Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Rothbard on Bailyn on Trenchard and Gordon

Very interesting:

Bailyn's Crucial Breakthrough

The crucial breakout from the miasma of American historiography of the Revolution came from one man. He was able by sheer force of scholarship to overthrow the Consensus and Progressive views and to establish a new interpretation of the causes of the American Revolution. This was Harvard Professor Bernard Bailyn, who, breaking through the hermetic separation of European and American historians, found his inspiration in the great work of Caroline Robbins, The Eighteenth Century Commonwealthman. For Bailyn realized that Professor Robbins had discovered the "missing link" in the transmission of radical libertarian thought after John Locke. She had found it in a group of dedicated writers, inspired by the English Revolution of the seventeenth century, who continued to reject the centrist Whig settlement of the eighteenth century. These writers carried forward the ideals of natural rights and individual liberty. In the course of editing a volume of Revolutionary pamphlets, Bailyn discovered that Americans were indeed influenced, on a massive scale, by these libertarian articles and pamphlets. Many of these publications were reprinted widely in the American colonies, and clearly influenced the revolutionary leaders. The most important shaper of this libertarian viewpoint was Cato's Letters, a series of newspaper articles in England in the early 1720s written by John Trenchard and his young disciple Thomas Gordon. The collected Cato's Letters were republished many times in eighteenth century England and America.

Trenchard and Gordon, and the other libertarian writers, transmuted John Locke's abstract and often guarded political philosophy into a trenchant, hard-hitting, and radical libertarian creed. Not only did men have natural rights of life, liberty, and property, which governments must not invade, but "Cato" and the other writers declared that government – power – was always and ever the great enemy of liberty, and stood ready to aggress against it. Hence, power must always be diminished as far as possible. Men must watch it continually with utmost hostility and vigilance, lest it break its bonds, and destroy the rights of the individual. "Cato" particularly denounced the propensity for tyranny of the British government of the day. This message found an eager reception in the American colonies.

Thus, Bernard Bailyn established the American Revolution as at one and the same time genuinely radical and revolutionary. He showed that it was motivated largely by firmly and passionately held libertarian ideology, summed up in the phrase "the transforming libertarian radicalism" of the American Revolution. Bailyn's findings were first presented in the "General Introduction" to his edition of Pamphlets of the American Revolution, 1750–1776, Vol. 1, 1750–1765. The only volume of pamphlets yet published in the series, it included the works of such revolutionary leaders as the Rev. Jonathan Mayhew, Thomas Fitch, James Otis, Oxenbridge Thacher, Daniel Dulany, and John Dickinson.

An expanded version was published as Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. Also see the companion volume by Bailyn, The Origins of American Politics, which offered an excellent explanation for the British royal governors being weak in the eighteenth century at the same time that the King was dominant at home. A useful summary of the Bailyn thesis is provided by Bailyn's "The Central Themes of the American Revolution: An Interpretation" in S. Kurtz and J. Hutson, eds., Essays on the American Revolution. The scintillating writings of "Cato" have been collected in an excellently edited volume by David L. Jacobson, The English Libertarian Heritage.

One problem with the generally correct Bailyn thesis is its exclusive emphasis on ideology, as it affected the minds and hearts of the Americans. Historians find it easy to slip into the view that the deep ideologically motivated hostility to Britain, while genuinely felt, was merely an expression of "paranoia." Indeed, Bailyn himself almost fell into this trap in his recent overly sympathetic biography of the leading Massachusetts Tory, Thomas Hutchinson. One of the best historians of this period, Edmund Morgan, in the New York Review of Books duly noted and warned against the trap in his review of this work.

An excellent corrective to this exclusive concentration on the subjective is the work of the most important political (as contrasted to ideological) historians of the pre-Revolutionary period. In the definitive history of the Stamp Act crisis of 1765–1766, Edmund and Helen Morgan demonstrated the majority nature of the revolutionary movement. They attacked, as well, the actual depredations of Great Britain on American political and economic rights. Edmund and Helen Morgan, The Stamp Act Crisis: Prologue to Revolution. Also see the companion source book of documents, Edmund S. Morgan, ed., Prologue to Revolution: Sources and Documents on the Stamp Act Crisis, 1764–1766. Particularly important is the monumental and definitive, though densely written, two-volume political history of the coming of the American Revolution by Bernhard Knollenberg, Origins of the American Revolution: 1759–1765; and Growth of the American Revolution, 1766–1775. By examining British archives, Knollenberg shows that the supposed paranoia and "conspiracy theories" of the American colonists were all too accurate. The British officials were indeed conspiring to invade the liberties of the American colonies after the "salutary neglect" of the pre-1763 period.

For the rest, see here.


Tom Van Dyke said...

Excellent. A scholar acquaintance of mine had the same lead, which I've been meaning to follow up---that the Founding Era's understanding of Locke was not from reading Locke himself, but from reading the abridgement/bastardization/mutation of him by the authors of Cato's Letters. [This would tend to mean that Locke's disagreements with Rev. Richard Hooker would tend to get them both thrown into the same slush.]

Whether what Rothbard's talking about is genuine "libertarianism" as we think of it in the 21st century is another matter, so caution should be used before building a whole thesis around Rothbard's [a modern libertarian himself] use of the term here.

BTW, Rothbard was also an atheist, and a Thomist (meaning Aquinas and natural law). I like Rothbard a lot and excerpted him here:

Jonathan Rowe said...

Rothbard was a fascinating fellow. Sometimes not correct and way out there, but still always worth a read.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Yes, not exactly an historian, perhaps not quite a philosopher, but a breath of fresh air in between the prevailing narrative[s].


Big thumbs up for this paper on the topic at hand, with a healthy dose of Gordon S. Wood.

I intend to go through it more thoroughly, and I submit it's required reading for AC regulars.

For the record, I didn't know who the author was until I was marking up the link. Doesn't matter.

To zip to an assessment of Bailyn's method and use of the pamphlets in question, scroll down to p. 133.

Tom Van Dyke said...
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Tom Van Dyke said...
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Tom Van Dyke said...

For the record, American Creation faithful, Bernard Bailyn hisself is named as being in the fine tradition of what Allen C. Guelzo calls The Harvard Narrative. Just so's we know all the players.

King of Ireland said...

From Tom's Link:

"None of his critics notethat the problem with Bailyn's analysis is that he relies primarilyupon pamphlets. This is. not to say that he forgets other sources ofhistorical information, but rather that by drawing his analysis fromthe pamphlets he is prevented from establishing when an idea be-came prominent as opposed to merely stated. He is also led toignore the more formal political documents written by Americans,and these documents often tell more about the history of ideas thanthe most logical and well written pamphlet."

I found this interesting and it may be a starting point for answering Brad's question in the comments section under my last post about how much your average person cared about Romans 13, resistance theory, or even about what the key founders wrote.

It asks a good question:

Is the history of ideas more correctly and easily traced in propaganda of the day designed to reach the masses or intellectual treatises of the era? Good question.

King of Ireland said...

By the way Jon, excellent rebutal to my earlier post. I think Tom brings this into perspective with his linked article but yours was an excellent point.

At first glance what do you think gives a better view of the founding mindset:

Pamphlets or More formal documents?

Tom Van Dyke said...

"None of his critics note that the problem with Bailyn's analysis is that he relies primarily upon pamphlets. This is not to say that he forgets other sources of historical information, but rather that by drawing his analysis from the pamphlets he is prevented from establishing when an idea became prominent as opposed to merely stated. He is also led to ignore the more formal political documents written by Americans,and these documents often tell more about the history of ideas than the most logical and well written pamphlet."

Thx, King. That was the exact paragraph I was pointing our readers to on p. 133-4. I was too lazy [and busy] to transcribe it off the PDF.

And it's extremely gratifying to have someone---anyone---actually follow the links provided, not to mention to actually locate the key graf all on their own initiative and hunger to get at the truth.

And BTW, I feel the same way when my critics pore over the source documents to try to prove me wrong on this or that. Read the source documents for yourselves; don't take my word for anything---and more importantly, any "accredited" historian's either.

Think of it as a sort of Protestantism, sola scriptura, but with the Roman Catholic "informed conscience."

I think I'm onto a good riff here.


But I do agree with Rothbard in his respect for Bailyn-via-Caroline Robbins' hermeneutic as a breakthrough.

I was struck by Hamilton's easy appeal in The Farmer Refuted to a roster of great natural law thinkers, as if he'd read them for himself.

Grotius, Puffendorf, Locke, Montesquieu, and Burlemaqui.

[No Aquinas or the Schoolmen, of course. Papists.]

I started reading Burlemanqui for myself, but he seemed rather middling as a thinker. Neither did Puffendorf, sorting out the hassles between Protestants in Germany seem to offer much fresh ground applicable to the American Revolution.

Bailyn's epistemology, that the Founders like Hamilton were relying on Cliffs Notes of these thinkers like the "Cato's Letters" makes perfect sense to me. Surely Hamilton never read Burlemaqui in unedited form, or at least not for long!

Dude was boring.

And having read a lot of Locke in his unabridged form, if the Cato's Letters version of Locke throws him into a blender with the orthodox Anglican Rev. Richard Hooker, whose writings Locke often uses as his jumping-off point, you couldn't tell the Enlightenment part from the orthodox Anglican.

Thx for opening this keg, Jon. Back to epistemology again, the crisis of our modern age, but in this case not ours in 2010, but the Founders'. Another layer to peel back.

Damn this history of ideas is interesting, though. Why we're addicted to this blog, I reckon...

Jonathan Rowe said...

My pleasure to both. I think pamphlets and the more formal documents are both important. Sounds like a cop out I know.

But, I've come to (perhaps wrongly) see these things in a "top down" way. That would make the key Founders more important than the lesser and the formal documents like the DOI, US Constitution and Federalist Papers (and the important state documents like their Constitutions and the state documents written by "key Founders") as more important.

King of Ireland said...

"But, I've come to (perhaps wrongly) see these things in a "top down" way. That would make the key Founders more important than the lesser and the formal documents like the DOI, US Constitution and Federalist Papers (and the important state documents like their Constitutions and the state documents written by "key Founders") as more important."

Then I think we are on the right track with looking at the Locke's and Ponnet's of the world.

With that stated, I think I messed up starting with Ponet. To trace this line of thought one has to go back to Hooker in that this is who Locke cites. My question is where did all these Protestants get the ideas from? Since it seems that Hooker quotes a lot from Aquinas I think we have our answer. Aquinas-Hooker-Locke-DOI.

Now all we have to do is confirm the link with the documents themseleves. The fact that Ponet and other Calvinist writings on this topic seem to be similar in regards to relying on the God's workmanship concept only stregthens the case.

I also find it compelling that the link that Tom cites seems to elevated Whig thinking above all the other intellectual roots of the founding. Even states that they turned into the Anti-Federalists. I think it also turned into the state-righters too.

Too bad slavery tainted the case for localism in the 1800's. But I think we can all agree if we would have heeded many of the warnings of the Anti-Federalists we would not be in the mess we are in now.

Did Hooker have a lot of influence on other Whigs beside Locke?

King of Ireland said...


I think you should do a series of posts on the link.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Yes, it's a great recap and jumpstart for catching up on Bailyn and Wood on "Whig political theory," which since the publication of the originals in the late 1960s, and since this paper of 1977, has moved into preeminence as the academy's prevailing narrative of the ideology of the Founding.

The author of the paper is Donald S. Lutz, who's rather known as a "conservative" historian, I think, since he's the guy who counted how often the Bible was cited in the Founding era literature. So if Lutz, "Harvard Narrative" Bailyn and Wood agree on anything, that's a good starting point.

I'm not familiar with Lutz' work, and detect that he might have moved away from crediting Whig theory as highly as Bailyn does in the years after 1977.

In The Origins of American Constitutionalism, Donald S. Lutz challenges the prevailing notion that the United States Constitution was either essentially inherited from the British or simply invented by the Federalists in the summer of 1787.


Lutz builds his argument around a close textual analysis of such documents as the Mayflower Compact, the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut, the Rhode Island Charter of 1663, the first state constitutions, the Declaration of Independence, and the Articles of Confederation. He shows that American Constitutionalism developed to a considerable degree from radical Protestant interpretations of the Judeo-Christian tradition that were first secularized into political compacts and then incorporated into constitutions and bills of rights. Over time, appropriations that enriched this tradition included aspects of English common law and English Whig theory.

This sounds closer to my own impression of the Big Picture, taking in the "radical Protestant interpretations of the Judeo-Christian tradition" that were Beza, Vermigli, Ponnet, the Vindiciae.

I think using the term "Calvinism" hurts the inquiry, as it tends to narrow it to John Calvin himself, and us poring through the Institutes to try to find justification for the "Black Regiment" of Presbyterian ministers who fought in the American revolution.

Well, it's simply not there in the Institutes.

Calvin himself is not part of that "radical Protestant interpretation"---it's his above-named successors who were. [Much like "Scholasticism" takes in the whole Thomistic tradition: you won't find anything particularly politically radical in Aquinas; that comes later in de Vitoria, Suarez, even Bellarmine.]

The proper term here isn't "Calvinism," it's Reformed theology. Capital "R."

King of Ireland said...

I think one has to prove the Aquinas-Hooker-Locke-DOI link then bring in all the writers who seem to build on the same foundation.

Then we can explore the Constitution as the means to the end of protecting the inalienable rights that the DOI talks about. Thus Gladstones "free individuals sovereign over a limited state"

This is where I turn from Relgious Right types. I think our religious ancestors made the biblical case for being able to do whatever you wanted while still maintaining it might not be wise to do so.

I think Paul stated that while all things are permissable not wise or something like that. Bad paraphrase but it is in Corinthians somewhere.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I think one has to prove the Aquinas-Hooker-Locke-DOI link then bring in all the writers who seem to build on the same foundation.

King, you can even cut our some of the middlemen.

Tom Van Dyke said...

And please don't take my word for it. But consider taking Algernon Sidney's.

King of Ireland said...


The first link did not cut and past can you put it in html?

King of Ireland said...

I found it.

"“Luther denied any limitation of political power either by Pope or people, nor can it be said that he showed any sympathy for representative institutions; he upheld the inalienable and Divine authority of kings in order to hew down the Upas tree of Rome.” “There had been elaborated at this time a theory of unlimited jurisdiction of the crown and of non-resistance upon any pretense"

This is right on. In fact, I think some of the interposition arguments stated with the whole investisture(not spelled right) controversy under Pope Gregory. King and Pope were not getting along and a lot of political theory was written during this time to undermine the position of both. From the little I read the interposition arguments were used by the Pope to undermine the King. It would be ironic that Luther used the old Catholic arguments(Written by pro King theologians) for Divine Right to take out the Pope.

I read a history book on Spain by a man named Elliot that cited Aragon having a convenant based government. This was pre-Ferdinand and Isabella.


If this paper is true, and I think it is, this is a bombshell. The reformation actually birthed the divine right of kings and later reformed writers had to set this straight. Though from the reading of Calvin I think it is safe to say that his even his limited view of interposition undermines the divine right of kings.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Yes. The Divine Right of Kings was James I's baby---Filmer, Patriarcha, Suarez, Locke's First Treatise. It's all connected.

Joe Winpisinger said...

James probably claimed it to be able to ignore the Pope.