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essays

Sep 1, 1979

Liberty and the American Revolution

“Since 1950…the intellectual history of the Revolution has come to center stage.”

Robert McColley
University of Illinois—Urbana

“Radical Political Thought in the American Revolution.” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 69 (1976) 2: 91–99.

Historians in the early twentieth century tended to view the American Revolution within a narrow socio-economic framework. Questions of taxation, trade, and conflicts of interest between British authorities and the rising American gentry predominated. When these historians considered the intellectual roots of the American revolt against the British, their views fell into two categories. Some writers, like George Otto Trevelyan, Charles McLean Andrews, Moses Coit Tyler, and Samuel Eliot Morrison, viewed the colonists’ insistence on representation and individual liberties as a revival of the seventeenth-century, English liberal tradition. Other scholars, such as J. Franklin Jameson, Vernon Louis Parrington, Carl Becker, Gilbert Chinard, and Adrienne Koch, stressed the radical nature of the American experiment—its republican character and its roots in rationalism and the French Enlightenment.

Since 1950, however, the intellectual history of the Revolution has come to center stage. Signs of this new interest appear first in Clinton Rossiter’s Seedtime of the Republic (1952). Comparing influential documents of both Colonial and Revolutionary era Rossiter argues that these revolutionary ideas grew in organic fashion from the experience of local self-government during the Colonial period. This coincidence of custom and ideas contrasts with the radical revolutionary traditions of Europe, as exemplified by Mirabeau, Robespierre, Lenin, and Stalin.

Other scholars extended Rossiter’s pioneering research. In The Lost World of Thomas Jeffersonand The Genius of American Politics, Daniel Boorstin laid emphasis upon the nonEuropean, native and popular nature of the American revolutionary tradition.

In 1960, English historian Caroline Robbins published her essential treatise, entitled The Eighteenth-Century Commonwealthman. Robbins demonstrated the decisive Political impact on the American Colonies of the eighteenth-century thinkers, known as the “Old Whigs” (or “Commonwealthmen”). Far from the centers of economic and political power in Britain, Old Whig essayists and pamphleteers “praised liberty, warned against the dangers of tyranny, and deplored extravagance, luxury, and corruption in public affairs.” Through Scottish presses and immigrants, these liberal idea flooded into Colonial America.

At about the same time that Robbins published her study, Robert E. Palmer was arguing in The Age of Democratic Revolution that the American Revolution formed but one part of a general democratic movement which spread forth from such diverse centers as Warsaw, St. Petersburg, Philadelphia, Stockholm, London, Geneva, Vienna, and Williamsburg. Nonetheless, Palmer asserts that the American experiment was a radical creation, since it established the first national government based on seventeenth-century principles of the people as original and supreme sovereign.

Subsequent historians such as H. Trevor Colbourn (The Lamp of Experience: Whig History and the Intellectual Origins of the American Revolution), Richard M. Gummere (The American Colonial Mind and the Classical Tradition), and Bernard Bailyn (Ideological Origins of the American Revolution) have continued the work of reconstructing the intellectual matrix of the American revolutionary experience.