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To Begin the World Anew:
The Genius and Ambiguities of the American Founders

by bernard bailyn
knopf, 185 pages, $26

About twenty-five years ago Bernard Bailyn transformed the study of the American Revolution with his Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. He not only swept the field of major awards for history (Pulitzer and Bancroft), but set scholarship on the founding era off in directions that are still being pursued by scholars in the field. He directed attention away from the influential approach of Charles Beard, which emphasized material conditions and economic causes of the revolution, and back towards what the colonists were saying were their grievances against Britain. (Edmund Morgan was a pioneer on the path that Bailyn broadened and developed.)

However, he did not merely restore the older intellectual perspectives, which had focused either on the constitutional conflict between the British and the colonists, as in C. H. McIlwain’s The American Revolution, or on the more philosophic dimensions of their thought, as in Carl Becker’s The Declaration of Independence. Bailyn noted the constitutional and the philosophic sides of the dispute, but he argued that both of these were subordinate to another strand: Whig opposition thought, which was neither so technical as the constitutional arguments, nor so high-falutin’ as the philosophical. The Whig thinkers picked up themes of both the philosophic and constitutional sort, but joined them to a popularly compelling story of the dynamics of political life as a contest between power and liberty, oppression and freedom.

The opposition writers told themselves a story of the tendency of power to corrupt and oppress; Americans then used that story as a template to process their understanding of the events of the 1760s and 1770s. This template accounts for the alacrity and ease with which they suspected the worst from British policy and reacted in ways that produced the evils they feared. The opposition ideology caused both the extreme sensitivity of the Americans to British policy (almost a paranoid reaction, Bailyn suggested) and the degree to which the American populace mobilized in reaction to these policies. The opposition tradition had a clear and easily graspable story, readily transferred from one set of historical events to another, and it had the simplicity, along with the appeal to passion, especially anger, that could move masses.

Bailyn’s To Begin the World Anew: The Genius and Ambiguities of the American Founders is a collection of five essays, written on different occasions, but loosely held together thematically; in a manner of speaking, it constitutes a sequel to his Ideological Origins. The five essays together carry Bailyn’s story beyond the revolution and into the era of the early republic. The first and the last serve as bookends and capture his theme. The first essay takes as its point of departure the observations by the art historian Kenneth Clark on the differences between provincial and metropolitan art. The metropolitans set the standard and establish the orthodoxies that dominate the minds and taste of the well-informed. The provincials, on the periphery of things, not so well-trained, usually unable to reach the heights of the metropolitan art, are also less constrained by metropolitan orthodoxies, and become the seat and source of new creative energies and breakthroughs.

Bailyn argues that this pattern explains the remarkable “creative imagination” eighteenth-century Americans brought to politics. They were able to question the truisms that dominated British political thought, and thus set out in astonishingly new directions. They broke with the old shibboleth that sovereignty cannot be divided and thus that there must be some supremely sovereign legislative body in every independent political unit. That precept had served as the unshakeable axiom of parliamentary policy prior to the revolution, but the Americans challenged it and later overcame it with their adoption—nay, invention—of a new kind of federalism (an impossible system under the old theory) and new forms of separation of powers and guarantees for individual rights.

Perhaps because he was inspired in his thesis by an art historian, Bailyn uses art to extraordinarily good effort in this first essay. He uses the art to demonstrate the difference between metropolitan and provincial society, along with metropolitan and provincial mindsets, through a comparison of portrayals of persons and places in Britain and America in the eighteenth century. It is tempting to say a picture is worth a thousand words, but that would be to slight the contribution of Bailyn’s words, astutely calling attention to features of the paired images that make his point.

The last essay, much more prosaic, emphasizes the consequences of American political creativity by exploring the impact the American founding had in the Atlantic community. He takes issue here with a “now conventional” view “among historians . . . that after a brief flurry in the first two years of the French Revolution the constitutional ideas and institutions of the American Revolution had little influence on the development of European or Latin American constitutionalism.” Bailyn’s point is not that the American example was always followed, slavishly or otherwise, but that it was a “reserve of experience—exemplary, of good or ill—a reserve that could be drawn on when needed, intermittently, selectively, with emphases that were shaped differently by the distinctive problems of different societies in different modes and at different stages of transformation in the age of the Atlantic revolution.” Whether followed closely or not, Bailyn sees that the American example did indeed “begin the world anew.”

Not all of Bailyn’s essays are equally successful. The central study, on “Realism and Idealism in American Diplomacy,” while full of charming bits, does not work well. It centers on Benjamin Franklin in Paris and ostensibly wishes to say something about the subject matter of its title, but most of it is devoted to changing portrayals of Franklin. The result is a fascinating study, but not one that addresses the ostensible theme of the essay.

The most significant essay is probably the fourth, on the Federalist Papers. Here his subject is the great authority accorded the Federalist in our time, at least in some circles. As he inform us, the Supreme Court has been citing the Federalist at an ever-increasing rate, and attributing ever-greater authority to it. However, this may appear puzzling because the Federalist was a book written not for the ages, but for a very specific occasion (the battle over ratification of the Constitution in New York in 1787-88), and for a society internally different from today’s America, which holds a place in the world at a polar extreme from the America of the founding generation. Yet despite these differences, “we still go back to the Federalist Papers.” About this fact, Bailyn asks, “Why? Should we?”

His answer is yes, and along the way to justifying it he explores perhaps the most interesting theme of this slim volume: Just what was the relation between the constitutional founding and the revolution? Since at least the time of Charles Beard this has been a much debated topic. In the post- Ideological Origins period arguably the most authoritative answer was given by his former student, Gordon Wood, who had taken over, but somewhat redescribed, Bailyn’s version of the revolutionary ideology and gone on to ask what had happened to it at the time of the drafting of the Constitution. To simplify somewhat, Wood claimed that the Constitution represented a major shift in the thinking of the Americans, the replacement of one paradigm (republicanism and virtue) by another (liberalism and self-interest).

Without mentioning Wood by name or the many others who have more or less followed him, Bailyn takes issue with this version of eighteenth-century history. Bailyn’s account is, in my opinion, essentially the correct one. In the debate over the Constitution, the Constitution’s enemies, the Anti-Federalists, were, as they understood themselves to be, the true heirs of the thought of the revolutionaries. They retained the revolutionaries’ fear of centralized power and effective government. The promoters of the Constitution, the authors of the Federalist, were indeed the innovators. But their innovations were not of the sort Wood and others have proclaimed.

The debate over the Constitution was one about who or what could save the revolution—that is, secure and preserve the gains for liberty and the “humane uses of power” in the name of which the revolution had been fought. Bailyn demonstrates that the framers of the Constitution came to realize that the revolution could be saved only if effective, i.e., powerful and somewhat centralized, authority were instituted—and they were so important because they figured out ways to combine effective governance with the revolutionary concern for liberty. The Constitution represented a shift, but not a break, from the political science of the revolutionaries. In an economical twenty pages or so Bailyn gives a good sense of wherein this shift consisted.

For those of us who have regretted that books for grown-ups too seldom have pictures, this is an ideal book. It has sixty-five delicious prints, mostly portraits of eighteenth-century persons, some photographs of stately homes of America and England from the same period. It is also a book for readers who can savor a beautifully written essay by an author who wears his immense learning lightly, and conveys it with grace. To Begin the World Anew confirms what many of us already knew—that Bailyn is a master of the essay form and of the period of which he writes. If he has any shortcoming it is that he leaves us wanting more.

Michael Zuckert holds the Nancy R. Dreux Chair of Government and International Studies at the University of Notre Dame and is the author, most recently, of Launching Liberalism (University Press of Kansas).

Image by Noah Wulf, licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.