Review: Ideology and the American Revolution

  • Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. (Cambridge, Harvard Press, 1967).
  • Bernard Bailyn,The Origins of American Politics. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 1968).
  • J. G. A. Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975).
  • Gordon Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992).

Bernard Bailyn’s The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution inaugurated a turn to intellectual and political historical work on colonial America. His work established that “the pattern of political activity in the colonies was part of a more comprehensive British pattern” and could not be “understood in isolation from that larger system” (Bailyn, Origins of American Politics, ix). The American Revolution was fundamentally an Atlantic Revolution, i.e., a conflict played out across geographical space, but also, importantly, within a broad, continental political tradition (Bailyn’s “Republican political language”). Bailyn used eighteenth-century radical pamphlets and debates printed by the English and American oppositional presses and distributed on both sides of the Atlantic; he showed how opposition in the colonies was vivid with a “Commonwealth imagination” — what J.G.A. Pocock later called the ethos of “Republican civic humanism.” After immersing himself in “the flood of Whig panegyric verse” that poured from the presses from 1700 to 1760, Bailyn located the “triggering convictions” of revolutionaries in “the specific fears and formulations of the radical publicists and opposition politicians of early eighteenth-century England,” those “who carried forward into the age of Walpole the peculiar strain of anti-authoritarianism bred in the upheaval of the English Civil War” (Bailyn, Origins of American Politics,ix-x).

bailynThe Republican imagination Bailyn highlighted in Ideological Origins was one element among the many in what he called the “motley ‘left-wing’ group” who were active in the political debates of the eighteenth century (Bailyn, Origins of American Politics, 40). Bailyn recognized the diversity of political opposition in these decades but prioritized the influence of Republicanism as a “common language,” connecting these various threads of political thought. He argued that American historians’ myopic focus on John Locke was at fault for overlooking the centrality of this Republican tradition in American revolutionary politics. For Bailyn, this commonwealth tradition was the common denominator in what was otherwise an evolving political imagination. But beyond this, Bailyn insisted that while the “skeleton” of American revolutionary politics was Lockean, the “flesh, the substance, the major preoccupations and the underlying motivations and mood” was Republican.

This review will use the works by Bailyn, Pocock, and Gordon Wood listed above to disentangle the issue of Republicanism in the ideology of the American Revolution. It will answer the following questions: (1) How have historians approached the Republican ideological tradition and its role in the American Revolution? (2) What is the perspective gained by situating the American Revolution in the context of English political culture of the eighteenth century? (3) How have these historians argued that Republican ideology was a driving force behind the American Revolution? Throughout, I will be offering some of my own formulations in order to advance these inquiries.

The Language of English Liberty
The story of English Liberty, Bailyn wrote, is one of “political liberty, based upon a landholding system” (Bailyn, Ideological Origins, 81) A liberty documented in the Magna Carta, hard fought for and reestablished with the Glorious Revolution of 1688 (Bailyn, Ideological Origins, 81). These historical gains had guaranteed the protection of the “inalienable, indefeasible rights” of English citizens, i.e., landed property-holders—large and small—and established a government wherein the authority of the King was subject to the will of Parliament (Bailyn, Ideological Origins, 77). But during the eighteenth century, novel social relations in commercial society raised concerns about the nature of property and government, pushing established paradigms to the breaking point and thrusting an emergent civil society into pitched debate. The history of the American Revolution is bound up with this political cris­is of consciousness. As the Revolution showed, this productive crisis in British politics would play out at a greater geographical and historical scale than that of the British Empire. But since the language of liberty was born in this historical experience, here, insisted Bailyn, is where we must begin.

First, we might point out something occluded by both Bailyn’s and Pocock’s emphasis on Republican politics, viz., that the language of political opposition in the eighteenth century was hardly unified. Both in the metropole and the colonies, differences in emphases and formulations aligned some members of the opposition with what Pocock, Baylin, and Wood called, an English “Republican tradition.” In The Machiavellian Moment, Pocock identifies this oppositional tendency as the inheritor of the “neo-Harringtonian” tradition, a strain of political thought, present from the late-seventeenth century onwards, which is deeply invested in the preservation of civic virtue against the forces of “corruption.” Pocock shows how the “the age’s intense and nervous neo-classicism” was voiced in the old tongue of Renaissance civic humanism and displayed a marked concern with the protection of Republican virtue against what these thinkers regarded as the threat of commercial relations (Pocock, 466).

The years after 1688 ushered in a rapid and thoroughgoing economic transformation of British society. In the 1690s, England’s financial revolution gave rise to two major institutions, the Bank of England and the National Debt. As the British commercial empire expanded militarily, capital investment became more central to its development (Pocock, 425). “With the aid of invested capital” Pocock wrote, “the state was able to maintain larger and more permanent armies and bureaucracies—incidentally increasing the resources at the disposal of political patronage—and as long as its affairs visibly prospered, it was able to attract further investments and conduct larger and longer wars.” By the eighteenth century, England’s commercial empire advanced as a militarized enterprise. As this vision of empire was brought into sharper relief throughout the century, the Republican model of agrarian independence and virtuous civic participation receded further into a pre-commercial past. Neo-Harringtonian thinkers of this period found their ideal society in the lost Roman Republic of independent producers, a time and place when the civic personality appeared firmly anchored by landed proprietorship.

During the half-century following 1688, the suspicion against commercial society animating the neo-Harringtonians deepened in the Augustan debates over land, trade and credit. In Pocock’s historical timeline, the Augustan debates were the high-water mark of British political culture. Augustan critics and journalists were “the first intellectuals on record to express an entirely secular awareness of social and economic changes going on in their society, and to say specifically that these changes affected both their values and their modes of perceiving social reality” (Pocock, 461). For these critics, the far-reaching new forms of social dependence at the heart of credit and commerce threatened to uproot the necessary conditions for exercising virtue, mainly the autonomy provided by landed property.

Historically, land ownership had been protected by the ancient sanctions of common law. Property-owners were members in the related structures of the militia and the parliamentary electorate, thus guaranteeing civic virtue. But land in the period after 1688 became intertwined with systems of trade and credit, and was thus transformed into a potential source of corruption.

Pocock“Corruption” was a novel conceptual category in British political thought. As Pocock outlined it, in the seventeenth century James Harrington had linked arms to land—in Machiavellian fashion—and placed landed-property as the anchor for civic virtue. Virtue was defined in opposition to the ancient category of fortuna, i.e., chance (fortune in flux), against which civic virtue stood constant. Virtue, for Harrington and later for the Neo-Harringtonians, was anchored by the material independence provided by landed property, which corresponded to the classical conception of the role of oikos. In ancient Greek society, oikos was the household economy (the “household”), the primary social unit, and most importantly, the means by which the zōon politikon (i.e., man, as a “political animal”) was able to participate in the polis (the political community). Oikos was therefore, the source of material independence that allowed men to think politically.[1]

In this period the neo-classical vision of landed-independence and virtuous political subjects was overshadowed by the needs of a new society. This was a society in which landed property could no longer serve as an anchor for civic virtue. Neo-Harringtonians experienced this commercial society as a threat to their political stability. Their version of fortuna was “corruption,” and it identified credit and trade as forces undermining political rationality. The displacement of landed-property in the English polity had opened the door to Parliamentary corruption, or “influence,” i.e., the manipulation and bribery of the Commons by the gift of places, pensions and sinecures—for Neo-Harringtonians, all of these showed the forces of corruption at work.

Insofar as land was subject to the whims of commercial society, the Republic hinged on passions and the confidence on “illusory” agreements between men, or what David Hume would later call, the “phantasmagoria” of commercial society. Indeed, Pocock wrote, “There was a dimension of this dilemma in which a threat was seen to be posed to the epistemological foundation of the world of real property,” i.e., landed property (Pocock, 450). Land was now valued by the rent it was capable of yielding (i.e., by “the rate at which capital can be got” Pocock, 451), thus “real property which defined the citizen to himself was itself defined by a blend of fictions” (Pocock, 450) — i.e., the “fictions” of capital. “Fantasy and convention” would replace real property, and Republican man would be “doomed to inhabit a world more unstable in its epistemological foundations than Plato’s cave” (Pocock, 451). Within ten years of the Glorious Revolution, the subversion of real by mobile property had forced a crisis in political thinking where “reality was seen as endangered by fiction and fantasy” (Pocock, 451).

The Augustan critics of the “new finance” argued that credit was a source of corruption and political destabilization. For them, financial society was experienced as degeneration, i.e., as the barbarization of classical values. In the eighteenth century, this neo-classical anxiety was intimately bound up with the political choices facing Britain’s new commercial empire. As Bailyn, Pocock, and Wood all show, the fear that corruption could dismantle the historical gains of the seventeenth century—of English Liberty itself—was central to the driving rebellious forces in the American colonies by the end of the Seven Years War (1763).

American Republicanism
Colonial Americans were British in political culture, but “British,” Bailyn noted, “with a peculiar emphasis” (Bailyn, Origins of American Politics, 57). Specifically, the colonists adopted the opposition’s attack on “influence” and ministerial corruption as the “one idealistic feature of early eighteenth-century [English] politics” and, as “the only programme which could appeal to men with a sense of moral purpose” (Bailyn, Origins of American Politics, 57, quoting J.H. Plumb). Colonial patriots[2] exercised their outrage against Parliamentary corruption by denouncing the first “prime” minister of Britain, Robert Walpole (1721-1724) — the preferred whipping boy of the Country opposition. These Whig gentiles, Bailyn’s “Commonwealth men,” had inherited the Augustan opposition to the financial revolution and sought to fix political power in the hands of the landed gentry rather than the royal officials, urban merchants or bankers. They denounced the government’s use of large moneyed corporations to underwrite the national debt, and identified the new men of finance as problematic social types, indeed, as the corrupting elements in Parliament. Opposition against this “moneyed influence” was built on Republican denunciations of arbitrary power, but the specific historical content (the “flesh”) is revealed in the image of the neo-classical zōon politikon, i.e., a political subject out of place, fundamentally at odds with the dynamism of commercial society.

Criticism of Walpole, head of the “corrupt electorate,” reinvigorated an oppositional culture reaching across the Atlantic. These are the fertile decades of John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, who obsessively agitated their fellow countrymen against the “Robinarch” conspiracy, i.e., Walpole’s conspiracy against the constitutional guarantees of liberty (Bailyn, Ideological Origins,136): while Walpole claimed to be a faithful subject of the prince, they argued, “in reality he is a sovereign, as despotic, arbitrary a sovereign as this part of the world affords . . .” (Bailyn, Origins of American Politics, 46). Trenchard and Gordon (Gordon several years Trenchard’s junior) were the authors behind the series of articles signed “Cato”, published in The London Journal and The British Journal between November 1720 and December 1723, and later collected into a four-volume book titled Cato’s Letters. While their denunciation of Walpole was central, the first ten numbers of Cato’s Letters were dedicated to the catastrophic dealings of the South Sea Company, the infamous speculative private company founded in 1711 as a public–private partnership to consolidate and reduce the cost of the national debt. The Company had consolidated government bonds into equity of the South Sea Company in return for a monopoly of all trade with Spain in South America. The monopoly included the right to import and sell close to 5,000 slaves per year to the Spanish. “The fatal effects of the South-Sea scheme,” wrote Trenchard and Gordon, were felt throughout the empire in 1720 when the financial bubble it created finally popped causing the first international market crash that threatened to bring down the entire structure of English finance. Cato’s Letters accused stock-jobbers and speculators who had inflated profit projections of the crown-sponsored monopoly, and the magistrates involved in the South Sea venture who had entangled the public’s funds in speculation. More than half of the public investors were rendered destitute by their losses when the South Sea stock plunged 87 percent of its value. In the colonies, the South Sea Company debacle was a defining act of corruption, the emblematic failure of the “commercial empire” in Republican thought.[3]

The empire-wide political crisis of the 1760s, generated in great part by the success of British commercial and political ambitions, forms the backdrop to the American Revolution. While the end of the Seven Years War in 1763 marked a defeat of France by the British Empire, domestic opposition within Britain reached a new height. The empire’s territorial gains, a growing imperial debt, and a greater bureaucratic centralization of the military commercial empire intensified tensions in the already-existing continental opposition. The political culture of the 1760s and 1770s was driven by debates over the nature of government and its dealings in commercial affairs. Country Whigs in England looked with “great nostalgia to when men of independent means controlled the destiny of Parliament” (Bailyn, Origins of American Politics, 50), while a new voice of radicalism, the adopted son of the colonies, Tom Paine, blamed the regressive conditions of the Old World for stifling liberty.

Patriots like John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison looked to Country Whig philosopher, Henry St. John Bolingbrook—whose works were widely read in the colonies—to make sense of the disorienting nature of commerce and credit. Bolingbroke feared the influence of “the bank,” the East India Company, and in general, the perceptible machinations of the “moneyed interest” that bound Parliament to trade and finance. A successful commercial empire, he concluded, had in fact brought greater problems of enervating luxury, inviting an irreversibly degenerative form of corruption (Bailyn, Origins of American Politics, 50). Wood writes that at this juncture, “in the emotionally charged atmosphere of the 1760s and 1770s, all the imperial efforts at reform seemed to be an evil extension of what was destroying liberty in England itself” (Wood, 174). Colonial patriots were now convinced that the crown, with the help of Parliament, was extending its power overseas in order to corrupt Americans in the same way (Wood, 174).

“Liberty” wrote John Adams, “can no more exist without virtue and independence than the body can live and more without a soul,” and what liberty could spring from England where “luxury, effeminacy and venality are arrived at such a shocking pitch” and where “both electors and elected are become one mass of corruption.” (Quoted in Bailyn, Ideological Origins, 135). According to these patriots, England, was at the nadir of its decline between 1758 and the Stamp Act (1765). At this point, the decay of virtue was irreversible. Alexander Hamilton described England as “An old wrinkled, withered, worn-out hag.” In Republican language or otherwise, from the standpoint of the colonies, England was incorrigibly set on a course of degeneration.
So far we have emphasized the conceptual affinity connecting the opposition in England to the colonies in the period leading to the Revolution, but Bailyn also described the specific social conditions of colonial America as key to fomenting the outcry against the tyranny of executive power. Unlike the constitutionally granted autonomy of the House of Commons in England, colonial assemblies were entirely dependent on executive will for their existence. This gave colonial governors absolute veto power over all colonial legislation including the power to dissolve the lower houses of the assembly. And they were known to use these powers freely (Bailyn, Origins of American Politics, 67). This type of executive power over the judiciary had been explicitly denied the crown in England, and was characterized as the most “archaic and threatening” form of authority in the colonies (Bailyn, Origins of American Politics, 69).

Colonial Governors in America were stripped of most of their power of patronage and, as such, could not use the English administration’s preferred means to discipline dissent in the political community and hold their dominance in Parliament (Bailyn, Origins of American Politics, 80). Such patronage networks did not exist in the colonies. Executive power was rigid and unyielding, and lacked the proper flexibility to be part of a successful engagement in politics (Bailyn, Origins of American Politics, 70). In contrast, the Colonial Assemblies grew at a dynamic rate. Compared to what Bailyn described as the “highly irregular, inequitable, and hence easily manipulated electoral system” in England, American assembly culture was celebrated for its egalitarian spirit. Thus, while incapable of challenging administrative prerogative, public participation in political affairs rose to historic heights in the colonies.

Wood_RadicalismAlongside this political structure, Gordon Wood describes a vertical social structure guided by an aristocratic ranking. The sharp distinctions between genteel and plebeians, the deference by the common man to the gentry, and the universal abhorrence of manual labor, all maintained the prejudices of the English courtly culture transposed overseas. Wood argued that the radicalism of the American Revolution lay in its unrelenting egalitarian ethos that broke through social order in the colonies and fundamentally transformed the nature of relations between men. The American Revolution was thus a social revolution: it eradicated social divisions and fundamentally changed the relations between human beings, and left a lasting legacy of rights.

This democratizing ethos, as Wood described it, was “radical and social in a very special eighteenth-century sense.” The guarantee of equality before the law made actual the potential for political participation by all men, despite social rank or status. The American Revolution established this egalitarian value as integral to the Republic and, according to Wood, “in destroying monarchy and establishing republics [Americans] were changing their society as well as their governments, and they knew it” (Wood, 5).

American revolutionaries saw themselves as opening a new chapter in “the great experiment of liberty” (Bailyn, Ideological Origins, 141). Jefferson believed the American Republic would open lands out West and create a continent wide nation of independent producers. This vision of the American Republic was compatible with the Neo-Harringtonian imagination, but Jefferson’s Republic was to be actualized in the here and now (not mourned for in an ideal past). His vision also differed insofar as he acknowledged the participation of producers in trade. Jefferson thought trading interests should be kept out of political decision-making, not that men should not engage in commerce. Whether the disarticulation between politics and commerce was possible in the later eighteenth century — at least in the way Jefferson imagined it — is a different question. Finally, Jefferson’s Republic promised to realize the old ideal of agrarian social independence, but this liberty was based on a different type of property than the inheritable land of the Republican political personality. Rather, in Lockean fashion, this property existed—in potential—in all men: As men mixed their labor with the material of nature, the product of their toil became their property, i.e., the fruits of their labor.

The Material Foundations of Liberty
Wood’s clear blind spot in what is otherwise a comprehensive and careful book, is in his omission of one of the most politically influential articulations of Republican thought in America, i.e., Southern Republicanism. This is a significant omission, and one that could have been easily rectified by citing from Edmund Morgan’s brilliant work on the issue, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia.[4]

Morgan’s masterful book tackled the historical relationship between race-based American slavery and Republican ideas of freedom. He described a historical shift in seventeenth-century Virginia, wherein class distinction was formulated in terms of racially defined social boundaries between “those who labor” (black slaves) and “those who are free” (whites). Morgan showed, it was through the introduction of slave labor that small and large planters were able to reconcile as a social group sharing common political interests. And it was because slaves were not seen as men but as “laboring property” that Republican ideas of liberty could develop with such vehemence in the slave society of Virginia. In other words, “freedom from labor” was the defining ideological standpoint of Virginia’s Republic planter class.

Southern planters’ insistence that “freedom from labor” was an absolute requirement for practicing civic virtue, and the fact that slavery provided the means toward this end, was compatible with the classical Republican imagination, insofar as this vision of society recognized slaves as property. Aristotle had described slaves in ancient Greece as part of man’s oikos, part of his household economy, and his property. The slave was one of the master’s tools (or “speaking implements”) used to toil the land (Greek society was mainly an agricultural society). Slaves and land had thus provided the means for social independence that man required in order to be political. As Aristotle notes, “a state with an ideal constitution . . . cannot have its citizens living the life of mechanics and shopkeepers, which ignoble and inimical to goodness (arēte). Nor can it have them engaged in farming. Leisure is a necessity, both for growth in goodness and for the pursuit of political activities.”[5]

The vision formulated by Jefferson was, fundamentally, of a different type. His Lockean conception of labor, and vision of a Republic as that made up of independent farmers, suggests that conceptions of labor and property in the colonies were in flux and in conversation with traditions outside of a Republican politics.[6]

"Every man has a property in his own person. This nobody has a right to, but himself." John Locke, Second Treatise on Civil Government (1689)

“Every man has a property in his own person. This nobody has a right to, but himself.”
John Locke, Second Treatise on Civil Government (1689)

In The Radicalism of the American Revolution, Wood goes so far as to recognize the presence of Locke, noting a limited influence on the political imagination in the colonies. But Wood’s commentary is limited to Locke’s ideas on the natural rights of men and a few comments on his work on education. That withstanding, Locke and David Hume—both widely read in the colonies—had presented a vision of human experience, open to the newness of commercial society. Passion, not virtue, was the guiding mechanism for this commercial man. Both Hume and Locke saw commerce and passions as dynamic forces contributing to the construction of political society and to an active history. A hierarchy of passions gave order to the needs of commercial man: good passions were aligned with those that advanced “sociability” and accorded to the common good. For Hume, reason was dependent on passion, and passion on experience. Viewed through this lens, commercial society enlarged the sphere of human experience, knowledge, and values, thus creating the possibility for man to create and transform his “second nature,” i.e., become an object to himself (an object that could be transformed) (Pocock, 498). This vision of commercial society provided a way of “tracing and explaining the growth of culture and commerce; and man, becoming more and more a historical animal, was placed at the core of the resultant process” (Pocock, 498).

The reconciliation between commercial society and political man in the early Liberal tradition is missing in Wood’s treatment of the Revolution. For Wood, the society that emerged after 1776 contradicted the expectations of the founding fathers, who had to face the men of private interests opportunistically vying for political influence. Wood describes the dashed hopes of the Revolutionary generation and teases out what he calls the “contradictions within the Revolution,” a phrase used to describe the distance between what patriots sought to create, i.e., their vision of an egalitarian Republic, and what the Revolution actually gave rise to, i.e., a rowdy, democratic society with competing private interests that alarmed the gentry of the 1770s (Wood, 244). But this formulation doesn’t quite explain the chasm between such vision (Republicanism) and reality (competitive civil society). What might help mitigate the two would be the rise of Liberalism and the transformation of the political subject in liberal thought within the context of commercial society.

The effort to highlight the Republican tradition in the history of the American Revolution situated colonial politics in the context of British political thought. Thus these works provided greater clarity about the relationship between the American Revolution and the politics of English Revolutionary history. An effort must now be made—as Pocock wrote—to fit Locke back into the story, without which the general political direction of the Revolution appears purely restorative, reacting against an emerging modernity. This emphasis is particularly clear in Pocock’s work when he describes the Revolutionaries as humanists and identifies “their enemy [as] modernity” (477, Pocock). While it is true that the Republican imagination was critical for the articulation of political opposition in the colonies, some of the concerns articulated in Revolutionary America had eclipsed the problem of virtue for the ordering of passions, and illustrated a vision of expanding human experience at the heart of commercial society. As such, the emergent politics of civil society in America during the eighteenth century appear to have been more Janus-faced than Wood or Pocock lead their readers to believe.

It strikes me that recognizing Republicanism and Liberalism as both present in the emergent epoch of Bourgeois society might help historians formulate a different relationship between ideology and material conditions. Surely “thinking” is ill defined by the description of thought as purely “resistant” to reality as much as the characterization of thought as solely “accommodating” to it. Instead, what these contending traditions vying for dominance in the political imagination of the eighteenth-century suggest is that the self-articulation (and self-understanding) of bourgeois society was not by consensus. It was, rather, divided in its very nature, even in its historical emergence. And it is this way of thinking and being that ought to be highlighted by historians of the period.

[1] Oswyn Murray, Early Greece (third printing, 2001) (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1978), 42.

[2] American or colonial “Patriots” here refers to adherence to the Pittite or patriot faction of radical Whiggism (from Spencer Leonard’s lecture).

[3] William Thomas Morgan’s characterization is apt: “In its inception, [the South Sea Company] was not only a financial measure, but a tempting pawn in the diplomatic game; it was not only a move to dish the Whigs, but also a bid for the support of the moneyed group. Finally, it was a scheme to utilize credit as never before in England, lighten the taxes of the landed class and, if peace negotiations failed, wrest from the Spanish Main sufficient bullion to defray the cost of the war.” William Thomas Morgan, “The Origins of the South Sea Company” in Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 44, No. 1 (Mar., 1929), pp. 16-38. See also Ron Harris, “The Bubble Act: Its Passage and Its Effects on Business Organization” The Journal of Economic History, Vol. 54, No. 3 (Sep., 1994), pp. 610-627.

[4] Edmund S. Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1975).

[5] Aristotle, Politics I328b – I329a 2.

[6] Jefferson was slaveholder, but one convinced of the evils of a “slave society.” He was labeled a “radical” in Virginia for supporting gradual manumission.

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