History Books

Founding Ambiguities

24 April 2003: When Gordon S. Wood's review of Bernard Baylin's Beginning the World Anew appeared in The New York Review of Books in February, I put the book on my must-read list, despite my dislike of collections of historical essays. Having now read Mr Baylin's book, and then re-read Mr Wood's piece, which is really an enthusiastic account of Mr Baylin's contribution to American historiography, I must say that the review captures everything good about the book, and conceals most of its defects. For Beginning the World Anew (Knopf, 2003) is a very thin volume in more ways than one. It comprises five essays, all but one of which ought to have been at least twice as long (and twice as thorough). The exception is the essay in the middle, the heart of which is a resume of the portraits of Benjamin Franklin with which French artists celebrated his fame during his sojourn in Paris during the American Revolution. Amusing as this essay is, it does not support - or, for that matter, contradict - the theory stated in its title, which has to do with Felix Gilbert's conclusion that the high-water marks in American diplomatic history have occurred when its idealistic and realistic impulses have worked in concert. Oddly, Mr Baylin doesn't try to make a connection between the representations of Franklin and Gilbert's theory (which, for that matter, Mr Baylin merely states without argument). The three-page peroration on the dual nature of the Constitution/Bill of Rights (realistic/idealistic) clouds the essay further, giving it the embarrassing look of a pastiche thrown together for publication.

I suspect that if Mr Baylin were to extend the book's opening essay, "Politics and the Creative Imagination," he might have begun to feel the ground give way beneath him. Here he wants to adapt a theory of art historian Kenneth Clark's, contrasting provincial and metropolitan art, to American history, and to argue that the Founders were freed by their own provinciality - distance from the British Empire's metropolitan center - to develop a constitution that challenged European ideas of government. But I think it's flatly wrong to call the New England colonists 'provincials.' They were acting not on the periphery of British life, as, arguably, their contemporaries in Scotland were, but beyond it, on territory that had, in the case of New York, been under British management for little more than a century, and in no other case for as long as two. To regard these territories as remote outposts of English civilization blunts the sense of their experimental nature. Established by mercantile associations that were subsumed under crown rule in the second half of the seventeenth century, the colonies were a patchwork of trial-and-error undertakings, self-consciously novel and, with the arguable exception of Maryland, not intended to reproduce the customs of the mother country. It was the lack of precedent for their experiences and impressions that emboldened the Founders to repudiate generally received ideas about the division of power, the extent of republican governments, and the balancing of individual rights and centralized authority. As Mr Baylin points out, the Americans replaced the European tripartition of social estates - crown, nobility, commons - with the functional tripartition - executive, legislative, and judicial - that had naturally arisen on American soil.

Nor is it meaningful to call eighteenth-century Americans provincial in the social sense, for once again, their lives were too different. There has been a lot of talk about aristocracy in America, certainly since Jefferson, but there has never, not for a minute, been an American aristocracy in the European sense of the word. Aristocracy in Europe, for that matter, is hardly robust. It persists as an ornament, but has not exercised any kind of inherent political power for generations. (Americans may be excused for confusing monarchs with aristocrats, but Europeans never do.) It is true that aristocratic manners set the tone of sophisticated life in the early days of the American republic, and it is true that this tone could hardly be kept up in the Colonies. To the extent that a colonial American (such as William Byrd II) regretted the absence of European wit and style among his countrymen, Virginia could be dismissed as provincial. But the contrast between rude America and suave Europe intensified over time instead of diminishing. I take this to mean that Americans have never looked very European, even when they were richer, better educated, and, in spirit, more polite.

Provinces usually labor under metropolitan neglect, but as Mr Baylin himself points out,

British North America had long been the subject of intense scrutiny by European thinkers - partly out of an interest in the effect of environment on human development, but mainly out of the need for proof of what a society of Europeans would be like if the burdens of European establishments were radically reformed or eliminated.

In short, everyone on both sides of the Atlantic understood that something new was being structured on virgin soil.

Reading between the lines, I believe that Mr Baylin's interest in this issue stems from his concern that Constitutional scholarship today, both in- and outside the Supreme Court (where the document of 1787 has been repeatedly recast ever since its ratification), has become 'metropolitan.' According to Kenneth Clark's theory, metropolitan art stagnates when it becomes academic and refined, as it inevitably does until refreshed or replaced by new ideas from the provinces. Our constitutional law, and theory of constitutional law, have certainly become rarefied, difficult for the American-in-the-street to grasp. (I don't know how many times I've had to explain that O.J. Simpson's criminal and civil suits did not violate the ban on double jeopardy - not that this is a particularly rarefied point.) Noble and functional as it may be, the American Constitution hardly works to the advantage of the nation's cities; on the contrary, it all but stokes rural fear of and contempt for urban life. Claims that the Senate is an undemocratic body have become noisy in recent years, as have demands to do away with the Electoral College. Meanwhile, constitutional specialists seem convinced that any change would be for the worse, and, in the case of a constitutional convention, much worse; this is the kind of fearful conservatism that blocked reform of the ancien régime prior to the bust-up of 1789 in France. I take Mr Baylin's warning seriously, but he ought to have said more about it, and suggested ways in which we might avert the risk of a similar explosion here. Had he done so, his fourth essay, on the role of the Federalist Papers, in the late 1780s and thereafter, in American political philosophy would have a point that, as it stands, seems lacking.

Indeed, I would argue that had the Colonies really constituted the periphery of the British kingdom, then their Revolution would have had to overtake the capital, London, in order to succeed. That, of course, would have been a much more violent affair, perhaps as chaotic as the French Revolution.

Mr Baylin's essay on Jefferson comes closest to addressing his collection's subtitle (The Genius and Ambiguities of the American Founders). It seeks to explain the conflicts in the third president's thought and behavior - conflicts occasioned, in Mr Baylin's view, not by hypocritical inconsistencies but by the fact that Jefferson was gifted both an idealist and a realist, and both on a high order. A visionary writer, he was also a gifted administrator; an unequaled master of phrasing universal truths in memorable English, Jefferson never let his words get in the way of shrewd deal-making. At the same time, his principled embrace of the embargo undid not only his own fortune but that of the Virginia planter class. The thorniest point in Jefferson's dossier is surely his failure to free the bulk of his slaves in his will; Mr Baylin, unfortunately, does nothing to explain this. The essay is unlikely to persuade anyone who does not already hold a moderate view of Jefferson to adopt one.

The fifth essay, "Atlantic Dimensions," breezily summarizes the reception, by both European and Latin American governments of the new republic's founding documents. It is difficult to know who would find this outline useful other than a college student taking a comprehensive history course of some kind. If I were cramming for an exam, I'd probably be able to memorize it on a short-term basis, but the encapsulated material is so undercontextualized that it makes almost no lasting impression. As in the Franklin essay, there are interesting nuggets galore - I had no idea that Switzerland's federalism went through several variations on American themes between Napoleon and 1830 - but because Mr Baylin's field is American history, the nuggets fit together only with respect to that specialty, and don't tell us much about the process of foreign adaptation. I was already familiar with the idea that the United States was and is a special place.

In short, the further I got with this book, the less I understood the point of its publication. Sorry to say, not even Gordon Wood's enthusiasm for his former teacher inspires me to go back and read Mr Baylin's prize-winners, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution and The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson.

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