The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution.

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.

“You and I, my dear friend,” John Adams wrote in 1776, “have been sent into life at a time when the greatest lawgivers of antiquity would have wished to live. How few of the human race have ever enjoyed an opportunity of making an election of government . . . When! before the present epocha, had three millions of people full power and a fair opportunity to form and establish the wisest and happiest government that human wisdom can contrive?” But how fair in fact was the opportunity? Everyone knew the basic prescription for a wise and just government. It was so to balance the contending powers in society that no one power could overwhelm the others and, unchecked, destroy the liberties that belonged to all. The problem was how to arrange the institutions of government so that this balance could be achieved.”(p 273)

Professor Bailyn spends the next 28 pages summarizing all the different ideas among the Revolutionary generation on how to create ‘the wisest and happiest government that human wisdom can contrive.’ First, in studying previous governments and ultimately moving to create a completely new form of government. Some excerpts:

 “Nowhere in eighteenth-century America had the legal attributes of nobility been recognized or perpetuated. The law made no provision for hereditary privileges; no office of government had been guaranteed by birth.”(p 275)

“”Democratical” governments have rarely succeeded, for the mass of the people have only rarely had the power of self-denial, the disdain of riches, of luxury, and of dominance over others necessary to sustain such governments.”(p 292)

“To make “places of power” a prerogative of birth was poor policy indeed, for “wisdom is not a birthright”; nor was life tenure in office advisable since “men’s abilities and manners may change.”(p 295)

“Constitutional thought, concentrating on the pressing need to create republican governments that would survive, tended to draw away from the effort to refine further the ancient, traditional systems, and to move toward a fresh, direct comprehension of political reality. Denied, by the urgency of new problems, the satisfactions of elaborating familiar abstractions, Americans edged toward that hard, clear realism in political thought that would reach fulfillment a decade later in the formation of the national government and achieve its classic expression in The Federalist. In the process the modern American doctrine of the separation of functioning powers would be created, and the concept of “democracy” transformed.”(p 301)


“In Europe, charters of liberty have been granted by power. America has set the example and France has followed it, of charters of power granted by liberty. This revolution in the practice of the world may, with an honest praise, be pronounced the most triumphant epoch of its history and the most consoling presage of its happiness” - James Madison, 1792 (p 55)

“The theory of politics that emerges from the political literature of the pre-Revolutionary years rests on the belief that what lay behind every political scene, the ultimate explanation of every political controversy, was the disposition of power. The acuteness of the colonists’ sense of this problem is, for the twentieth-century reader, one of the most striking things to be found in this eighteenth-century literature; it serves to link the Revolutionary generation to our own in the most intimate way.”  (p 55)

“Most commonly the discussion of power centered on its essential characteristic of aggressiveness; its endlessly propulsive tendency to expand itself beyond legitimate boundaries. . . All sorts of metaphors, similes, and analogies were used to express this view of power. The image most commonly used was that of the act of trespassing. Power, it was said over and over again, has “an encroaching nature”; “. . . if at first it meets with no control [it] creeps by degrees and quick subdues the whole.” (p 56)

“What gave transcendent importance to the aggressiveness of power was the fact that its natural prey, its necessary victim, was liberty, or law, or right.” (p 57)

“For as great a blessing as government is,” the Rev. Peter Whitney explained, “like other blessings, it may become a scourge, a curse, and severe punishment to a people.” What made it so, what turned power into a malignant force, was not its own nature so much as the nature of man - his susceptibility to corruption and his lust for self-aggrandizement.” (p 59)

“More interesting than these venerable despotisms, bywords for the rule of force unrestrained by countervailing influences, were a number of despotic states that had within living memory been free and whose enslavement, being recent, had been directly observed. Venice was one: it had once, not so long ago, been a republic, but now it was governed ‘by one of the worst of despotisms.’ Sweden was another; the colonists themselves could remember when the Swedish people had enjoyed liberty to the full; but now, in the 1760s, they were known to ‘rejoice at being subject to the caprice and arbitrary power of a tyrant, and kiss their chains.’”(p 64,65)

“A constitution of government, analogously, Adams wrote, is ‘a frame, a scheme, a system, a combination of powers for a certain end, namely, - the good of the whole community.’”(p 68)

Benjamin Rush in 1787: “The American war is over; but this is far from being the case with the American revolution. On the contrary, nothing but the first act of the great drama is closed. It remains yet to establish and perfect our new forms of government, and to prepare the principles, morals, and manners of our citizens for these forms of government after they are established and brought to perfection.”(p 230)