The Framers as Idealistic, Pragmatic and Helpfully Parochial:
A Review of Bernard Bailyn's To Begin the World Anew


Friday, March 21, 2003

Bernard Bailyn, To Begin the World Anew: The Genius and Ambiguities of the American Founders (Knopf 2003)

It's good to be Bernard Bailyn. He has long held one of the marquee positions of the American academy, that of Adams University Professor at Harvard, and has been widely and deservedly called our finest historian of the colonial period. The breakthrough book that garnered him both the Pulitzer and the Bancroft prizes, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, first published in the 1960's, was and remains seminal, required reading for any serious student of the Revolution.

The difficulty with being Bernard Bailyn, though, is that his past achievements set the bar awfully high. Fortunately, though, with his latest work, a collection of essays entitled To Begin the World Anew, Professor Bailyn exceeds even the heightened expectations that greet each of his new works.

A Continuation of the Great Work Begun in Ideological Origins

To Begin the World Anew is best understood in the intellectual context of Professor Bailyn's work - principally, Ideological Origins. That work was the product of countless hours spent studying the pamphlets and other literature of the Revolution, so as to gain a ground-level understanding of the ideologies that drove a relatively comfortable people to revolution.

The payoff of those labors was an interpretation that acknowledged the traditional wellspring of the Revolution - Lockean natural rights - but gave equal billing to a practical "cluster of convictions focused on the effort to free the individual from the oppressive misuse of power, from the tyranny of the state."

In his latest work, Bailyn picks up on this thread - the juxtaposition between visionary ideals, on the one hand, and pragmatic realism on the other. It is this juxtaposition, it is clear, that he believes animates the peculiar American genius.

The Framers and Their Provincialism

The first essay in To Begin the World Anew takes us back one step, before it directly addresses this juxtaposition - to examine the question of just who the Framers were. To answer the question, Professor Bailyn takes a refreshing and rewarding cross-disciplinary approach. How do you tell what sort of people we are talking about? Look at their houses, and look at the portraits they had painted of themselves.

Professor Bailyn goes on to explore the implications of provincialism for the Framers' ideologies. Continuing his emphasis on the visual, he takes an acknowledged cue from Kenneth Clark: In the development of ideas, as in the development of art, there is a value to an ironic distance from the metropolitan orthodoxy.

To take one great example from Professor Bailyn, think of Federalism. It was unthinkable in the courts of Europe, where the centuries had proven that divided sovereignty was an unstable prescription for conflict. But in the provinces, Federalism was simply giving a name to what the Founders (previously colonists) had lived with for more than a century - in the form of the structures of local and imperial governments which, as a practical matter, operated with considerable independence from each other.

Three Great American Institutions of the Revolutionary Period

With the underlying social and political environment having been thus explored, the next three essays in Bailyn's new collection examine three great American institutions of the Revolutionary period, and how provincialism shaped the balances struck, in each institution, between the practical with the idealistic.

The first institution is the Constitution itself - and here it is critical to return to the teachings of Ideological Origins. The Revolution was a revolt against abuses of power, as chronicled in the Declaration of Independence itself. And the natural reaction to a fear of power was to create a national government of limited powers. But the Articles of Confederation proved an inept failure.

Thus, the newly independent nation was faced with a seemingly insolvable conundrum: How could then nation promote order and efficacy in government without returning to an all powerful executive, a king or quasi-king? And if disorder or despotism were the only choices, what had the point of independence been, after all?

Of course, a third way was found, in the system of checks and balances. And Professor Bailyn convincingly argues that such a solution could only have been found by a provincial working outside the domineering shadows of orthodox thought. Madisonian constitutional architecture, he suggests, required the freshly manured lands of the provinces in order to take root.

Even after the Constitution was drafted, Bailyn explains, the Founders continued to confront the tension between the idealistic and the pragmatic. The most tangible result of the ratification debates embodies the tension: Would the architectural filigrees of the Constitution be sufficient to preserve the rights of the people against this new centralized creation? In order to bring the beast to life, the Federalists were obliged to saddle their idealistic creature of political science with the plain words of a pragmatic Bill of Rights.

The second and third institutions examined by Professor Bailyn are actually persons - two of the titans of the founding, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.

As to the chapter on Franklin, if truth be told, it does not fit with the overall theme as well as the chapter on Jefferson does (though Bailyn makes a game effort to show a fit). Nevertheless, Professor Bailyn's examination of the evolution of the portraiture of Franklin is so fascinating and so entertaining, that no apologies need be made for its not fitting precisely with the other essays in the collection.

An Instant Classic That Sheds New Light on the Framers and Their World

To Begin the World Anew is a wonderful book that exhibits the very best of what can transpire when a scholar at the heights of his own discipline, takes the risk of reaching out across the campus--here, all the way to the arts and architecture departments.

The result, in this case, is to cast fresh and reveling light on our forbears, our Constitution, and the interplay of idealism and realism that is a hallmark of America at its best.

Matthew Herrington practices law in Washington, D.C. His email address is mherrington@wc.com.

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