The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution by Bernard Bailyn
Belknap Press; 416 pp., $26.50
In 1964, Richard Hofstadter wrote “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” an essay which sought to place the extreme right wing of his time in the context of an old and recurrent political phenomenon. Hofstadter argued that a similar kind of paranoia emerges in fringe groups throughout American history. This is what links a man like Senator McCarthy, and an organization like The John Birch Society, to anti-Masonic conspiracy theorists of the 19th century. The keynotes of this style are an apocalyptic frame of reference (the paranoid spokesman “traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values”), an intolerance for compromise, and a strikingly personal view of history. Decisive events are always the product of someone’s will, rather than the haphazard interaction of many complicated factors. Hofstadter concluded his essay with the suggestion that there is something in our “national inheritance” particularly conducive to paranoid thinking. With the rise of the Tea Party movement over the past year, left-leaning analysts have tried to portray the new climate of right-wing protest as the latest iteration of this mental strain.
Notably, Hofstadter began at the turn of the 19th century (well after the Declaration of Independence) with the spread of anti-Masonic tracts in New England. He did not begin with the American Revolution, not only our nation’s most formative event but the biggest efflorescence of conspiracy theorizing in North American history. The Revolution was not merely a decorous yet passionate conflict over Enlightenment universals and constitutional niceties, as it’s come to be regarded. It was driven by “an escalating mutuality of conspiratorial fears.” As Bernard Bailyn showed in 1965, one year after Hofstadter wrote his essay, colonial leaders believed in a comprehensive, pan-Atlantic plot against liberty, of which “the oppression in America was only the most immediately visible part.” British officials in the colonies, meanwhile, located the source of conflict in a “secret, power-hungry cabal” that had remained nominally faithful to the crown while diligently working for independence. As Samuel Huntington wrote after reading Bailyn, conspiracy theories were the “midwife” in the birth of the United States.
Bailyn was the editor of Harvard’s massive anthology of Revolutionary pamphlets, published in 1965. His 200-page introduction was expanded two years later into a Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. The title may seem straightforward, but in its professional context it was rather combative. Bailyn, a member of the Army Signal Corps in the Second World War, was part of the intellectual boom funded by the G.I. Bill of Rights. He earned his Ph.D. in the early 1950s at Harvard, where, according to Jack Rakove, “two . . . giants of progressive historiography”—Arthur M. Schlesinger and Charles Beard—still influenced the understanding of the Revolutionary era. In the first half of the 20th century, a progressive interpretation was above all an economic one, Marxian in its emphasis on class conflict, although progressive historians tried to establish their American bona fides by quoting James Madison (in Federalist No. 10) on the material basis of factionalism. Bailyn opposed these historians, and the title of his book can be rearranged to make this clearer: the origins of the Revolution, for him, were principally based in ideology.
Bailyn’s book had the curious fate of becoming canonical without having its conclusions absorbed by the middlebrow public or by humanities professors outside of history departments. This is probably because his analysis relies on an era of English history that few Americans know anything about. As he explained in an essay on the eve of the bicentennial, his work on the Revolution tried to correct “the striking incoherence” at the center of the accepted interpretation—“or bundle of interpretations”—of the generation that preceded him.
On the one hand, there was the progressive understanding of Schlesinger and Beard; on the other, historians who stressed the elemental power of Enlightenment ideas. (Some historians, such as Carl Becker, managed to straddle both trends.) The notion that Enlightenment universals directly shaped the Revolution has survived from the early 20th century to become one of the dominant theories among educated lay people (and attractive as a rejoinder to the religious right). Bailyn mocked the crudeness of earlier historians in ways that still apply to popular writing: “Somehow, through a process that was never explained . . . the abstractions propounded in the texts of the philosophes were transformed into political and psychological imperatives when certain actions were taken by the English government, and the result was resistance and revolution.”
According to Bailyn, previous historians failed “to establish with any precision” how articulated belief translated into political behavior because they missed the entirety of the colonists’ mental furniture. They neglected “the foreground of people’s minds,” their “map of social reality,” which was constituted by a set of immediate, commonplace, and compelling ideas not synonymous with the abstractions of Enlightenment thinkers. In a chapter of Origins called the “Sources and Traditions,” Bailyn describes the Revolutionary ideology as a synthesis of five main currents: classical literature, especially of the Romans around the fall of the Republic; Enlightenment theorists—above all Locke, who was widely quoted by both patriots and loyalists; the tradition of English common law; New England Puritanism and covenant theology; and finally, the radical thought of the English Civil War and Commonwealth period, particularly the early 18th-century modifiers of this tradition.
The last current is the key to Bailyn’s argument. His research showed that Enlightenment ideas, while they formed “the deep background and [gave] a general coloration to the liberal beliefs of the time,” did not have a direct influence on the American responses in the 1760s and 70s. Instead, it was the radical opposition in England, the indefatigable critics of “court” power and ministerial corruption, who had a uniquely determinative effect on the behavior of the colonists.
This opposition had its origins in the 17th-century Civil War and the years of Cromwell’s rule. It was a time of bitter factionalism, pitting not only Parliamentarians against Royalists but also lesser groups against each other. Civil disorder was a fertile environment for the development of English liberal ideology. John Milton wrote tracts on tyrannicide and freedom of expression; Edmund Ludlow promoted republican reforms and separation of powers; James Harrington imported a new kind of humanism into English political thought. The most important figure was Algernon Sidney. His Discourses Concerning Government, which prefigured Thomas Jefferson’s ideas about the need for periodic rebellion, led to his execution after the monarchy was restored. The book became, in Caroline Robbins’ words, “a Bible” to the American Revolutionaries.
After the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which saw William of Orange and a band of Parliamentarians overthrow King James II, English politics entered a period of remarkable stability and complacency. The supremacy of Parliament became enshrined in the Declaration of Rights, which William was forced to honor before he could take the throne. The British were extremely proud of the ensuing form of government. The philosopher John Toland (quoted by Gordon S. Wood) averred that the Glorious Revolution “settl’d the Monarchy for the future . . . under such wise Regulations as are most likely to continue it forever.” His words were typical of the self-admiration of the age—an admiration that infected major European thinkers in the following century. Montesquieu famously analyzed England’s constitution in The Spirit of the Laws (1748) and declared the country “the freest” that existed in the world.
A “constitution,” in modern usage, refers to a written blueprint for government. The 18th-century definition was more complicated. The English constitution meant the actually existing laws and institutions, coupled with (unwritten) animating principles. As Bailyn explained in the Charles K. Colver Lectures at Brown University, Englishmen attributed the stability of the age to the wisdom of their constitution, particularly to the balance of power that had been achieved among the different socio-constitutional entities: monarchy, aristocracy, and commons. Although each entity, if permitted to rule in its own right, would quickly degenerate into its oppressive counterpart (tyranny, oligarchy, and mob rule, respectively), it was commonly believed that England had managed to counterpoise the elements in such a way that arbitrary power was eliminated, and with it, political volatility. This interpretation of England’s constitution—that of a prudently balanced “mixed government”—was so widely accepted, according to Bailyn, that it constituted less an idea than a reflex.
Yet the interpretation was, if not a fiction, then something of a delusion. The 18th century was a transitional period between royal dominance and the supremacy of the House of Commons. But while the power of the crown may have been diminished, it still exercised an indirect control over the government. Far from being subordinate to the Commons and Lords, the crown worked with and manipulated elements in both houses “to achieve in effect a mastery of the whole government.” This was made possible by the growth of Cabinet power and the expansion of sinecures, pensions, and military posts which tied parliamentary officeholders to the crown. Representatives were generally inclined to support the king’s administration, but many who did not immediately fall into line could be controlled through crown patronage or the lure of electioneering funds. The technical term for these procedures was “influence.” They comprised, according to Bailyn, “a private, informal constitution,” which reached its apotheosis during the administration of Robert Walpole (1721-1742), the first prime minister of England.
Whigs and Tories, the two main political parties, generally exulted in the surface stability brought about by these conventions. There was a small group of radical Whigs, however, who “viciously and continuously” denounced the manipulation of Parliament and the “dissolution of the age that permitted it.” They were journalists, pamphleteers, and opposition politicians who were dissatisfied with the reforms of the Glorious Revolution and kept in mind the exhilarating republican promise of the Civil War period. Their obsessive concern was the king’s Cabinet, who had the power to corrupt the legislature and overthrow the proper balance of the constitution. At once radical and reactionary, they called for an increase in religious freedom and an extension of voting rights while blasting the cultural changes that arrived with the maturation of the British Empire.
These Whigs were powerless to change anything in their own country. (As Robbins bluntly writes, “No achievements in England of any consequence can be credited to them.”) But where they fulminated at the margins of English politics, their vision came to occupy a prominent place in the colonies, where “an altered condition of life” made their seemingly extreme and dislocating ideas sound like “simple statements of fact.”
The most important Whigs were John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon. They joined together on a weekly publication, the Independent Whig, which was best known for its attacks on the establishment of religion. Later they collaborated on Cato’s Letters, a collection of libertarian tracts, first published in 1720. The American colonists, habituated to self-government and yet forced to live with an unseen and uncontrollable sovereign, devoured their writings en masse. The stubborn clarity and alienated grandeur of these journalists became a typical style of Revolutionary pamphlets. (“Brand those as enemies to human society, who are enemies to equal and impartial liberty.”) On an intellectual level, the Revolutionaries absorbed from Cato’s Letters an extreme interpretation of the English constitution, which saw the changing norms of representation and sovereignty as a subversion of ancient principles.
Well before the Stamp Act of 1765, Parliament had moved away from the notion that a representative was essentially an attorney for local interests. The great cry of “No taxation without representation!” fell on parliamentary ears as a false protest. In England, representation was held to be virtual rather than actual. Bailyn quotes Edmund Burke, who argued that Parliament was not “a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests, which interests each must maintain . . . [but] a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole.” The colonists, living in semi-autonomous settlements, had drifted back towards medieval notions of representation, with delegates bound to local priorities. They scoffed at the idea of being “virtually” represented in Parliament.
The radical Whigs, who had inveighed against “virtual” representation in the decades before the American crisis, convinced the colonists of the validity of their complaint. Trenchard wrote that originally—in the medieval past—the “great Point of Nicety and Care in forming the Constitution” was the harmony of interests between delegates and their constituents. Leaders in the colonies believed him. It was why they could argue, in good faith, that they were protesting on behalf of the English constitution.
The radical Whigs also observed, in the aftermath of the Civil War and the Glorious Revolution, a permutation in the idea of sovereignty, from an authority limited by its legal and religious origins to an arbitrary and undivided unit of power, “higher in legal authority than any other power, subject to no law, a law unto itself.” (The technicality that this power resided with Parliament instead of the king failed to conciliate them.) Naturally there emerged, in these opposition circles, a metaphysical concept of power, characterized by a kind of reverse entropy: “an endlessly propulsive tendency to expand itself beyond legitimate boundaries.” Power, for them, was essentially “the human control of human life,” and it was always suspect. It might be a necessary byproduct of government, but it must be checked “in every way compatible” with a functioning civil order.
Unsurprisingly, the spirit of this notion remains familiar. It was one of the central drives of the American Revolution, even though it had little influence in England at the time. As Bailyn writes, “Written constitutions; the separation of powers; bills of rights; limitations on executives, on legislatures, and courts; restrictions on the right to coerce and to wage war”—all found their impetus, if not their exclusive intellectual source, in the profound distrust of power that was transmitted to the colonists from the radical Whigs.
The importance of this group is still overlooked. The first chapter of Mark Levin’s bestselling Liberty and Tyranny (2009) takes the form of a lecture on modern liberalism’s infidelity to founding principles. On his way there he gives a crash course on the ideology of the American Revolution:
The Founders were heavily influenced by certain philosophers, among them Adam Smith (spontaneous order), Charles Montesquieu (separation of powers), and especially John Locke (natural rights); they were also influenced by their faiths, personal experiences, and knowledge of history (including the rise and fall of the Roman Empire).
Levin is writing for a general readership and is not trying to be exhaustive. Still, it is a little strange that—more than 40 years after Origins was published—so much popular writing neglects to cite the most salient thinkers in the minds of the Founders.
Whatever his differences with Enlightenment-centric historians, Bailyn agreed with them that ideas, reasons, belief—“the whole realm of intellection and conviction”—can constitute motives, even overriding ones. The progressive historians, by contrast, sought to look beyond external rationalizations in order to identify the economic self-interest underlying political behavior. In Schlesinger’s words, the economic interpretation was “an effort to explain . . . the deep-flowing currents moving underneath the surface of the past.”
In his hugely influential Colonial Merchants and the American Revolution (1918), Schlesinger tried to access those currents. He thrust aside the constitutional driftwood in the official papers, searching for the true source of malcontent. He argued that the merchant class was “threatened with bankruptcy by the Parliamentary legislation of 1764-1765,” and as a result of this threat became the prime movers of Revolutionary agitation. As he elaborated in New Viewpoints in American History (1922), the merchants tried initially to organize peaceful resistance but unwittingly found themselves releasing “disruptive forces, which like Frankenstein’s monster” they found difficult to control. (Such forces were composed of political radicals and lower-class egalitarians.) Many merchants, alarmed by the growing power of the radicals and “the drift of events towards lawlessness,” openly sided with the British in the final crises of the 1770s. Many others became “passive spectators or secret abettors” of the mother country. Schlesinger then followed Beard in arguing that, after Independence, wealthy interests launched a “conservative counter-revolution” with the creation of the Constitution in 1787. The disruptive forces—the egalitarian djinnis, so to speak—were successfully put back into the bottle.
That was the general narrative of the progressive school. It stressed, to modify Carl Becker’s famous line, that the war was not only about home rule, but also about who would rule at home. The interpretation achieved dominance in the first half of the 20th century at many universities, and it remains familiar on campuses to this day. Among historians, however, the Schlesinger-Beard axis became the subject of intense criticism by 1950. Bailyn followed the development of this criticism for over a decade, until, in 1965, he wrote a gloating review in the Journal of Economic History which all but declared the progressive interpretation bankrupt. Bailyn argued that Arthur Jensen’s study of Philadelphia commerce had proven Schlesinger’s story wrong on essential points: the merchants did not form a “class,” their grievances had been much the same before 1763 as they were after, and in any case the merchants rarely blamed their financial troubles on British commercial policies after 1763. Jensen, who, unlike Schlesinger, tended to focus on the merchants’ day books and commercial correspondence, concluded that their economic concerns were less relevant than their ideological and constitutional beliefs. “It is difficult to see how the constitutional question can be lightly dismissed as mere window dressing for the more fundamental economic question,” Jensen wrote, “when there is an impressive amount of testimony, private as well as public, to the contrary.”
Unlike Jensen, Bailyn didn’t merely rebut the progressive historians; he offered an alternative vision—an argument in itself—which placed the Whiggish fear of “power” at the center of the story. He became the dean of the “neo-Whig” school of Revolutionary historians, a group which promoted, in Bailyn’s words, a “rather old-fashioned view that the American Revolution was above all else an ideological, constitutional, political struggle and not primarily a controversy between social groups.”
Bailyn’s interpretation has had remarkable staying power, and in the decades since 1965 it has not experienced anything like the wholesale upending that befell the progressive school. Quite the opposite. “In the two decades that followed [Bailyn’s book],” Forrest McDonald wrote, “ideological interpretation of the whole sweep of American history from the 1760s to the 1840s expanded into a veritable cottage industry.”
For all its hardiness, though, Bailyn’s interpretation has a distinct shortcoming. It can resemble a nature-over-nurture argument in which nurture is barely mentioned. Bailyn is so focused on establishing the consequence of ideas that he neglects economic realities. (He cites Jensen’s critique of Schlesinger in the footnotes, but does not engage the economic arguments himself.) This would not be a serious criticism if Bailyn were merely trying to identify the ideological influences on the Founders. But as the introduction to Origins indicates, he wants to establish ideology as the main reason the Revolution moved forward at the time and place that it did.
Bailyn’s legacy rests on three related points. He demonstrated the crucial impact of the radical Whigs; he brought to light the colonial fear of “power” and “conspiracy” at the heart of the Revolution; and he gave us a renewed understanding of the seemingly extravagant language of the Revolutionaries. As Bailyn saw it, the progressive historians were often wrong about colonial motivations because they misconstrued the testimony of those involved. These historians wrote in the early 20th century, under the potent new influence of Marxism and psychoanalysis, which taught them to hunt for deception and rationalization in language. Moreover, the experience of the First World War (and specifically Germany’s role in it) put the concept of “propaganda” at the forefront of their minds. This kind of intellectual environment—with its tendency to think in terms of fraudulent rhetoric and underlying reality—collided with a grandiloquent 18th century and introduced a large amount of distortion into historical analysis. As Gordon Wood wrote:
When the entire body of Revolutionary thinking was examined, these [progressive] historians could not avoid being struck by its generally bombastic and overwrought quality. The ideas expressed seemed so inflated, such obvious exaggerations of reality, that they could scarcely be taken seriously. The Tories were all “wretched hirelings, and execrable parricides”; George III, the “tyrant of the earth,” a “monster in human form”; the British soldiers, “a mercenary, licentious rabble of banditi,” intending to “tear the bowels and vitals of their brave but peaceable fellow subjects, and to wash the ground with a profusion of innocent blood.
In the face of such rhetorical fireworks, the progressive historians concluded that the more extravagant fears of the Revolutionary leadership were “propagandistic weapons” deliberately devised to manipulate public opinion. These historians believed that “scientific historical detachment” endorsed a cynical view of colonial leaders, many of whom were purposely spreading false rumors of impending tyranny.
The historians could embrace this “cynical” interpretation because they were not familiar with the intellectual inheritance of the Revolutionaries. They did not properly appreciate the radical Whig ideology that predisposed the colonists to interpret every British misstep as evidence of a calculated plot. This lack of familiarity also meant a deficient understanding of contemporary political terminology. Many words and phrases that now seem like rhetorical cudgels were actually technical terms in Whig political science.
Take the frequency of the word “slavery” in Revolutionary literature. Jefferson warned of “a deliberate, systematical plan of reducing us to slavery.” Hamilton argued that “the system of slavery fabricated against America . . . is the offspring of mature deliberation.” John Adams spoke of “a direct and formal design . . . to enslave all America.” While slavery, in modern usage, has come to mean chattel slavery, or the moveable possession of one human being by another, the Revolutionaries often used the word to indicate a broader political condition. Slavery, for them, could mean subjection to arbitrary government and the loss of self-determination, “a condition characteristic of the lives of contemporary Frenchmen, Danes, and Swedes as well as of Turks, Russians, and Poles.” When a 1786 item in the Providence Gazette & County Journal (cited by Forrest McDonald) calculated that “slaves are three and twenty times more numerous than men enjoying, in any tolerable degree, the rights of human nature,” the author was defining a “slave” as anyone living under arbitrary or despotic rule.
This is not to say there was no overheated rhetoric from the patriots, but that rhetoric should not distract from a common core of sincerity on their side. A belief in a conspiracy against American liberties, first regularly formed by the British in 1763 or 1764, was expressed by hundreds of prominent colonists, in both public writing and private correspondence. It was almost universal among supporters of the patriot cause, and it even shows up as an obsessive concern in the diaries of the age.
We are so used to shorthand accounts of the Revolution that talk of “conspiracy” may be puzzling. Consider a recent political advertisement by Rick Barber, an Alabama congressional candidate and Tea Party favorite. He exclaims to a group of actors dressed up as George Washington, Ben Franklin, and Samuel Adams: “You, gentlemen, revolted over a tea tax! A tea tax! Now look at us.” It is a familiar capsule summary that we no longer recognize as any kind of capsule at all. In reality, as Charles McIlwain once observed, the controversy over taxation and representation was just one incident in a much broader ideological and constitutional struggle.
Bailyn discusses a series of now-obscure trends and incidents, necessarily downplayed by the economic interpretation, which helped to generate a “logic of rebellion” leading to independence. Two years before the Stamp Act of 1765, leaders of public opinion in New England became convinced of a secret design to establish an American episcopate (which would’ve meant having to contend with the power and influence of Anglican bishops in the colonies). At roughly the same time, Britain denied life tenure to colonial judges, which had been guaranteed to the English judiciary since 1701. This, in turn, coincided with the expansion of vice-admiralty courts—“prerogative courts composed not of juries but of single judges,” whose posts were filled according to the political whims of royal governors. These latter developments touched all the colonies, and their assemblies boiled with a fury that was scarcely noted by progressive historians.
Perhaps more important was the “sudden expansion” of customs officers and other colonial posts in some way connected to the crown. The trend had begun as far back as the 1750s but had accelerated in the 1760s on account of the new tax measures. The Americans charged that the Board of Customs Commissioners, created by Parliament in 1767, had the power to create an “almost incredible number of inferior officers” who could interfere both with economic activity and the normal functioning of government. The pamphlet literature of the late 1760s and early 1770s makes it seem as if the colonies were under invasion by an alien horde. The colonists deeply resented the authority of this class of—pick your favorite designation—“baneful harpies,” “idle drones,” “base-spirited wretches,” and “lazy, proud, worthless pensioners and placemen.”
To men and women steeped in the radical Whig literature, with its paranoiac vigilance against ministerial corruption and executive overreach, the invasion of the “placemen” was a menacing and intolerable threat to constitutional government. A related threat was posed by the royal governors, who possessed executive powers that, on paper at least, often surpassed those of the king in England. Governor Hutchinson of Massachusetts retained precisely those kingly powers that “after the Glorious Revolution had been eliminated as excessive”: the power to veto a bill, to dismiss a difficult Assembly, and to block the election of opposition figures to certain posts.
The colonists—especially John Adams—were morbidly preoccupied with this apparent consolidation of power. In actual fact, the royal governors were much weaker than most contemporaries realized. Colonial assemblies, over the course of half a century, had divested the governors of the power of patronage which so successfully stifled dissent in England. This lack of patronage made them dependent on representative legislatures. As Edmund Morgan wrote, “[i]n this disparity between the nominal power and actual power of the royal governor, Professor Bailyn found a key to the paranoid character of colonial politics, in which colonists detected in every move of the executive to exercise his nominal powers a conspiracy to deprive them of their liberties.” Naturally, the attempts at exercising such powers tended to increase with mounting civil disorder, creating a feedback loop of protest.
The threat of established religion, the corruption of the judiciary, the onslaught of placemen, the exercise of the governor’s nominal powers, the standing armies dispatched after the Stamp Act riots, the familiar controversies over taxation and representation—these were, as Bailyn writes, “major evidences of a deliberate assault of power upon liberty.” Even John Dickinson, the Pennsylvanian lawyer who was the most “cautious and reluctant” of the Revolutionaries, vigorously expressed a belief in conspiracy.
In essence, Bailyn was returning to an explanation that some of the shrewdest minds in England had put forth. He quotes Edmund Burke, who said: “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.”
Bailyn acquired a dubious reputation among left-wing historians, not only because he put forth “a rather old-fashioned view” that the Revolution was above all else an ideological and constitutional struggle, but also because his writing can have an undeniably apologetic edge. At times he seems exasperated by those who see the continuation of black slavery as the most significant aspect of the Revolutionary era. In his bicentennial essay he wrote that to condemn the Founders “for having tolerated and perpetuated a society that rested on slavery is to expect them to have been able to transcend altogether the limitations of their own age.” His most pointed defense came at the beginning of the 1998 Jefferson Lecture for The National Endowment of the Humanities. The now-fashionable tendency to mock the Founders, he said, was “the worst kind of condescension” because it comes from modern people “complacently enjoying their successes.”
Bailyn’s work, however, should not be relegated to the national cult of Founder worship. It simply cannot function as a security blanket for patriots, and it sits awkwardly on the shelf next to William Bennett’s The Last Best Hope or anything recommended by Glenn Beck. Bailyn answered the progressive historians by pointing to the ideological sincerity of the colonists. But this sincerity is not always flattering or recognizable. The Founders revealed by his meticulous research are often very strange in their political metaphysics and conspiracy theorizing. Bailyn saved the Founders from the charge of cynicism, at the price of making them paranoid.
In Origins, Bailyn uses the word “paranoia” only once or twice, suggesting the concept mostly by implication. While he thoroughly reconstructs the colonial mind, leaving the reader with a firm grasp of its most common reflexes and bedrock assumptions, he neglects the question of whether the Founders were, as a matter of historical fact, correct in their conspiratorial views. It was not until later in his career that he faced this question more directly. In The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson, a surprisingly sympathetic account of the loyalist side of the Revolution, Bailyn chronicles how the Massachusetts governor was innocent of many, if not most, of the charges leveled against him. Edmund Morgan observed in The New York Review of Books that this study revealed “an implication of Bailyn’s previous work that we and perhaps he, had not previously fully recognized.” Morgan meant that, looking at Bailyn’s oeuvre as a whole, “[w]e are almost led to conclude that the United States was born in a fit of paranoid self-righteousness.”
Morgan’s formulation got it half right: Bailyn’s Revolutionaries are more sympathetic than the word “self-righteous” would suggest. They were, after all, keenly aware of their historically anomalous position. They inhabited a non-autocratic country in a world almost completely awash in arbitrary power; and the recent histories of nations like Sweden and Denmark were object lessons in how quickly freedom can succumb to despotism if the power of the executive is not sufficiently checked. In the context of the time, the dichotomy of liberty vs. tyranny—and the endless fixations on the intentions of the British government—did make a profound kind of sense.
Even so, talk of paranoia is inescapable. Though the Revolutionaries were not crazy in any literal sense—men with vastly different temperaments, from the hotheaded John Adams to the sober and self-aware John Dickinson, came to markedly similar conclusions about a conspiracy against American liberty—no other word conveys the intensity, apprehension, stubbornness, and hyper-vigilance of their dealings with Parliament and royal officials.
It is bracing to think back to Hofstadter and his keynotes for the “paranoid style”: an apocalyptic frame of reference, an intolerance for compromise, and a strikingly personal view of history. The American Revolutionaries, to varying degrees, fulfilled each one of these criteria. While the Tea Party movement has burnished Hofstadter’s reputation and sent every left-of-center commentator rushing back to his essays, a study of Bailyn demonstrates one of his major shortcomings. Hofstadter does not give the radical Whig ideology its due in the formation of the paranoid style.
Partly because of Hofstadter’s influence, liberals have responded to the Tea Party in two major ways. First, they charge that its stated grievances are not its real motivating concerns. (Alan Wolfe says these people are anxious about the cosmopolitan society being built around them.) Second, they argue that, in any case, the movement has falsely appropriated the Revolution. (“The history that Tea Partiers want to go back to is as much a fiction as the Lost Cause of the Confederacy,” wrote Jill Lepore in The New Yorker.) Both of these arguments have merit, but they obscure a deep-seated reason for the shape, form, and timing of the protests.
The U.S. has an “originalist” culture: most people, left or right, aim to justify their political preferences in the terms of a single generation of 18th-century men. The Tea Partiers, and the radical right before them, approach this task with much more earnestness than anyone else. However prone to errors of interpretation, they read founding texts with a scriptural reverence that has distinct consequences. Like fishermen trawling a net across the ocean floor, Tea Partiers find in such texts a vindication of their preferences (small government, anti-tax sentiment, state-sanctioned piety) but also pull in a bycatch of habits and reflexes that were endemic to the radical Whigs.
These habits can be tics of language. For example, no one has bothered to point out that Beck and the Tea Party are trying to revive the expansive Whig definition of slavery. When Beck condemns the Census as an attempt to “increase slavery,” and when Rick Barber describes progressive taxation as enslavement, they are uncritically reproducing the political categories of the Founders.
Other habits are more troublesome. Bailyn writes in Thomas Hutchinson that during the late 18th century “the need to find hidden malevolence was part of the very structure of opposition thought.” This need demonstrates not only the crudeness but the very enlightenment of the age. Gordon Wood built upon Bailyn’s observation and noted that the Whigs’ intense search for human agents behind events “seemed after all to be an enlightened advance over older beliefs in blind chance, providence, or God’s interventions.” It was a scientific achievement, “a product of both the popularization of politics and the secularization of knowledge.”
Needless to say, we have become more sophisticated in our analysis of social phenomena. But the people who treat the Revolutionaries with the greatest, most uncritical reverence tend to exhibit this need to find “hidden malevolence.” The threats to the Constitution are always personal; there is little discussion of the structural forces that might result in changing norms of constitutional interpretation. For Glenn Beck, the evils of our time are unfailingly linked to present actors and historical figures: Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, FDR, Barack Obama.
Most famously, the Tea Party tends to focus solely on government power, in defiance of more than a century of social science concluding that power comes in many other forms. Exactly one decade ago, the historian James Read wrote a sentence that proved unintentionally illuminating: “This [18th-century] fixation on the power of government as such, in a way that crowds out other kinds of problems and de-emphasizes other kinds of power, may appear odd to modern readers.” How altogether “odd” Read’s line seems, when one is living in an era of radical right protest. It must be said that the Revolutionary critique of government power was admirable and even radically liberal for its time. But the Tea Party fetishizes the intellectual perspective of the 18th century into a kind of eternal sagacity. This was clearly evident during the health-care debate, when the right wing could not admit the possibility of “rationing” in the private sector.
The U.S. has a long tradition of manic (usually right-wing) reassertion of first principles in the wake of practical compromises in a representative democracy. (Medicare, various tax hikes, the latest health care reform, etc.) Bailyn helps us to see what Hofstadter missed: this tradition is partly the consequence of the paranoid rhetoric of the Revolutionaries, their belief that even the slightest Parliamentary measure might serve as a “wedge” to uproot American liberty. The Tea Party, in its blanket adoration of the Founders, becomes prey to the intellectual vices of a vanished age.
Tim Crimmins lives in Chicago. He can be reached at timcrimmins1[at]gmail[dot]com.