Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Sources for an American Idea of Revolution

In his seminal book on The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, Bernard Bailyn identifies five currents of thought that were significant to forming the world view of the colonists who struggled against the British Empire. The initial four are as follows: first, “the heritage of classical antiquity;” second, the “ideas and attitudes associated with the writings of Enlightenment rationalism;” third, the tradition represented by English common law; and, fourth, the “political and social theories of New England Puritanism.” However, according to Bailyn,
important as all these clusters of ideas were, they did not in themselves form a coherent intellectual pattern, and they do not exhaust the elements that went into the making of the Revolutionary frame of mind . . . The ultimate origins of this distinctive ideological strain lay in the radical social thought of the English Civil War, and of the Commonwealth period.

Bailyn goes on to say that the permanent form of the American revolutionary world view had fully formed by the late-seventeenth and early eighteenth-centuries. Interestingly enough but not surprisingly, Milton figures significantly as a progenitor of this opposition theory. If this is true, the American Revolution is properly an outcome of radical “poetical” processes of late-Protestant thought. In more modern terms, this revolutionary mindset is characterized by patterns of investigation sharing close affinities with analytic philosophy and critical synoptics. Before, however, analytic and synoptic perception is possible, thought has to be set free to range beyond the limits of custom and conventional knowledge.

Bailyn. The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1992).

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