Saturday, April 23, 2005

The Claremont Institute examines Bernard Bailyn's Work

I must confess that I am a Bailynite. No, I did not work with or study under the fine professor (though I have taken a course from and frequent the same gym as one of his former protege's), I simply find his scholarship well done and his theory extremely intriguing, if oft misunderstood. For those few who do not know, the Claremont Review of Books offers a fine summary of Bailyn and his ideas in "A Revolutionary Historian" by Hans L. Eicholz.
Most current historiography focuses on Bailyn's early work, recognizing his critical contribution to the rejuvenation of American intellectual and cultural history. His work on the American Revolution showed that political ideas played a crucial role in bringing it about. For this reason, he is rightly credited with helping to father the "republican synthesis" of the '70s and early '80s, which emphasized the role of classical republicanism and Old Whig doctrines in sparking the 1776 revolution....Unfortunately, this fact has often obscured Bailyn's more profound contribution to the history of ideas and political culture. Commentators list him among the architects of the republican interpretation but frequently overlook the dynamism and heterogeneity of culture and ideas evident from his earliest work. He is associated with what quickly became a rigid and static view of the republican paradigm: a view that came to stress its ancient lineage and backward-looking conservatism, and that is, thankfully, no longer the dominant interpretation of the revolution and founding.

Most scholars no longer insist on forcing a choice between classical republicanism and Lockean liberalism. Bailyn was there long before them. It is high time to see his work in the context of his growing appreciation for the complexity of thought in human life, rather than as an autopsy of a particular configuration of ideas.
I did a historiographical paper on Bailyn that traced his ideological theory and the way it was misunderstood by those who both agreed and disagreed with him. Eicholz explained that
The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution(1967). . . took up the fate, in America, of the Old Whig or English commonwealth ideas of the early 18th century. Here, again, it was the peculiar relevance of these ideas, and the conscious choosing among them and adding to them that was at the core of Bailyn's history. The critique of power's corrupting influence, what might be called the "anti-power" ethic, resonated with American experience. But the independent contribution of the American experience was not fully appreciated by the profession at large. Inured to explanations from necessity—to structures of social causation such as class—both his critics and his proponents took Bailyn's insights in directions very different from his own.
My research indicated much the same thing. Social historians, such as Gary Nash, were particularly critical of Bailyn's theory and others, especially Joyce Appleby, had well-founded problems with the so-called "Republican Synthesis" that arose our of Bailyn's theory and figuratively wondered "what happened to Lock?". (A synthesis, it should be noted, to which Bailyn himself didn't adhere). However, as Eicholz points out
There is a dynamic quality to ideas in Ideological Origins that shows Americans actively selecting among a variety of viewpoints to understand their place within the empire. Thus Bailyn argued:

Within the framework of these ideas, Enlightenment abstractions and common law precedents, covenant theology and classical analogy—Locke and Abraham, Brutus and Coke—could all be brought together into a comprehensive theory of politics.

This was no unchanging paradigm, but the vibrant and shifting undercurrents of English opposition thought, "stirred by doctrinaire libertarians, disaffected politicians, and religious dissenters." It is this dynamic stirring that was and is the focus of Bailyn's interpretation.

Where are the choices being made? Where is the influence of time and place being worked out? Within the individual actors themselves. But a discussion of ideas and modes of thought, of political tensions and social conflict, cannot by itself reach the heart of historical transformation. And perhaps that is why the dynamism Bailyn had hoped to convey in these earlier works was not so apparent.

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