Faces of Revolution: Personalities & Themes

in the Struggle for American Independence

by Bernard Bailyn

Over the past several decades, revisionist historians have belittled our Founding Fathers. These attacks on the Founders is unjustified. The Founding Fathers were the most intelligent group of men to ever assemble together and form an entirely new form of government. 

Excerpts from this superb book.

“The Founding Fathers were mortals, not gods; they could not overcome their own limitations and the complexities of life that kept them from realizing their ideals. But the destruction of privilege and the creation of a political system that demanded of its leaders the responsible and humane use of power were their highest aspirations. To note that the struggle to achieve these goals is still part of our lives - that it is indeed the very essence of the politics of our time - is only to say that the American Revolution, a unique product of the eighteenth century, is still in process.” (page 224)

“All of the Founders hoped to create a free society in America; not all of them could, or would, recognize, as Jefferson did, that this could only end in the destruction of chattel slavery. And those who recognized this and who strove to break the hold of this vicious institution so long before its condemnation became a common moral stance acted with a system of priorities that limited what they could achieve.” (p 223)

“The highest priority was reserved for whatever tended to guarantee the survival of the republican nation itself, for in its continuing existence lay all hopes for the future.Most of the Revolutionary leaders hated slavery - not one of them ever publicly praised it - but they valued the preservation of the Union more. A successful and liberty-loving republic might someday destroy the slavery that it had been obliged to tolerate at the start; a weak and fragmented nation would never be able to do so.” (p 223)

“The dominant belief struck at the heart of the privileged world. Everywhere in America the principle prevailed that in a free community the purpose of institutions is to liberate people, not to confine them, and to give them the substance and the spirit to stand firm before the forces that would restrict them. To see in the Founders’ failure to destroy chattel slavery the opposite belief, or some self-delusive hypocrisy that somehow condemns as false the liberal character of the Revolution - to see in the Declaration of Independence a statement of principles that was meant to apply only to whites and that was ignored even by its author in its application to slavery, and to believe that the purpose of the Constitution was to sustain aristocracy and perpetuate black bondage - is, I believe, to fundamentally misread the history of the time.” (p 221)

“It was not simply that new liberty-protecting forms of government were being devised. A new civilization, it was felt, a civilization whose origins could now be seen to have lain in the earliest years of settlement, was being created, free from the weight of the past, free from the corruption and inflexibility of the tangled old-regime whose toils had so encumbered Americans in the late colonial period.” (p 214)

“The first is the belief that power is evil, a necessity perhaps but an evil necessity; that it is infinitely corrupting; and that it must be controlled, limited, restricted in every way compatible with a minimum of civil order. Written constitutions; the separation of powers; bills of rights; limitations on executives, on legislatures, and courts; restrictions on the right to coerce and to wage war - all express the profound distrust of power that lies at the ideological heart of the American Revolution and that has remained a permanent legacy.” (p 220)