Thursday, September 17, 2015


Today in 1787 the US constitution was approved.

Faces of Revolution: Personalities and Themes in the Struggle for American Independence - Bernard Bailyn

Bernard Bailyn is a Harvard professor emeritus whose specialty is U.S. Colonial and Revolutionary-era history. Though he has appeared on The Brian Lamb Channel only once, he is a winner of two Pulitzers, a National Book Award, a National Humanities Medal and a Bancroft, which may mean nothing to the lay public but is the most prestigious prize among American historians.

This 1990 book is a collection of nine essays on the Revolution and one on the Constitution. Bailyn’s basic thesis is that the passionate ideology in favor of liberty and the spirit of individualism motivated the British Americans to revolt against the central authority of the crown.

In the essays about John Adams, Tom Paine and Harbottle Dorr, Bailyn shows that revolutionaries convinced themselves and others that evil ministers crafted British policies in order to enslave the colonists. The essay on Tom Paine argues that the power of the pamphlet  Common Sense  comes from its fiery arguments against colonists' fundamental anxieties about severing ties with The Mother Country. In these biographical sketches Bailyn explains the personalities and motivations of leaders and lesser figures (three essays cover religious figures who felt ambivalent about the Revolution) and how their psychology, or will, influenced their behavior.

Bailyn holds the point of view that the less important causes of the Revolution were social factors -  such as the differing interests between elites, rich merchants, a struggling middle class, and the poor and vulnerable.

I especially liked the article on Tory official Thomas Hutchinson, who is mainly remembered for being reviled by John Adams. I also enjoyed the piece about the difficult figure of Thomas Jefferson, whom Bailyn thinks is a mediocre thinker but an extremely pragmatic politician. The piece on the momentous year of 1776 brings together what thinking readers already know in new, provocative ways. The final essay covers the anti-Federalists’ criticisms of the Constitution and thus delves in the tension between lofty political philosophy and grubby political decision-making.

Bailyn’s prose has more style than we expect from a professor. He makes clear difficult ideas and seems impartial to all sides. Lay readers – like me - will be challenged but rewarded.

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