IOTAR50: Teaching Bailyn’s Ideological Origins

Today, we continue “The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution at 50,” our joint roundtable with the S-USIH blog with a post by Kenneth Owen, an Assistant Professor of Early American History at the University of Illinois Springfield, whose research interests focus on political mobilization and organization in the revolutionary and early national eras.

It took me a long time to warm to The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. I don’t think this is an uncommon experience for an early Americanist. Fifty years after its publication, Bailyn’s seminal work still features prominently on graduate and undergraduate reading lists. Yet it is hard to say that the book is beloved. Often, simply mentioning Bailyn’s name can be a pejorative shorthand—an outmoded view of the past that celebrates elites at the expense of the darker underbelly of the Revolution. As an undergraduate, I too railed against the book. How far, I asked with youthful bluster, were minutemen really inspired by the cautionary tale of seventeenth-century Denmark? And yet, like the profession itself, I have found it hard to shake Bailyn’s shadow. How is it that a book that is often only grudgingly admired still occupies such a large part of the field’s mental imagination?

Some of the answer, I think, lies in the versatility of the book. Once I had been through the salutary experience of writing my own undergraduate thesis from writing primary research, the organizational rigor of the book became much clearer. This lesson appeared in even sharper relief when taking a Masters course on historiography. Though Bailyn’s arguments centered around elite, learned pamphlets, his arguments about the spread of ideas and, in particular, the spread of conspiratorial thinking, demanded a much subtler reading and more detailed engagement. It might be possible to attack a neo-Whig citadel, but one needed to come well-armed.

Now, as an Assistant Professor, I assign parts of Ideological Origins in more courses than any other reading. That is partially a natural result of teaching courses on both the political and the intellectual history of the Revolution. Where I’ve found the book most useful, though, is in the historiography section of my introductory methods course. Students read the introduction about halfway through that segment of the class, just as they are beginning to become familiar with the idea that historians are shaped not only by the sources they use, but also by the time in which they write. And the introduction is unusually clear about its methodology and the rationale behind using pamphlets to explain the entire Revolution.

Bailyn’s systematic explanation of the value and importance of pamphlets certainly comes as a relief to students who I’ve forced to grapple with Turner and Boorstin in previous weeks. By this point in the unit, they’re just about getting used to the idea of historians being shaped by the time in which they write: Bailyn’s description of pamphlets, combined with a vague understanding of the tumult of the 1960s, provides easier context for understanding the book’s argument. And on the face of it, Bailyn’s modelling of a consistent line of inquiry is appealing. Which sets me up nicely for the kicker: what isn’t there?

I mischievously follow the class on Bailyn with Jesse Lemisch’s 1977 Radical History Review essay, “Bailyn Besieged in His Bunker.” And normally, the students recognize both the cohesiveness and clarity of Bailyn’s approach, and the deeper questions of historical agency that it doesn’t answer. (This is helped in no small part by Lemisch’s rallying cry to his own comrades, that they need to do more to establish the existence of a class consciousness in the revolution.) And so, in dealing with Bailyn’s introduction for the first time, they get to deal with some of the biggest dilemmas that face a historian. Can the attitudes of elites really explain why men were willing to take up arms and put their lives on the line? Perhaps not. But if we discount the value of ideas, then is there much place for human agency in the study of the past at all? Then again, can a history that focuses so heavily on elite reading habits really provide that insight into human agency? Ideological Origins may not provide the answers to these questions. But it provides a stern challenge to those wishing to undertake the same work.

The longevity of Bailyn’s book, I would venture, comes down to it being a case study masquerading as a grand narrative. The close attention to pamphlet literature gives the book a richness and an analytical depth which rewards the reader who returns to it. Yet the argument of the book becomes more tenuous the more Bailyn stretches the mindset of those reading and writing revolutionary pamphlets to those whose daily life was more prosaic, and less richly documented. The richness of the case study, however, continues to provide a challenge to future historians. It may be superficially simple for the undergraduate to point at the holes and omissions that Bailyn seems to glide over when outlining his case for placing pamphlets at the heart of the Revolution’s causes. Yet what other set of sources, what other set of practices, what other intellectual frameworks can be applied with the same consistency to explain the past? Ideological Origins serves, for me, as a useful reminder of the importance of rigor in developing conceptual frameworks of the past.

So, when undertaking the work of trying to explain the causes of the Revolution, it is hard to avoid the implicit challenge within Bailyn’s work. I suspect that’s why Ideological Origins has never faded from my intellectual consciousness, and why so many of us, despite ourselves, still turn to its pages when teaching and analyzing the revolution. While it is particular in its focus, and while it studies but a small slice of the colonial and revolutionary experience, it nevertheless illuminates broader questions that permeate well beyond the scope of its particular case study. That is perhaps its biggest paradox – while seeking to answer precise questions about a particular revolutionary literature, Ideological Origins invites its reader to think more expansively about what the Revolution actually meant. Its failure to provide that broader coverage of the Revolution is perhaps its biggest strength, for it forces us all to ruminate much more carefully on what we, too, might not notice isn’t there.

4 comments on “IOTAR50: Teaching Bailyn’s Ideological Origins

  1. Interesting new perspectives on an old book!

  2. Chris Slaby says:

    “Can the attitudes of elites really explain why men were willing to take up arms and put their lives on the line? Perhaps not. But if we discount the value of ideas, then is there much place for human agency in the study of the past at all?”

    These are great questions, and they make so much sense in relation to IOTAR, but more broadly they seem to suggest a continued problem for historians. They suggest that we think that non-elites didn’t have ideas, or that, given the sources available to us, we cannot know and understand their ideas to the degree that we can know and understand the ideas of elites. I think there’s certainly some truth to that, but I also think today we can (and should) say a lot more about the ideas of everyday people. Bailyn used a logical source to tell his story, but that source automatically limited him in terms of what he could say about what everyday people thought. I think it’s still a story worth spending some time on, and, as you say, IOTAR is very useful for thinking about methodology. But, also as you say, it’s perhaps most enlightening for us today in highlighting what it didn’t (and couldn’t) say and thus it’s an impetus for us all to look for better ways to find and talk about the ideas of non-elites.

  3. The Craftsman Redux says:

    Something’s truly rotten when you find out that a youthful Ken Owen did not appreciate the influence of Danish history upon a colonial American audience.

  4. […] American Revolution, I found it liberating. (That places me alongside Michael and Sara more than Ken this week.) True, Bernard Bailyn’s book was yet another attempt to credit elite white men for […]


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