Bailyn begins his book, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, with an explanation of how his study of pamphlets from the American Revolution solidifided his view that the American Revolution was “an ideological, constitutional, political struggle and not primarily a controversy between social groups undertaken to force changes in the organization of the society or the economy” (vi). He concludes that the cause of the Revolutions was Revolutionary thought intersecting with eighteenth-century life in America.
He agrees with many about the emergence of Enlightenment thought and the influence of religion, law, and classical literature, but he adds that anti-authoritarianism coming out of the English Civil War gave radicals a base on which to legitimize the American Revolution. He discusses literature and arrives at the conclusion that pamphlets’ use of inflammatory words, such as “slavery” and “corruption” are not intending to serve as propaganda; he believes these works mean that the people truly believed them and that the words were what clearly showed that they have a vivid fear of political oppression. “The fear of a comprehensive conspiracy against liberty throughout the English-speaking world --a conspiracy believed to have been nourished in corruption, and of which, it was felt, oppression in American was the only immediately visible part -- lay at the heart of the Revolutionary movement” (ix).
The people began to base their political theory on logic instead of desire and began to debate strategies to deal with imperial relations. This transformation of thought caused what Bailyn terms the “spill-over effect” (x), in which the thought is involved in both broad and narrow situations. The ultimate effect of these ideologies what that these ideas were old (some literatures even in the seventeenth century) but that America provided a situation where they could flourish and come to fruition through a Revolution. He attempts to answer “why there was a Revolution but how such an explosive amalgam of politics and ideology first came to be compounded, why it remained so potent through years of surface tranquillity, and why, finally, it was detonated when it was” (xi).
Chapter One: “The Literature of Revolution” deals with the importance of the pamphlet as a quickly published, easily consumed mode of discourse in America. It could make bold statements and be printed by one man and reflect his views wholly. The author is able to have complete freedom to print his unadulterated word in a pamphlet. Pamphlets were published as responses to events, “chain-reacting polemics” -- strings of individual exchanges, and and commemorative orations. Above all, according to Bailyn, pamphlets are political not literary. American pamphleteers were amateurs who aimed to persuade their fellow citizens that their view was the best one. His main example of an important pamphlet in this chapter is sets of discussion about the extent of Parliament’s jurisdiction in the colonies, resulting in “in what may be called the conceptualization of American life. By then American shad come to think of themselves as in a special category” (20). Chapter Two: Sources and Traditions explains the similarities of the pamphlets beginning with classical literature. Mentions of European Enlightenment thinkers pervades the pamphlets and opposition thought, especially Locke, was “devoured by the colonists” (43). The key concepts of much American thought were relatively commonplace, but their application was uniquely American.
Chapter Three: Power and Liberty discusses the theory of politics in America, which Bailyn claims is the disposition of power. Colonial thought began on the premise that power was only natural, but the distribution of power could easily become corrupt. Religious thought that power would destroy men resulted in the thought that standing armies were to be closely guarded because men with arms would be most susceptible to abuse of power. American ideas of a “constitution” also became unique in that they so strongly emphasized that “a proper system of laws and institutions should be suffused with, should express, essences and fundamentals --moral rights, reason, justice” (69). Ultimately, all colonists were driven by a fear of corruption and their publications expressed different ways in which they resolved these fears. Chapter Four: The Logic of Rebellion, continues this thought to show how colonists began by seeing the overwhelming evidence of their mistreatment by Parliament causing them to find their rebel position logical. As events happened, the feelings of the colonists were reinforced causing them to develop more rebellious ideology. They justified everything by the belief that “America had from the start been destined to play a special role in history” (140). Chapter Five: Transformation shows the progression from a vision of liberty to a new form of representation and consent, constitutions and rights, and sovereignty. The government produced out of the revolution came from an application of the previously established radical ideologies.
Chapter Six: The Contagion of Liberty explains how the pragmatic idealism affects actual legislation and government practices. He considers it dangerous in slavery situations where the contradiction of thought and practice was so great that the legislature decided to postpone any changes. Religion was also a problem, because churches were establishments similar to the ones the Revolution sought to overcome. Colonists fought over privilege of power and ultimately complete “democracy,” which included commoners, was postponed in order to establish stability. Writers disagreed on all these issues which is why pamphleteering played a big role in establishing colonial thought and discourse. The ideology of America made these disputes inevitable. “What Boucher, Leonard, Chandler, and other articulate defenders of the status quo saw as a final threat was not so much the replacement of one set of rulers by another as the triumph of ideas and attitudes incompatible with the stability of any standing order, any establishment --incompatible with society itself, as it had been traditionally known” (318).