January 25, 2011

Some Basic Thoughts on the American Revolution According to Bernard Bailyn

Filed under: American Revolution, Freedom, Sovereignty and Constitution — Tags: — Russ @ 6:18 am


Bernard Bailyn’s great 1967 book The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution was intended to be a whitewash. He explicitly says he wrote it to counteract views of the motivations of the Founding Fathers as being primarily economic, as exemplified in Charles Beard’s Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States of 1913. (Savaged by the NYT as unpatriotic; so we see that today’s NYT is in many ways really the same old NYT.)
Based on my study, I think the Founders started out with a combination of economic and political motivations, although the practical application of their views on liberty was never subjectively intended to match the proclaimed expansiveness. So while most of them weren’t purely cynical, most of them were hypocrites to varying extents. But I don’t want to harp on that. For me, it suffices to say the American Revolution achieved a beginning before stagnating and then being hijacked. The subjectivity of the Founders isn’t as important as the objectivity of the Revolution’s logic. Those who commence an endeavor will often fail to fully understand it, especially if their subjective motivations are pre-compromised. So starting from a skeptical perspective, I end up content to take the ideas Bailyn documented at face value. That’s not to say he’s correct in a scholarly sense in imputing these ideas to the Founders as their primary and overriding motivation (let alone his grotesque attempt in a later appendix to claim the written Constitution represented the undying “fulfillment” of the Revolution’s original democratic ideas). But in a deeper sense he’s correct that the ideas of sovereignty and liberty are the core ideas of the entire democratic movement throughout history. So they were also the true ideas of the American Revolution, which wasn’t inherently flawed but just put on hiatus early in its life cycle. 
And this book in particular is valuable because in spite of Bailyn’s pro-system intentions, if we take everything he wrote at face value it provides the most compelling case for rejecting today’s kleptocracy, and for rejecting the representative government form itself. That’s why I love this book so much – where the system’s own best defenders provide the best case for rejecting the system, that’s always compelling evidence. (That’s why I so frequently cite Hernando de Soto and Chris Whalen as authorities on the real implications of the Land Scandal and what we should do about it. Neither is anti-system, indeed de Soto is a neoliberal ideologue, and yet each is led by circumstances to make implicitly radical anti-system arguments.)
Bailyn, in documenting the political ideology of the American Revolution, proves according to his own metric that almost every idea of rejection and resistance today is simply following through on the original logic of the Founders and their revolution. It’s all on the exact same vector. No one who’s familiar with these ideas can claim that their essence today lies anywhere than with those who oppose the kleptocracy.
I’m going to delve into the following ideas in much greater detail in subsequent posts. I’ll document and prove my case. But for today I’m just going to make the basic assertions.
1. Representative government: The colonial activists found that “virtual representation” is unrepresentative in principle, while actual representation in Parliament would also be unrepresentative in practice (since they’d always be heavily outnumbered and outvoted, and it would be too far away for the reps to be closely accountable to their constituents).
So the takeaway is that there’s no necessary reason any representation would be responsive and legitimate. According to the ideology of the American Revolution, representative government has no principled logic. The idea can stand or fall only according to empirical observation, how well it works in practice.
2. Constitution: The sovereign constitution is the sum of our natural rights and prerogatives as human beings and citizens. This sovereign constitution precedes the written Constitution, which in turn precedes the actual forms and practices of encoded laws and government. Everything subsequent to the natural constitution has authority only to the extent it’s in the spirit of this wellspring.
Just as with government itself, the written Constitution must further our rights and not hinder them. So it’s really another representative.
3. Sovereignty: The Founders recognized that the forms of sovereignty are mutable through history. No concrete institution necessarily embodies it. In the course of the Revolution their perception evolved from sovereignty reposing in the form of Parliament, to that it did not repose in Parliament but only in the King, to the final realization that it reposes only in the people ourselves.
And in the end, where else can it possibly reside, unless one wants theocracy? But when it comes down to it all belief that any executive or legislature is the fount of political legitimacy rather than its appendage, to be tolerated only on good behavior, is a form of superstition.
4. So far as I can see the only aspect of the Founders’ basic ideology which must be rejected is their belief that the existence of economic elites is some kind of law of nature.
But whatever was the state of knowledge in the 18th century, by now we’ve amassed enough empirical evidence to know that this is false. We know that economic elites become such elites in the first place primarily through robbery, and that they then use their strong position primarily to preserve and enhance these ill-gotten hoards. So to whatever extent the Founders’ belief that the existence of the wealthy is a natural fact wasn’t purely self-serving, they were simply incorrect. We can reject that part of the ideology as proven to be wrong.
So there’s the basics from which the rest of the ideas were elaborated, culminating in the written Constitution. We should reread and reconsider the Constitution in light of this and ask ourselves: Which aspects of this written Constitution truly embody the sovereign people’s constitution, and which are more rightly to be considered optional add-ons, to be judged only according to how well they fulfill the true democratic imperatives?


  1. I’ve read neither book, but I have spent a fair amount of time recently, and while I cannot say what drove the founders “primarily,” I can say with confidence that a common core ideology is what allowed them to agree on and ratify the U.S. Constitution.

    Here’s a link to an 1856 abolitionist book discussing the nature and origin of the Constitution. You will probably find it interesting. The introduction summarizes the purpose of the book.


    Comment by Tao Jonesing — January 25, 2011 @ 9:49 am

    • Thanks, Tao. That’s a prime example of the written document diverging from the true constitutional spirit, as the introduction argues although not exactly in those terms.

      It’s telling that the compromise was Northern consent to pro-slavery provisions in return for Southern consent to pro-predatory commerce provisions. These are indeed parallel evils, neither of which has validity. (No one ever had the right to bind America down through the generations to such a mean and infamous bargain.)

      What it said about the North agreeing to the perpetuation of tyranny in order to share in the profits reminded me of this hypocritical passage from Shakespeare’s Brutus.


      You have done that you should be sorry for.
      There is no terror, Cassius, in your threats,
      For I am arm’d so strong in honesty
      That they pass by me as the idle wind,
      Which I respect not. I did send to you
      For certain sums of gold, which you denied me:
      For I can raise no money by vile means:
      By heaven, I had rather coin my heart,
      And drop my blood for drachmas, than to wring
      From the hard hands of peasants their vile trash
      By any indirection: I did send
      To you for gold to pay my legions,
      Which you denied me: was that done like Cassius?
      Should I have answer’d Caius Cassius so?
      When Marcus Brutus grows so covetous,
      To lock such rascal counters from his friends,
      Be ready, gods, with all your thunderbolts;
      Dash him to pieces!

      Comment by Russ — January 25, 2011 @ 10:53 am

      • Take a look at page 13 and Jefferson’s notes about John Adams’ arguments as to why slaves should be counted as “inhabitants” of a state for purposes of calculating taxes owed to the United States for expenses incurred in the “common defence.” Pretty interesting, at least to me . . .

        Comment by Tao Jonesing — January 25, 2011 @ 1:56 pm

      • It sure is a bizarre debate, requiring the same level of callousness as that in Congress today.

        Slaves, freemen (“just as abject”), what’s the difference – a resource mine which adds to the state’s wealth, i.e. the wealth of the rich.

        If I had to pick out something from the general perversity of it, I’d point out the typical hypocrisy and freeloading of propertarians. Precsiely because they call other people “property”, they think they the “owners” shouldn’t be taxed for the produce of the work in the way the work of productive freemen is.

        Of course, the truth is the opposite – the more property one has, the more heavily one should be taxed to maintain a state whose first priority is to be the protection of that property and enforcement of its prerogatives.

        But as I said, the overriding depravity of this particular context dwarfs even the normal sociopathy of propertarians.

        That book looks like an excellent resource. I’ll have to read the whole thing when I get a chance.

        Comment by Russ — January 25, 2011 @ 3:26 pm

  2. I’m woefully ignorant of both early American political history as well as the ideological underpinnings of the Revolution, and I’m not sure that I understand what you mean by the “sovereign constitution”. Could you elaborate?

    Comment by paper mac — January 25, 2011 @ 7:41 pm

    • Basically, sovereignty is the moral/spiritual/philosophical source of legitimate power. This must lie in the people as a whole, or else it’s nothing but a scam in the service of might makes right and autocracy.

      The sovereign constitution is basically the set of rights and responsibilities according to which a people forms a society. For us, and for most people of the modern world, this must be a democratic constitution. (Alternatives could include various tribal ways of living, but I don’t know how many tribal ways still remain vibrant in this depredated world.)

      Then a written Constitution would be an attempt on the part of the people’s sovereignty to formally codify this sovereign constitution. But it’s the pre-formal set of moral norms, not the written expression, which is truly authoritative.

      I wrote a post relating to that issue.


      I hope this clarifies it, but I’ll be happy to discuss it further. My own ideas on all this are still raw.

      Comment by Russ — January 26, 2011 @ 4:31 am

      • Thanks for that clarification, Russ. One thing I really like about this blog is that most of the concepts you mention, you already have extensive discussions of elsewhere. Very handy. Please consider publishing a book or periodical at some point, the volume of interesting commentary here warrants it.

        I now understand the difference between the sovereign and procedural constitutions. I wonder, though, what your thoughts (and those of the early American revolutionaries) are on the origin of the sovereign constitution. I am sometimes uncomfortable with my own sense of morality, because it seems to be very much a “I know it when I see it” intuitive sense rather than a set of clearly defined principles. This leads me to believe that a large component of my moral compass is influenced by, if not outright composed of, subjective societal values. Might the same thing be said about a sovereign constitution? That it is either comprised of, or at the very least, influenced by the social mores of the individuals adhering to it? Or is it composed minimally of the values which all groups and societies hold in common? How are we to derive the specific principles underlying the sovereign constitution?

        Comment by paper mac — January 27, 2011 @ 12:29 am

      • Before I continue I should clarify that I wasn’t equating respect for the letter of the written Constitution with the “process” mentality I described in that post. But I did mean that such respect often degenerates into that process mentality, and we need to be alert to the difference.

        To try to give a preliminary answer to your good questions, I think constitution is independent of and underlies the dominant morality of a society. This social morality is usually pretty shallow and is changeable over time. Unfortunately, it’s all too easily manipulated by cabals, as we see today.

        But, for example, a criminal regime like the Nazis in the 30s or the neoliberal regimes of the modern West is able to take power and temporarily warp the minds of a large number of people, or at least reduce them to passivity. In this way social morality can quickly be coarsened or completely scoured.

        But this doesn’t change the underlying fact that sovereignty lies with the people and can never be alienated. And this immutable fact in turn at least strongly implies (and I argue, proves) that a democracy which aggressively promotes and protects our rights and freedom and promotes egalitarian economic prosperity is the only legitimate form of government.

        So for modern humanity, the sovereign constitution must embody this will to democracy and prosperity, regardless of the moral veneer of the society. Whether or not social morality is in sympathy with the constitution is a measure of the legitimacy of the existing power system.

        The relationship of this, what we could call political morality, to moral philosophy in general (for example, does the democratic constitution necessarily have to go hand in hand with the broad tendency of Judeo-Christian morality) is a different question I’ll have to think more about.

        But here’s a post relating to that question, though not fully answering it:


        So I encourage people to try to look beyond the often ephemeral values of the day, and especially to see who those values tend to serve. Instead we should consider the basic principles which must constitute a human community, and measure our institutions, the government and the artificial corporate entities it creates, according to how well they serve these principles and the democratic imperative of society.

        Thanks for your kind words. I toss around ideas for assembling this stuff into printed books or pamphlets. I need to select, reassemble, and edit. That’s one of the goals I wrote down on my 2011 goals list. (Not actually getting anything printed yet, but assembling the material.)

        Comment by Russ — January 27, 2011 @ 2:23 am

  3. If we are to have a democracy at all, it MUST be representative. Any attempt at direct democracy would lapse into chaos almost instantly.

    Comment by Andy Lewis — January 25, 2011 @ 10:21 pm

    • “Any attempt at direct democracy would lapse into chaos almost instantly.”

      Garbage. There are numerous historical and contemporary examples of groups of people self-governing by direct democracy, from city states to trade unions.

      Comment by paper mac — January 26, 2011 @ 12:52 am

    • That’s historically false. Throughout history and prehistory smaller sociopolitical bodies often included directly democratic elements.

      American history offers the example of town-hall democracy.

      Modern history has provided plenty of examples of such forms functioning in larger systems as well. The Paris Sections during the French Revolution and the Paris Commune, the soviets of 1905 and 1917, Germany in 1918-19, Italy in 1921, 1956 Hungary and elsewhere, and most of all during the Spanish Civil War.

      In all these cases council democracy functioned well, often under extremely adverse conditions. In all these cases the democracy never failed, but was crushed by outside force, usually by violence.

      True federalism is proven to work. It’s representative government which is a proven failure according to its proclaimed goals, political freedom and broadly based economic prosperity.

      Comment by Russ — January 26, 2011 @ 4:39 am

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  7. […] to the power and liberty of the people. This is truly its Original Intent, as is made clear by the original philosophy of the American Revolution.   Similarly, since “property” could only ever be valid if it referred to the rights […]

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