Lately I’ve been digging back into a couple of classics on political thought during the American Revolution. The first is Bernard Bailyn’s The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, which originated as an introduction to a collection of pamphlets written during the imperial crisis. The second is Gordon Wood’s The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787.
It’s difficult to overstate the influence of these two books. Both of them helped generate historians’ appreciation of republicanism as the dominant theme of revolutionary politics, a synthesis that made sense of eighteenth-century Americans’ obsession with public virtue, the common good, and the invasive nature of power.
Ideological Origins and Creation of the American Republic have something in common besides their arguments, something that explains why both books were seminal when first published and have stood the test of time. In assembling their work, both Bailyn and Wood let the evidence guide them. They saturated themselves in what revolutionary-era Americans were reading and writing, they looked for patterns, and they made sense of it all. They didn’t ask, “What were eighteenth-century Americans thinking about such-and-such a subject?” Instead, they simply asked, “What were eighteenth-century Americans thinking?”
Writing the history of political thought, or any kind of intellectual history, should be an attempt to recover a past worldview. Bailyn and Wood didn’t consider themselves to be shapers of the evidence. They considered themselves subject to it, and that accounts for their work’s remarkable staying power; they listened to the American Revolutionaries and then allowed them to speak to us.
(Both book cover images are from Amazon.com.)