Posted by: captainfalcon | September 27, 2009

The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution: A Study in Recursion

[Warning: it takes a bit of set-up to get to the recursion. And it turns out to not actually be recursion. And it goes by pretty fast.]

I’m forty percent through Bernard Bailyn’s The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. Excellent book, so far. Its thesis is that the American Revolution occurred because its prime movers all shared a political worldview that, with a few notable modifications, had been cribbed from a tradition of eighteenth century polemic (preeminent among which were Cato’s Letters). According to Bailyn, the revolutionaries’ worldview made rebellion seem the only acceptable response to (what we might now regard as) fairly insubstantial encroachments on their liberties.

The tradition that gave rise to the revolutionary worldview expresses what Bailyn calls the “country vision of British politics.” The “country politicians” were writing in the wake of the Glorious Revolution – the era of Prime Minister Robert Walpole who (it was widely thought) inculcated stability and prosperity, but did so by introducing a system of political patronage.

The “complacent picture” of Walpolian Britain – accepted by most Britons – had it that “the transfer of sovereignty from the crown to Parliament [following the Glorious Revolution] provided a perfect guarantee that the individual would be protected from the power of the state. [Coupled with stability and prosperity, this resulted in] complacence and a general high level of satisfaction” (Bailyn, 47).

The country vision – so called because it exerted its strongest influence on cranky rustic squires – was not so rosy. Country politicians, Bailyn writes,

[W]ere the Cassandras of the age…They were the enemies of complacence in one of the most complacent eras in England’s history…[T]hey called for vigilance against the government of Walpole equal to what their predecessors had shown against the Stuarts. They insisted, at a time when government was felt to be less oppressive than it had been for two hundred years, that it was necessarily – by its very nature – hostile to human liberty and happiness (Bailyn, 46-47).

Bailyn explains this skittishness by attributing to the country politicians a particular view of human nature, which (to their mind) was frighteningly confirmed by history.

The complacent view had it that institutional checks on power were sufficient to prevent government from lapsing into tyranny. By the complacents’ lights, the constitution of Britain (its division of political power between the crown, aristocracy and commons) precluded the possibility of the capricious exercise of power. This happy fact was rather obscurely explained by an Aristotelian insight:

In the best of worlds, it had been known since Aristotle, [each of royalty, aristocracy and the commons] was independently capable of creating the conditions for human happiness; in actuality all of them, if unchecked, tended to degenerate into oppressive types of government – tyranny, oligarchy, or mob rule – by enlarging their own rights at the expense of the others’ and hence generating…misery for most. In England, however, these elements of society, each independently dangerous, entered into government in such a way as to eliminate the dangers inherent in each…The functions, the powers, of government were so distributed among these components of society that no one of them dominated the others” (Bailyn, 70).

While Bailyn does not make this point explicit, it is in keeping with the complacent view’s institutionalism that they downplayed the role of human agency in political affairs. If the institutional checks were in place, there wasn’t much anybody could do to derail the system. (Perhaps the idea was that the institutional checks themselves would (somehow) prevent any collection of people from transgressing the basic limits of good government, or perhaps the law of averages dictates that Parliament would never be stocked with a group diabolical enough to subvert England’s essential norms.)

The country politicians, by contrast, thought human agency played a decisive role in protecting against tyranny. As a consequence, they rejected the complacent view’s institutional account of British excellence as too…complacent. Safeguarding liberty and the good life required constant vigilance, because “Power always and everywhere [has] had a pernicious, corrupting effect upon men. It converts a good man in private life to a tyrant in office…And nothing within man is sufficiently strong to guard against these effects of power – certainly not the united considerations of reason and religion, for they have never been sufficiently powerful to restrain the lusts of men” (Bailyn, 60; internal quotations omitted).* If reason and religion (together!) are insufficient to check our lust for power, so too is a mixed constitution (though it doubtless forestalls liberty’s eclipse).

Nor needed they to accept this dismal account a priori. History, after all, is littered with examples of liberated people like the Britons coming to “rejoice at being subject to the caprice and arbitrary power of a tyrant, and [to] kiss their chains” (Bailyn, 64-65). In Denmark, for example, “a corrupt nobility, more interested in using its privileges for self-indulgence than for service to the state, had dropped its guard and allowed in a standing army which quickly destroyed the constitution and the liberties protected by it” (Bailyn, 65). The Turks had never been free, but this is precisely because they were “cruel [and] sensuous” (their sensuality was decisively evidenced by “The Affection and Friendship the Pages of the Seraglio Bear to Each Other”) (Bailyn, 63).

To the country way of seeing things, in short, the British constitution was insufficient. Virtue – “spartan, self-denying virtue” (Bailyn, 65) – was also required, and virtue was precisely what Walpole was laying to waste:

[T]he executive possesses means of distracting Parliament from its proper function; it seduces members by the offer of places and pensions, by retaining them to follow ministers and ministers’ rivals, by persuading them to support measures – standing armies, national debts, excise schemes – whereby the activities of administration grow beyond Parliament’s control (Bailyn, 48).

Bailyn notes that while this country vision was a minority view in England, the same was not so in the American colonies.

There an altered condition of life made what in England were considered to be extreme, dislocating ideas sound like simple statements of fact….[T]here the threat of ministerial aggrandizement seemed particularly pressing and realistic, for there, in all but the charter colonies, the executive branches of government – venal surrogates, it so often seemed, of ill-informed if not ill-disposed masters – held, and used, powers that in England had been stripped from the crown in the settlement that had followed the Glorious Revolution as inappropriate to the government of a free people (Bailyn, 51-52).

This brings me to the recursion. There is, in America today, a “country vision” of politics that is almost identical to the country vision that had its grip on the Walpolean-era rustics. It sees government as inherently expansive, capable – even in our civilized age – of great atrocities and populated by power-hungry politicos. Likewise, there is a complacent view, probably shared by the majority (at least of the elites), which sees this outlook as eccentric. But America’s country politicians are exporting their ideas to places where political venality is a way of life. And in those places – where the conditions for liberty’s being highly prized (that Bailyn identifies) obtain – the vision is taken seriously.

So the American revolutionaries’ key historiographical insight – that “what happened yesterday will come to pass again, and the same causes will produce like effects in all ages” (Bailyn, 85) – receives confirmation.**

* I can’t find it right now, but Bailyn has a quotation from someone lamenting the frequency with which these hackneyed premonitions appeared in print. Even in the eighteenth century, “power corrupts” was widely thought a tiresome reminder.

** For a good discussion of the cyclical conception of history, and a contrast with the radical Whiggishness of recent times, see Pessimism.


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