Read the Revolution

curated collection of excerpts from exciting, thought-provoking books about the American Revolution


September 9, 2020

The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution

In this special installment of Read the Revolution, our chief historian, Dr. Philip C. Mead, reflects on the influential work of Harvard University professor Dr. Bernard Bailyn (1922-2020), who died on Aug. 7. 

Though published over fifty years ago, in 1967, the themes charted in Bernard Bailyn’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, are so crucial to the American experiment in governance and the nation’s ongoing Revolution of equality, liberty, and self-government that they seem almost as if they might have been written to pointedly address our current concerns. Bailyn studiously avoided and constantly denied any direct engagement between his work and contemporary politics, either in the 1960s or in the sixty more years before his death. The resonance of his Ideological Origins, therefore, seems its own evidence that the Revolution he described has not ended, that the American Revolutionary project, as he laid it out in these pages, was alive in the 1960s when he originally wrote them, and remains alive and even larger and loftier in its aspirations today, though it also remains fragile and always in danger of perishing, like all living creations.

Primarily a study of American political pamphlet writing between 1760 and 1776, Bailyn’s book discovered a root of the American Revolution in a particular strain of political literature that American colonial political writings seemed to constantly reference, the “radical Whig” or “Commonwealth tradition” that had emerged from the bitter English Civil War of the seventeenth century. Its central axiom was that power was in a constant struggle with liberty; that the king represented power and the people liberty; and that the preservation of liberty against power required the cultivation of civic virtue, or a willingness to give up one’s own self-interest, and resist the seductions of power and favors from the king, for the mutual preservation of shared rights. In this fight, the Crown had the standing army with its violent power and its temptations of status and income for young men. In England, Parliament was the bulwark of liberty against the encroachment of the king’s power. It retained, since the English Revolution of 1688, the power of the purse and the ability to deprive the Crown of funds for its army.

Bailyn’s work charted how American colonists had to reconfigure these ideas during their conflict with Parliament in the 1760s. The central issue was taxation by that body when the colonists had no representatives in it – “no taxation without representation.” It grew to include a fear, driven by a paradigmatic understanding Americans had absorbed from radical Whig literature, of how power corrupts a society, and their belief that Parliament was subverting all their treasured English liberties, from jury trials to the right not to have one’s home invaded by the army. In the spiraling disagreement, Americans’ attacks on traditional institutions of government, first on the legitimacy of Parliament in the 1760s and later of the king in the 1770s, left the very idea of authority shattered and in need of rebuilding.

In this excerpt, Bailyn explores the way contemporary skeptics in the 1770s, such as Loyalist Reverend Jonathan Boucher, depicted the American Revolution as nothing short of ushering in anarchy, or a complete absence of authority, coercion or deference. Through that exploration, Bailyn describes how supporters of the Revolution hoped for a new form of politics and governance in world history.


At the very time Jonathan Boucher's sermon "On Civil Liberty, Passive Obedience, and Nonresistance" had been written in 1775 "with a view to publication," and though it had been delivered publicly enough in Queen Anne's Parish, Maryland, it was promptly thereafter suppressed; "the press," Boucher later wrote, "was shut to every publication of the kind." Its publication twenty-two years afterward in a volume of Boucher's sermons entitled A View of the Causes and Consequences of the American Revolution (1797) was the result of the French Revolution's reawakening in the author, long since safely established in England, the fears of incipient anarchy and social incoherence that had agitated him two decades before […]

Consent, equality—these were “particularly loose and dangerous” ideas, Boucher wrote; illogical, unrealistic, and lacking in scriptural sanction. There need be no mystery about the origins of government. Government was created by God. “As soon as there were some to be governed, there were also some to govern; and the first man, by virtue of that paternal claim on which all subsequent governments have been founded, was first invested with the power of government… The first father was the first kind: and… it was thus that all government originated; and monarchy is its most ancient form.” From this origin it follows directly that resistance to constituted authority is a sin, and that mankind is “commanded to be subject to the higher powers.” True, “kings and princes… were doubtless created and appointed not so much for their own sakes as for the sake of the people committed to their charge: yet they are not, therefore, the creatures of the people. So far from deriving their authority from any supposed consent or suffrage of men, they receive their commission from Heaven; they receive it from God, the source and original of all power.” The judgment of Jesus Christ is evident: the most essential duty of subjects with respect to government is simply “ (in the phraseology of a prophet) to be quiet, and to sit still.

How simple but yet how demanding an injunction, for men are ever “prone to be presumptuous and self-willed, always disposed and ready to despise dominion, and to speak evil of dignities.” And how necessary to be obeyed in the present circumstance. Sedition has already penetrated deeply; it tears at the vitals of social order. It threatens far more than "the persons invested with the supreme power either legislative or executive"; "the resistance which your political counselors urge you to practice [is exerted] clearly and literally against authority…you are encouraged to resist not only all authority over us as it now exists, but any and all that it is possible to constitute.”

This was the ultimate concern. What Boucher, Leonard, Chandler, and other articulate defenders of the status quo saw as the final threat was not so much the replacement of one set of rulers by another as the triumph of ideas and attitudes incompatible with the stability of any standing order, any establishment — incompatible with society itself, as it had been traditionally known. Their fears were in a sense justified, for in the context of eighteenth-century social thought it was difficult to see how any harmonious, stable social order could be constructed from such materials. To argue that all men were equal would not make them so; it would only help justify and perpetuate that spirit of defiance, that refusal to concede to authority whose ultimate resolution could only be anarchy, demagoguery, and tyranny. If such ideas prevailed year after year, generation after generation, the "latent spark" in the breasts of even the most humble of men would be kindled again and again by entrepreneurs of discontent who would remind the people "of the elevated rank they hold in the universe, as men; that all men by nature are equal; that kings are but the ministers of the people; that their authority is delegated to them by the people for their good, and they have a right to resume it, and place it in other hands, or keep it themselves, whenever it is made use of to oppress them."(82) Seeds of sedition would thus constantly be sown, and harvests of licentiousness reaped.

How else could it end? What reasonable social and political order could conceivably be built and maintained where authority was questioned before it was obeyed, where social differences were considered to be incidental rather than essential to community order, and where superiority, suspect in principle, was not allowed to concentrate in the hands of a few but was scattered broadly through the populace? No one could clearly say. But some, caught up in a vision of the future in which the peculiarities of American life became the marks of a chosen people, found in the defiance of traditional order the firmest of all grounds for their hope for a freer life. The details of this new world were not as yet clearly depicted; but faith ran high that a better world than any that had ever been known could be built where authority was distrusted and held in constant scrutiny; where the status of men flowed from their achievements and from their personal qualities, not from distinctions ascribed to them at birth; and where the use of power over the lives of men was jealously guarded and severely restricted. It was only where there was this defiance, this refusal to buckle, this distrust of all authority, political or social, that institutions would express human aspirations, not crush them.

Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, Fiftieth Anniversary Edition (Belknap Press, 2017 and Harvard University Press, 1967), 314, 317-319.

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