The Reading Room

Exceptionalism: The Birth of the Idea of America

The term is not politically correct, today, but there should be little doubt that “exceptionalism” applies to the Enlightenment in America. We know that thanks to the Pulitzer Prize–winning history by Harvard University professor Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Harvard University Press, 1967). If you are interested in how ideas change and change the world, I urge you to read this book. Even just the new preface to the fiftieth anniversary edition published by Harvard University Press in 2017 will give you extraordinary insights into how ideas evolve and exert their influence in the most complex situations. 
The idea for the book evolved from an earlier project to collect pamphlets published in pre-Revolutionary America relating to Anglo-American relations. Bailyn found more than 400. In every conceivable form—essay, treatise, editorial, poem, satire, play, and dialogue—by writers from many walks of life, none a professional intellectual—the pamphlets ceaselessly explained, argued, weighed, debated, and refined concepts, ideas, and examples that would become—after decades—a new vision and conceptualization of what it meant to be an American. 
What did it mean to be a “free” man? A party to “consent” to be governed? To live under a “constitution” with your “rights” secure from the threat of political power that history showed had always plagued civilizations, nations, and humanity?
Bailyn identified in these pamphlets (as well as examples from some thirty-eight newspapers publishing by the time of the Revolution, sermons, and speeches) all of the features of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment,  including, for example: (1) reverence for works and thinkers of classical antiquity who were invoked and quoted everywhere in the literature of the Revolution; (2) citations from Locke, Montesquieu, and other British and French Enlightenment intellectuals; (3) regular references to British legal theory in works of Blackstone and others; and (4) a thread of (by then largely secularized) Puritan “covenant theory.”
As Bailyn minutely examines the fabric of the pamphlets debate, there are a wealth of examples of how it was accompanied—but in the end not defined—by a continuous hailstorm of charges of conspiracy on both sides. Every development, such as the Stamp Act, occasioned a flurry of pamphlets, some with the most extravagant and abusive rhetoric, in which the colonists accused malefactors around King George III of a conspiracy to gain unlimited power by curtailing their liberties and “enslaving” them. The opposition, in Britain but also including Tories in the colonies, replied with equal heat that certain colonists were conspiring, and using every incident to advance their intent to stir rebellion and war to achieve independence.
Bailyn concludes that “the eighteenth century was an age of ideology; the beliefs and fears expressed on one side of the Revolutionary controversy were as sincere as those expressed on the other. The result, anticipated by [Edmund] Burke as early as 1769, was an ‘escalation’ of the distrust toward a disastrous deadlock: ‘The Americans have made a discovery, or think they have made one, that we mean to oppress them; we have made a discovery, or think we have made one, that they intend to rise in rebellion against us. . . . We know not how to advance; they know not how to retreat. . . . Some party must give way.’ ”
But no party did.
The Surprising Legacy of the Commonwealthmen
Bailyn shed new light on pre-Revolutionary thought by tracing every reference he found in the pamphlets, discovering that from the beginning of the eighteenth century Americans had devoured the eloquent polemics of the Protestant “Commonwealthmen.” That cluster of intellectuals, struggling for reforms in the generation after Britain’s Glorious Revolution of 1688, had launched attacks on the usurpation of power under Sir Robert Walpole (1676–1745), who in various positions came to utterly dominate all British politics as, in effect, the de facto first British prime minister. 
Bailyn writes: “Two great political pamphleteers of that era, John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, had been eloquent and prolific on the dangers of powerful autocracies.”  In the 1720s, they together published 191 essays later collected in a widely read book, Cato’s Letters: Or, Essays on Liberty, Civil and Religious. In defiant prose, Trenchard and Gordon laid out the themes of the nature and uses of power that American patriots later would incorporate time after time. In particular, their writing brimmed with examples of the havoc wrought by “power allowed to tear at the vitals of free institutions and the liberties of ordinary folk.”
Bailyn came to see that no political preoccupation, no single concept, arrested the attention of the colonists in the long lead-up to the Revolution as did “power.” Based upon their intimate familiarity with the analyses, warnings, and forebodings of the “Commonwealthmen,” the colonists reverted repeatedly to fears of unconstrained, avaricious, infectious political power. They hashed over example after example—Britain itself, Poland, Sweden, Denmark, Spain—but none with such intensity and relish as the disintegration of the free Roman Republic into the dictatorial Roman Empire and the ensuing civilizational ruin. “The words of the earlier age on the dark progress of power lay deep in the American polemics of the 1760s and 1770s,” Bailyn writes.
Pamphleteers struggled for an exact definition of “power” and settled by a kind of unspoken consensus on the synonym “dominion”—the dominion of some men over others by means of the exertion of force. And the tendency and perpetual danger of power they came to view as lodged by nature in the breasts of all men. While power was aggressive, thrusting, a cancer, a “mouth,” liberty tended to passivity, gentleness, and so always was vulnerable. Liberty demanded vigilance by the people because by definition “power”—the armed ability to dominate other men—was inherent in the nature of government.
New Meanings of Traditional Terms
Many threads joined together after 1760, and particularly between 1765 and 1775, as commonly used terms such as “rights,” “social contract,” and “balance of power” acquired specialized meanings for the American colonists—meanings forged in their context and by their self-conception. For example, the term “rights,” as in “the rights of Englishmen,” and the term “liberty,” long had been common currency, but in the extended American debate, these concepts evolved. A right or liberty had been the gift of rulers, a concession of Parliament enshrined in statutes, or a reiterated claim defended by long precedent. In the give-and-take of the colonists over decades, a determination grew that rights, and by implication, liberty, must somehow be antecedent to all laws, their foundation, an endowment of human nature in the virtue of reason and natural justice. 
Of course, John Locke had advanced such a concept of rights, but the colonists struggled to adapt it to their context and experience. And so, James Madison could write, in 1792,  four years after ratification: “In Europe charters of liberty have been granted by power. America has set the example, and France has followed it, of charters granted by liberty. This revolution in the practice of the world may, with an honest praise, be pronounced the most triumphant epoch of its history and the most consoling presage of its happiness.” 
Similarly, the “balance of power,” applied in Europe to the French “estates” and British social classes, did not seem to fit the American context; and so the concept emerged, new in political theory, of a government structured to balance powers—an idea debated in the decades before the Revolution and carried over to the Constitutional Convention.   
Thus, ideas, principles, and intuitions of government structure evolved that were expressed partially in the Declaration of Independence; by then, comments Bailyn, they embodied “a conceptualization of American life.” Then, after more debates, again dominated by pamphlets, they were expressed in the new constitution. There then ensued still another contentious debate, also in pamphlets (ultimately totaling more than 1,500), as ratification of the proposed constitution hung in the balance.
Was This a New Central Power Threatening Freedom?
Debated among the colonists was the central objection—and fear—that after throwing off, at last, illegitimate British power, they now were asked to ratify an instrument that would create a new and powerful central government. In the end, Bailyn suggests, even the Anti-Federalists realized, largely based on the Bill of Rights, that theirs was a new kind of government in the world. “In the end,” writes Bailyn, “they found themselves fulfilling their original goals by creating power on new principles, not by destroying it.”
On a new platform of ideas in a written constitution approved by consent of those to be governed—and arising from decades of engagement with fears and hopes, history and philosophy, ideas and principles, social realities and new experiences—the Americans had constructed a new political reality. They had given birth in the new world to a new vision of humanity and what it meant to live a humane life.
John Adams had written in 1765, the year of the provocative Stamp Act: “The liberties of mankind and the glory of human nature is in their keeping. America was designed by Providence for the theatre on which man was to make his true figure, on which science, virtue, liberty, happiness, and glory were to exist in peace.” And Bailyn comments: “To fulfill this destiny was the entire struggle of the Revolutionary generation.”
The “revolution” before the Revolution
It would be agreeable to end on that inspiring note. Bailyn, however, poses a crucial and fascinating question raised by the entire narrative. The colonists could not know at the time, but two revolutions would follow theirs, one almost immediately and one in the twentieth century. The French Revolution and the Russian Revolution (and I would add, the Chinese Communist Revolution) led to terror, near civil war or actual civil war, the overthrow of governments, and the deliberate extermination of whole segments of the population. Why did this not occur in America?
Bailyn’s answer can be summarized briefly. The vast upheavals entailed in other revolutions already had occurred in America during the century or more before the Revolution. The migration to America and dispersion of the population into small towns in the wilderness had left far away the established church and clergy so powerful in the ancien régime in France and relatively so in Britain. A class structure—generations of aristocratic families with their vast estates and hereditary titles and privileges that other revolutions smashed by violence, including mass murder—had not “traveled well” to the New World or taken hold in the predominantly rural, agricultural American economy.
Only state governments existed, many with nascent or prototype bills of rights, so no government had to be overthrown and its defenders exterminated. No standing army was in place that could be called upon to defend the government and a ruling class. In short, there was not the vast, entrenched power structure in America of ancien régime France or Tsarist Russia. Instead, the required victory was to defeat an “occupation” that the colonists had come to view as corrupted, dominating, and now threatening to their rights. Among Americans themselves, only British loyalists represented opposition, and they were a small minority. In effect, the colonists more or less viewed all their fellow Americans (with the festering contradiction of enslaved Africans) as essentially their equals with a shared stake in freedom and the fight for it.
“The essential spirit of eighteenth-century reform,” Bailyn concludes—“its idealism, its determination to  free the individual from the power of the state, even a reformed state—lived on, and lives on still.”