The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution

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Instead, my lectures were based on a combination of material from the book, other sources, and my own work on the loyalists. I like to present my students with conflicting interpretations of the revolution, to show them how different historians have looked at the same events and publications.

Ideological Origins remains foundational to this day as an interpretation to which historians continue to react, whether or not they agree with it. That is a remarkable achievement for a book published half a century ago.

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This has never seemed right to me. This intellectual change was enabled by colonial social and political transformations that made a radical fringe element within British politics appear mainstream and sensible in an American context.

Book Review: The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, by Bernard Bailyn

In the mainland colonies of North America, however, they were immensely popular and influential. There an altered condition of life made what in England were considered to be extreme, dislocating ideas sound like simple statements of fact. The text of Ideological Origins revels in the social and material origins of its ideological claims.

Bailyn dwells on the qualities of the pamphlets themselves; their size, length, cost, and speedy production made them the delivery vehicle of choice for revolutionary ideology. I did not intend to study early American history when I entered graduate school at Harvard in , nor did I know that, back in the spring of , Professor Bailyn had won the Pulitzer Prize in History for The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution.

College seniors had many other things to worry about that spring. Book news ranked low on my list of cultural priorities. Making sense of A Space Odyssey was much more important. After two years of graduate study, however, I became a student of the American Revolution. Like so many others, I had the academic equivalent of a conversion experience in his famous seminar.


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Two stints as a teaching assistant in his lecture courses also had a big impact, because there, as in the seminar, one had to wrestle with the proper definition of good historical problems. But perhaps most important, coming to terms with Ideological Origins —making sense of its arguments and understanding how it was reopening the entire field of Revolutionary scholarship—was deeply stimulating. Here was an enterprise worth joining! Since then, I have taught Ideological Origins dozens of times. I say taught in the active sense, for when one knows a book so well, one learns that it defines problems and approaches that students just have to learn to see.

One has to say something about the historiography—an otherwise boring topic—because students need to know the differences between Progressive and neo-Whig approaches, and the peculiar difficulties that Americans face in trying to think critically about Revolutionary ideas and principles. But these are preliminary matters. They cover the first four chapters of the book, and they do allow students to work out a basic model of revolutionary causation.

19 April 2017

The Revolution occurred: a because a working ideology of attitudes and perceptions was embedded in colonial politics before thes; b this ideology provided a coherent explanation of the sources of British policy; and c this explanation became ever more compelling as successive events confirmed its accuracy. Why does this curious transition occur? Why do we retread chronological ground already covered? There are two basic answers to these questions, one straightforward, the other more complex. The preceding ideological chapters offer a political explanation of the Revolution.

The JuntoCast, Episode Bailyn’s Ideological Origins of the American Revolution « The Junto

They explain why the colonists did not view British initiatives as the mere errors of a misinformed government, but instead interpreted imperial policy as a systematic effort to deprive Americans of fundamental rights and liberties. The concept of ideology thus provides an explanation of motives. But it does not explain what the Revolutionary movement was actually about.

The progressive positions the colonists developed were not a simple matter of applying advanced Enlightenment ideas to the colonial wilderness.

Ideological Origins of the American Revolution

They came instead from the ways in which the escalating controversy enabled the revolutionaries to perceive what had already been accomplished, and to make that perception the basis for working out more advanced ideas, like the idea of written constitutions as fundamental law or the powers of sovereignty as something one could pragmatically divide between governments and not preserve in its indivisible, absolute form. In the final chapter of the original non-enlarged Ideological Origins , Bailyn inverts this method by examining areas which became surprising elements of controversy: slavery, religious freedom, and, more subtly, issues of democratization and equality.

What seems most striking about this chapter is that Bailyn gives the Loyalists the final say about what the Revolution could ultimately mean.

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Frontmatter Pages i-iv. Download PDF. Preface to the Fiftieth Anniversary Edition Pages v-xxii. Get Access to Full Text. Foreword to the Original Edition Pages xxvii-xxxiv. The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. Cambridge, Mass. Pulitzer Prize for History. Schlesinger Jr.


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