Provincialism and prescience in American Revolutionary thought
If you were told that an emeritus professor at Harvard had decided to stitch together several of his recent public lectures and publish them as a book, the occasion, at least on the face of it, would not compel your attention. But if the professor is historian Bernard Bailyn, and the book focuses on the creative conditions that produced the most impressive display of political thinking in American history, you are well advised to place an order at your local bookstore without further delay. What we have here is the felicitous conjunction of two powerful forces: the historian who has done as much or more than anyone else in the last 50 years to recover the mentality of our origins as a people and a nation; and that distinctive collective we have often mythologized, sometimes criticized, and usually capitalized as Founding Fathers.
A kind of electromagnetic field surrounds all conversations about the foundersa supercharged emotional and ideological atmosphere that generates wild swings between extreme assertions of love and loathing not unlike the reactions of adolescent children toward their parents. On the one hand, the most prominent members of the Revolutionary generation, like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, are the canonized secular saints of American culture, the legendary icons whom tourists worship in pilgrimages to Mount Vernon, Monticello, Mount Rushmore, and the Mall. On the other hand, the founders are the deadest-whitest-males in American history: hypocrites, chauvinists, and imperialists who failed to end slavery, endorse sexual equality, embrace racial and ethnic diversity, or treat the Native Americans justly. Jefferson is the most resonant and potent lightning rod for these competing impulses, and Bailyn devotes one essay to the tensionsat times outright contradictionsbetween Jefferson's radical principles and the personal and public actions that defied them.
But Bailyn has no desire to enlist as a combatant in the culture wars. His collection of essays begins with two assumptions: first, that the founders were all flawed creatures who can neither satisfy our appetite for otherworldly heroes nor align themselves within the moral imperatives of our modern political agenda; second, that they somehow managed, in a surge of inspired and often improvised inventiveness, to create the ideas and institutions that have not only stood the test of time, but have also become the dominant political model for success in the modern world.
Complementing the essay on Jefferson's paradoxical legacy, there is another on the creative tension between realism and idealism in early American foreign policy. These abstract categories are inherently elusive, and scholarly specialists, in what is charmingly described as "theory," have filled whole libraries with books that give erudition a bad name and that exhibit what we might, with a wink, call Kantian clarity. Bailyn avoids the transcendental fallacy by grounding his interpretations in the messy context of the late eighteenth century, when the idealistic belief that America had discovered a republican model with universal applicability had to compete with the realistic recognition that our strategic power was still embryonic. (After all, the American navy could not even subjugate the Barbary pirates.) There are a few extremely suggestive pages in this essay on America's premier diplomat in Europe, Benjamin Franklin, who became a visual metaphor for the almost infinite potential that America, unfettered by Old World presumptions about class and aristocratic privilege, was about to release on the world.
Franklin is also a convenient clue toward answering the question Bailyn finds most intriguing. The seminal essay in this collection, "Politics and the Creative Imagination," poses it explicitly: why, on the outer frontiers of Western civilization, did this explosion of political creativity occur? In addition to the invention of federalism, which defied traditional thinking about indivisible sovereignty in the nation-state, the founders defied the longstanding conviction that republican governments could work only in small areas like Swiss cantons and Greek city-states. They also challenged the belief that an established, state-supported religion was the only way to assure shared basic values within the realm. How did this provincial population, huddled on the distant edge of the British empire, produce thinkers and ideas that fundamentally transformed the landscape of modern politics?
Bailyn argues that their provincialism was the key to their prescience. In a series of juxtaposed pictures of British and American aristocrats and their respective estates, he provides visual evidence of the huge gap in status and wealth that separated the two elites. Even the wealthiest Virginia planters would have been only third-rate country squires in England. And efforts to ape the lavish lifestyles of English gentlemen only exposed the diluted and wholly derivative character of American social pretensions. Culturally, then, America's social leaders were hopelessly over-matchedpale replicas of those blooded lords and ladies at the metropolitan centers of power and sophistication in England and Europe. Politically, however, the absence of what we might call social density freed Americans from the burden of accumulated wisdom, liberating them to think freshly about power's double-edged character. Their cultural liabilities, in short, were also their political assets. When they looked back to London, they saw the superior ease and assurance of a true European-styled aristocracy, but they also saw "something atrophied, weighted down by its own complacent, self-indulgent elaboration, and vulnerable to the force of fresh energies and imaginative designs."
This is a provocative argumentdeliberately so, I suspectbut it also begs the question: how did a palpable sense of cultural inferiority get transformed into a bracing capacity for political inspiration? Elsewhere, in his discussion of Franklin's unique role as the American provincial as savant, Bailyn himself suggests an altered version of his argument that strikes me as more plausible and compelling. To wit, the political elite in America did not need to have an aristocratic pedigree. If born in London, Franklin would almost certainly have remained a struggling printer. (Hamilton, who was born a bastard, would also have languished in obscurity, and George Washington would have merely made major in the British army.) The greater fluidity and open-ended character of American society did not encourage a new way of thinking about politics so much as it permitted talented thinkers of several stripes, none of whom England would ever have noticed, to achieve prominence.
Bailyn's argument is actually richer than the variant I have offered, and in that sense is illustrative of the hallmark interpretive tendency of his professional career. Whether he is asking how those apparently lawyer-like arguments against Parliament's authority acquired those passionate ingredients that transformed them into a revolutionary ideology, as in The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, or how a small island managed to people a great continent, as he did in The Peopling of British North America, he has always demonstrated a great flair for fresh answers to big questions. (In the parlance of baseball, he is a power hitter.) At a time when professional pressures within the groves of academe seduce historians into obscure patches of tangled underbrush, he has searched out historical ground where his own imagination is free to roam. In that sense there is a beguiling affinity between his major focus in this collection of essays and his own interpretive instincts. In the end, creativity can never be fully explained (though, like pornography, we know it when we see it). Bailyn sees it and tries to explain its unexpected emergence in a cultural backwater of the British empire during the late eighteenth century. And in the process he displays the same creative imagination he seeks to understand, a mysterious and sui generis talent that is immediately recognizable within these pages.
Joseph J. Ellis, professor of history at Mount Holyoke College, is author of American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson; of Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams; and of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation. He is now preparing a book on George Washington.