflected a rigid social ladder born from the pre-industrial age. America had no structure of the sort. Wealth could be based on commerce, manufacturing or agriculture. Would it have been possible for a man like Benjamin Franklin to have risen from that of a print-setter to a statesman in Britain? Yet his story was rather common in America.


Third, the religious element in the political discourse. The fact that 13 of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were Presbyterians says enough. There was an organic aspect of representation, based not on birth, but on the alchemy of character, intelligence and wit. Yes – this was an environment totally alien to the experience of the typical British MP.




I had to go back to the title of Bailyn’s chapter to bring all these things together. A “contagion” implies a number of things. First, there is the a general agreement as to what is the contagion. In this case, the willingness to bear arms against the British and sustain a prolonged campaign for independence. The fight for liberty could be a good thing. But contagions are generally uncontrollable. They seem to have a life of their own and can travel in unexpected directions.


The colonists were introducing to the world immeasurables. First and foremost was what I would call the “instrument of legitimacy.” Britain had history, tradition and the ruminants of feudalism that had defined how power was applied. The colonists were daring to replace all of that with democracy. This was not a limited democracy that was practiced in Britain and other parts of Europe, but a broad-based populist democracy.


Which leads to other uncontrollable aspect of this contagion – human nature. Could the common man be trusted to rule? For Europeans, and even many Americans, there was a genuine fear of the mob, what would later be referred to as “tyranny of the majority.” This would be born out in the French Revolution of 1789. The colonists worked hard at constructing a government that would avoid that eventuality. But would this succeed?


This revolution was also unique in that it was a secular government that was being proposed with no official state church, a concept totally alien to Europe. We take for granted that secular rule was inevitable, but Europe had shrouded its powerful monarchs with a state-controlled church. It is interesting to see how much of the colonies were settled by nonconformists, people who belonged to independent denominations: Congregationalists (Puritans), Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Quakers and Mennonites. Even some of the first Catholics were “independent”, being discarded from Britain. And the colonies will become a safe haven for Jews. Amongst this mixture it was impossible to declare or design a state church. So a unique solution was being offered, a solution that encouraged the practice of faith but without state endorsement or compulsion. Many in Europe were skeptical this would work because they surmised that a person’s belief in God shaped their obedience to the monarch and the state he represented.


And all these uncertainties would be guided by a piece of paper. If anything, that was the most revolutionary thought of all. Europe had centuries of proving one thing – that power mattered. Power was necessary to control the mob, to bring order from the chaos. The colonists were viewed by many as naive to think that a mass of humanity could be governed by a piece of paper. A written constitution was not new to Europe, but having it be the foundation of your government was. It’s authority rested not in a powerful executive, but in a consensus that laws had a self-contained authority resting on the consent of the governed. This was a daring, new algebra of governance.


Bailyn’s introduction of slavery into this discussion points to one important insight – that these revolutionary concepts were under severe testing by the problem of slavery. Europe would watch and observe America for decades, skeptical that the experiment of democracy and republican government would work. As the nation divided in 1861, it appeared that the great experiment of constitutional democracy was going to fail. It was no accident that Lincoln ended the Gettysburg Address with this phrase: “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” A lot was a stake in November 1863 when Lincoln spoke those words. The Union cause was that slavery, if it was ever to end, was to end through the will of the governed, through the Rule of Law.


1The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, by Bernard Bailyn, p. 230. Henceforth, the book will be referred to as IOAR

2IOAR, p. 231

3IOAR, p. 235

4IOAR, p. 241. Both the British and the US government would abolish the overseas slave trade by 1808.

5IOAR, p. 266

6IOAR, p. 273

7IOAR, p. 279

8IOAR, p. 303

9IOAR, p. 304. Not altogether clear who Bailyn is citing, but most likely Stephen Johnson, Some Important Observations, 1766.

10“Establishment” refers in this sense to an established church. Colonists were defining as “establishment” any church of their choice, thus the “liberty” to choose for oneself. Quote was sited on IOAR, p. 306

11IOAR, p. 308. Richard Bland was cited from a pamphlet he wrote in 1766.

By Eric Niewoehner

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