IOTAR50: Considering Ideological Origins at 50

This week The Junto is co-sponsoring, “The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution at  50,” a weeklong roundtable on Bernard Bailyn’s seminal work with the Society for U.S. Intellectual History (S-USIH) blog. Each of the five posts will appear on both blogs concurrently. For readers unfamiliar with the book (or looking for a refresher), please see Episode 12 of The JuntoCast.

Throughout the winter of 2016-17, I helped organize “Ideological Origins at 50,” a conference jointly sponsored by the USC-EMSI and Yale’s CHESS to honor the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Bernard Bailyn’s seminal work, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. The conference papers, presentations, and discussion were quite lively, as was Bailyn himself who delivered a 75-minute talk on the opening evening. Since then, other tributes to the book and its long-term influence and impact have appeared online. However, all of these have had one thing in common; they have been almost solely the product of senior historians who perceptively discussed the book’s long-term impact and the debates that surrounded it, both around its publication and in the immediate decades afterward. This Junto roundtable, “The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution at 50″ (#IOTAR50), aims to offer junior scholars a chance to reflect on this book’s impact on them and, by extension, its continuing significance and influence on the newest generation of early American historians. After all, perhaps the most impressive achievement of Ideological Origins is that fifty years after its publication it is still being read, assigned, and reckoned with by a new generation of scholars. Therefore, rather than rehashing what the book meant when it was published or what it has meant to historians living with it for decades, this roundtable is dedicated to exploring what the book means now.

My Personal Origins with Ideological Origins

I first encountered Ideological Origins at the Brooklyn Public Library in 2005. I had been reading heavily in popular books on both the American Revolution and the history of Western philosophy. After a few years of that, I came to the point where I felt like I’d read enough of that stuff and really wanted to read “more serious” (or scholarly) books about the Revolution. So I went down to the Brooklyn Public Library and started scanning the 973 shelves. I actually still have a mental picture in my mind of seeing the title on the spine of the book and pulling it off the shelf. “The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution.” Now, that sounded “serious” . . . scholarly-like. A quick scan seemed to reveal the book to be living at a three-way intersection between my interests in the Revolution and the history of ideas and where I thought I wanted my reading to go. Then, blissfully unaware of how unfashionable the book had become amongst contemporary historians, I carried it around with me for weeks, renewed it multiple times, and probably read it cover-to-cover two or three times in those first 2 months. The opening chapter was the first extended, explicit discussion I had ever read about primary sources. It felt like being let in on some trade secrets of the mysterious historians’ guild. The footnotes throughout served as my introduction to the realm of historiography. (“There are people who get paid to argue about the history of the Revolution?!? How do I get that job?!?”).

Indeed, reading Bailyn’s Ideological Origins had a “radically transformative” effect, primarily by exposing me to a depth of historical inquiry and research I had never even dreamed existed when I was reading popular works but more generally by sparking my unabiding interests in the origins and causes of the American Revolution, the historiography of the Revolution, and what I later learned was referred to as “intellectual history.” As an undergraduate at the City University of New York, I took three different American Revolution courses at three different CUNY colleges, and two of the syllabi assigned Ideological Origins. All of that is to say that this book (for better and worse) played a very formative role in both my tangible and intellectual paths to becoming a historian of the American Revolution, which culminated over ten years later when I helped organize a conference at Yale commemorating the book in April, received my PhD after having written a dissertation exploring the coming of the Revolution in May, and, now, organized this roundtable.

Reckoning with Historiographical Longevity

Unsurprisingly, in the years in between, I came to have significant disagreements with Bailyn and, in graduate school, was also exposed to the more standard, longstanding critiques of the book. Bailyn had tried to make an argument for why these republican ideas of the commonwealth tradition had significant purchase and explanatory power beyond the largely elite audience for the short-run pamphlets in which they were circulated, but, all these years later, historians’ critiques of the scope of that argument show many to be least persuaded by Bailyn’s deployment of “ideology,” or, in other words, the very heart point of the argument.[1] So why, then, is the book being reissued in a “fiftieth anniversary edition?” Why is it still being assigned in undergraduate courses on the Revolution? Why do historians still talk about the coming of the Revolution to a significant extent in terms it set forth generations ago? In other words: how do we account for the book’s continuing relevance?

To begin this roundtable, let me briefly suggest three possible reasons. First, while Ideological Origins is often thought of as a work of intellectual history, one could make the case that it was actually one of the earliest works of American revolutionary political culture, in that it attempted to understand the matrix of ideas, beliefs, and assumptions about politics and thereby apply it to political practice. In that sense, Ideological Origins should be seen as a distant forerunner of the political culture studies of the 1990s. While it is true that it did not get down to the level of popular political practice that the “New New Political History” did for the early republic nor did it give as much attention to slavery or gender, it nevertheless sought to make sense of the rapidly shifting popular political practice of the 1760s and 1770s in its own way.

Second, Ideological Origins’ relevance over the decades up to the present day can also be attributed to what may be both its greatest strength and its greatest flaw, i.e., the totalizing nature of the interpretation. At the recent conference, Jack Rakove doubled-down on a comment he made over a decade ago to the effect that Bailyn and the historians who immediately followed him (mostly his own grad students) had effectively solved the question of the origins and causes of the Revolution. Oh well, class dismissed! I have argued elsewhere about the absurdity of such a statement. Ideological Origins‘ argument was so big and yet so neatly wrapped that it produced both the initial plaudits and the long-term stagnation of the debate regarding the Revolution’s origins and causes over the last three decades. In other words, the argument was so well conceived that it basically foreclosed further study of the topic. As I have argued in numerous other blog essays, fifty years on, with the benefit of decades of subsequent, new scholarship to inform us (both on early America and on the British Empire), American Revolution historians can now return to the questions of origins and causes with decidedly different perspectives than the generations immediately following Bailyn who critiqued the book from top-to-bottom but never found a way to fully displace it. In a very real sense, the greatest tribute that could be given to the book on its fiftieth anniversary would be to work to displace it.[2]

Finally, part of the book’s continuing relevance in the current moment and foreseeable future to a newer generation of scholars may end up being attributed to the unusual political moment in which we find ourselves. The themes of Ideological Origins—corruption, conspiracy, abuse of power, the force of language, the challenges of forging consensusrun throughout American history, of course, though some seem especially relevant today, particularly to left-leaning academics. Yet the book’s thematic matrix also fits equally to the more right-leaning perspective in the decades since its publication. It is not hard to see how right-leaning individuals would read the book’s themes as supporting the traditional, popular, right-leaning narrative of a Revolution against government, inherently corrupt and untrustworthy. Yet, as Patrice Higonnet pointed out in his conference paper and remarks, the book can also be seen as a statement of American exceptionalism (“a love message to America,” he called it), as represented by the revolutionaries’ “pragmatic idealism,” particularly in its latter chapters (and particularly in contrast to French revolutionaries).[3] Ultimately, this book, despite its shortcomings as repeatedly pointed out by historians over the decades, has had something to offer, something to say about the Revolution to Americans of varying political stripes. And while that is not the source of its continuing relevance amongst historians per se, I think it does speak to the inherent power of the book, in some way simultaneously derived from both its totalizing forcefulness in argument and its malleability in interpretation.


[1] For perhaps the clearest explications of Bailyn’s methodology regarding ideology, drawn from the work of Clifford Geertz, and its applicability to the eighteenth-century colonies, see Gordon S. Wood, “Reassessing Bernard Bailyn’s Ideological Origins of the American Revolution on the Occasion of its Jubilee” (paper presented at “Ideological Origins at 50,” New Haven, CT, April 20-21, 2017); id., “The Creative Imagination of Bernard Bailyn,” in The Transformation of Early American History: Society, Authority, and Ideology, ed. James A. Henretta, Michael Kammen, and Stanley N. Katz (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991), 34-7.

[2] One should definitely see Eric Nelson’s The Royalist Revolution as a direct attempt to do this, though he noted interestingly during the conference how surprisingly often he found himself agreeing with Bailyn. However, other recent works as well as a number in-progress (my own included) are also seeking to reconsider the origins and causes of the Revolution, including Tim Breen’s The Marketplace of Revolution, Brendan McConville’s The King’s Three Faces, Steven Pincus’s The Heart of the Declaration, and Justin DuRivage’s Revolution against Empire.

[3] For the record, during the Q&A following Higonnet’s remarks, I asked Bailyn if he would respond to the idea that Ideological Origins was a “love letter to America.” He responded to my prompt but deftly avoided addressing Higonnet’s remark directly, much to my chagrin.

4 responses

  1. Pingback: IOTAR50: Paper Politics |

  2. Pingback: IOTAR50: Paper Politics « The Junto

  3. Pingback: IOTAR50: Intellectual History from the Undistinguished « The Junto

  4. Pingback: IOTAR50: Paper Politics | Society for US Intellectual History


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