The Power Of Ideas In Forming America
Why did the American colonies declare their Independence from Great Britain?Bernard Baylin's classic study, "The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution" argues that American Independence had its roots in the power of ideas -- of a rethinking of the proper role of government and a willingness to put thought into action with what became the uniquely American combination of idealism and realism. Bailyn's approach rejects certain types of other plausible explanations of the Revolution -- such as economic rivalry with the mother country or personal ambition on the part of colonial leaders --to tell his story of the origins of American ideas.
Bailyn finds the ideas that shaped the Revolution stated and debated in the ubiquitous pamphlets that appeared in the colonies between, about, 1760 -- 1776. But the source of the ideas are much deeper. Bailyn traces these ideas to the ancient Roman orators, through philosophical figures such as Locke and Vattel. The immediate source of the ideas which became America was in dissenting political thought in Great Britain in the later Seventeenth and Early Eighteenth Century following the Glorious Revolution. The concern was political corruption in the Britain of the time and the fear that the monarchy would reassert its dominance over British life. Early in the 18th century, well before the French-Indian War, these concerns found their way to the American colonies and prepared the intellectual groundwork for independence. The colonists had a real fear that what they perceived as arbitrary British actions would reduce them to slavery or vassalage.
Bailyn discusses in detail how the colonists took English political thought and applied it to the nature of representative government, constitutional thought, and the nature of divided sovereignty. He then explains how the manner in which the colonists transformed thinking about the nature of government had ramifications in the colonists' view of slavery, the disestablishment of religion, a classless society, and the nature of democracy. The intellectual transformation required for an independent United States thus occurred well before the Declaration of Independence and the Federalist Papers.
Bailyn's book is a work of detailed scholarship and not easy to read. It is a major achievement of intellectual history and will more than repay the effort. John Adams is among the major heroes of this book. Readers that want to follow-up McCollough's popular biography and learn about the ideas of the time might well explore this book. Bailyn's study affirms the power of thought and of the American experiment. In our troubled times, it may help take us back to the origins of our country to learn where we have been so that we may intelligently decide where we are going.