Modern history


THE American Revolution



IF ANY CATCHPHRASE IS TO characterize the work being done I on the American Revolution by this generation of historians, it will probably be “the American Revolution considered as an intellectual movement.”1 For we now seem to be fully involved in a phase of writing about the Revolution in which the thought of the Revolutionaries, rather than their social and economic interests, has become the major focus of research and analysis. This recent emphasis on ideas is not, of course, new, and indeed right from the beginning it has characterized almost all our attempts to understand the Revolution. The ideas of a period which Samuel Eliot Morison and Harold Laski once described as, next to the English revolutionary decades of the seventeenth century, the most fruitful era in the history of Western political thought could never be completely ignored in any phase of our history writing.2

It has not been simply the inherent importance of the Revolutionary ideas, those “great principles of freedom,”3 that has continually attracted the attention of historians. It has been rather the unusual nature of the Revolution and the constant need to explain what on the face of it seems inexplicable that has compelled almost all interpreters of the Revolution, including the participants themselves, to stress its predominantly intellectual character and hence its uniqueness among Western revolutions. Within the context of Revolutionary historiography, the one great effort to disparage the significance of ideas in the Revolution—an effort which dominated our history writing in the first half of the twentieth century—becomes something of an anomaly, a temporary aberration into a deterministic social and economic explanation from which we have been retreating for the past two decades. Since roughly the end of World War II we have witnessed a resumed and increasingly heightened insistence on the primary significance of conscious beliefs, and particularly of constitutional principles, in explaining what once again has become the unique character of the American Revolution. In the hands of idealistminded historians, the thought and principles of the Americans have consequently come to repossess that explanative force which the previous generation of materialist-minded historians had tried to locate in the social structure.

Indeed, our renewed insistence on the importance of ideas in explaining the Revolution has now attained a level of fullness and sophistication never before achieved, with the consequence that the economic and social approach of the previous generation of behaviorist historians has never seemed more anomalous and irrelevant than it does at present. Yet paradoxically it may be that this preoccupation with the explanatory power of the Revolutionary ideas has become so intensive and so refined, assumed such a character, that the apparently discredited social and economic approach of an earlier generation has at the same time never seemed more attractive and relevant. In other words, we may be approaching a crucial juncture in our writing about the Revolution where idealism and behaviorism meet.

IT WAS THE REVOLUTIONARIES THEMSELVES who first described the peculiar character of what they had been involved in. The Revolution, as those who took stock at the end of three decades of revolutionary activity noted, was not “one of those events which strikes the public eye in the subversions of laws which have usually attended the revolutions of governments.” Because it did not seem to have been a typical revolution, the sources of its force and its momentum appeared strangely unaccountable. “In other revolutions, the sword has been drawn by the arm of offended freedom, under an oppression that threatened the vital powers of society.”4 But this seemed hardly true of the American Revolution. There was none of the legendary tyranny that had so often driven desperate peoples into revolution. The Americans were not an oppressed people; they had no crushing imperial shackles to throw off. In fact, the Americans knew they were probably freer and less burdened with cumbersome feudal and monarchical restraints than any part of mankind in the eighteenth century. To its victims, the Tories, the Revolution was truly incomprehensible. Never in history, said Daniel Leonard, had there been so much rebellion with so “little real cause.” It was, wrote Peter Oliver, “the most wanton and unnatural rebellion that ever existed.”5 The Americans’ response was out of all proportion to the stimuli. The objective social reality scarcely seemed capable of explaining a revolution.

Yet no American doubted that there had been a revolution. How then was it to be justified and explained? If the American Revolution, lacking “those mad, tumultuous actions which disgraced many of the great revolutions of antiquity,” was not a typical revolution, what kind of revolution was it? If the origin of the American Revolution lay not in the usual passions and interests of men, wherein did it lay? Those Americans who looked back at what they had been through could only marvel at the rationality and moderation, “supported by the energies of well weighed choice,” involved in their separation from Britain, a revolution remarkably “without violence or convulsion.”6 It seemed to be peculiarly an affair of the mind. Even two such dissimilar sorts of Whigs as Thomas Paine and John Adams both came to see the Revolution they had done so much to bring about as especially involved with ideas, resulting from “a mental examination,” a change in “the minds and hearts of the people.”7 The Americans were fortunate in being born at a time when the principles of government and freedom were better known than at any time in history. The Americans had learned “how to define the rights of nature—how to search into, to distinguish, and to comprehend, the principles of physical, moral, religious, and civil liberty,” how, in short, to discover and resist the forces of tyranny before they could be applied. Never before in history had a people achieved “a revolution by reasoning” alone.8

The Americans, “born the heirs of freedom,”9 revolted not to create but to maintain their freedom. American society had developed differently from that of the Old World. From the time of the first settlements in the seventeenth century, wrote Samuel Williams in 1794, “every thing tended to produce, and to establish the spirit of freedom.” While the speculative philosophers of Europe were laboriously searching their minds in an effort to decide the first principles of liberty, the Americans had come to experience vividly that liberty in their everyday lives. The American Revolution, said Williams, joined together these enlightened ideas with America’s experience. The Revolution was thus essentially intellectual and declaratory: it “explained the business to the world, and served to confirm what nature and society had before produced.” “All was the result of reason. . . .”10The Revolution had taken place not in a succession of eruptions that had crumbled the existing social structure, but in a succession of new thoughts and new ideas that had vindicated that social structure.

The same logic that drove the participants to view the Revolution as peculiarly intellectual also compelled Moses Coit Tyler, writing at the end of the nineteenth century, to describe the American Revolution as “preeminently a revolution caused by ideas, and pivoted on ideas.” That ideas played a part in all revolutions Tyler readily admitted. But in most revolutions, like that of the French, ideas had been perceived and acted upon only when the social reality had caught up with them, only when the ideas had been given meaning and force by long-experienced “real evils.” The American Revolution, said Tyler, had been different: it was directed “not against tyranny inflicted, but only against tyranny anticipated.” The Americans revolted not out of actual suffering but out of reasoned principle. “Hence, more than with most other epochs of revolutionary strife, our epoch of revolutionary strife was a strife of ideas: a long warfare of political logic; a succession of annual campaigns in which the marshalling of arguments not only preceded the marshalling of armies, but often exceeded them in impression upon the final result.” 11

IT IS IN THIS HISTORIOGRAPHICAL context developed by the end of the nineteenth century, this constant and at times extravagant emphasis on the idealism of the Revolution, that the true radical quality of the Progressive generation’s interpretation of the Revolution becomes so vividly apparent. For the work of these Progressive historians was grounded in a social and economic explanation of the Revolutionary era that explicitly rejected the causal importance of ideas. These historians could scarcely have avoided the general intellectual climate of the first part of the twentieth century, which regarded ideas as suspect. By absorbing the diffused thinking of Marx and Freud and the assumptions of behaviorist psychology, men had come to conceive of ideas as ideologies or rationalizations, as masks obscuring the underlying interests and drives that actually determined social behavior. For too long, it seemed, philosophers had reified thought, detaching ideas from the material conditions that produced them and investing them with an independent will that was somehow alone responsible for the determination of events.12 As Charles Beard pointed out in his introduction to the 1935 edition of An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution, previous historians of the Constitution had assumed that ideas were “entities, particularities, or forces, apparently independent of all earthly considerations coming under the head of ‘economic.’” It was Beard’s aim, as it was the aim of many of his contemporaries, to bring into historical consideration “those realistic features of economic conflict, stress, and strain” which previous interpreters of the Revolution had largely ignored.13 The product of this aim was a generation or more of historical writing about the Revolutionary period (of which Beard’s was but the most famous expression) that sought to explain the Revolution and the formation of the Constitution in terms of socioeconomic relationships and interests rather than in terms of ideas.14

Curiously, the consequence of this reversal of historical approaches was not the destruction of the old-fashioned conception of the nature of ideas. As Marx had said, he intended only to put Hegel’s head in its rightful place; he had no desire to cut it off. Ideas as rationalization, as ideology, remained—still distinct entities set in opposition to interests, now, however, lacking any deep causal significance, becoming merely a covering superstructure for the underlying and determinative social reality. Ideas therefore could still be the subject of historical investigation as long as one kept them in their proper place, interesting no doubt in their own right but not actually counting for much in the movement of events.

Even someone as interested in ideas as Carl Becker never seriously considered them to be in any way determinants of what happened. Ideas fascinated Becker, but it was as superstructure that he enjoyed examining them, their consistency, their logic, their clarity, the way men formed and played with them. In his Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideas, the political theory of the Americans takes on an unreal and even fatuous quality. It was as if ideas were merely refined tools to be used by the colonists in the most adroit manner possible. The entire Declaration of Independence, said Becker, was calculated for effect, designed primarily “to convince a candid world that the colonies had a moral and legal right to separate from Great Britain.” The severe indictment of the king did not spring from unfathomable passions but was contrived, conjured up, to justify a rebellion whose sources lay elsewhere. Men to Becker were never the victims of their thought, but always the masters of it. Ideas were a kind of legal brief. “Thus step by step, from 1764 to 1776, the colonists modified their theory to suit their needs.”15 The assumptions behind Becker’s 1909 behaviorist work on New York politics in the Revolution and his 1922 Study of the political ideas in the Declaration of Independence were more alike than they at first might appear.

Bringing to their studies of the Revolution similar assumptions about the nature of ideas, some of Becker’s contemporaries went on to expose starkly the implications of those assumptions. When the entire body of Revolutionary thinking was examined, these historians could not avoid being struck by its generally bombastic and overwrought quality. The ideas expressed seemed so inflated, such obvious exaggerations of reality, that they could scarcely be taken seriously. The Tories were all “wretched hirelings, and execrable parricides”; George III, the “tyrant of the earth,” a “monster in human form”; the British soldiers, “a mercenary, licentious rabble of banditti,” intending to “tear the bowels and vitals of their brave but peaceable fellow subjects, and to wash the ground with a profusion of innocent blood.”16 Such extravagant language, it seemed, could be nothing but calculated deception, at best an obvious distortion of fact, designed to incite and mold a revolutionary fervor. “The stigmatizing of British policy as ‘tyranny,’ ‘oppression’ and ‘slavery,’” wrote Arthur M. Schlesinger, the dean of the Progressive historians, “had little or no objective reality, at least prior to the Intolerable Acts, but ceaseless repetition of the charge kept emotions at fever pitch.”17

Indeed, so grandiose, so overdrawn, it seemed, were the ideas that the historians were necessarily led to ask not whether such ideas were valid but why men should have expressed them. It was not the content of such ideas but the function that was really interesting. The Revolutionary rhetoric, the profusion of sermons, pamphlets, and articles in the patriotic cause, could best be examined as propaganda, that is, as a concerted and self-conscious effort by agitators to manipulate and shape public opinion. Because of the Progressive historians’ view of the Revolution as the movement of class minorities bent on promoting particular social and economic interests, the conception of propaganda was crucial to their explanation of what seemed to be a revolutionary consensus. Through the use of ideas in provoking hatred and influencing opinion and creating at least “an appearance of unity,” the influence of a minority of agitators was out of all proportion to their number. The Revolution thus became a display of extraordinary skillfulness in the manipulation of public opinion. In fact, wrote Schlesinger, “no disaffected element in history has ever risen more splendidly to the occasion.”18

Ideas thus became, as it were, parcels of thought to be distributed and used where they would do the most good. This propaganda was not, of course, necessarily false, but it was always capable of manipulation. “Whether the suggestions are to be true or false, whether the activities are to be open or concealed,” wrote Philip Davidson, “are matters for the propagandist to decide.” Apparently ideas could be turned on or off at will, and men controlled their rhetoric in a way they could not control their interests. Whatever the importance of propaganda, its connection with social reality was tenuous. Since ideas were so self-consciously manageable, the Whigs were not actually expressing anything meaningful about themselves but were rather feigning and exaggerating for effect. What the Americans said could not be taken at face value but must be considered as a rhetorical disguise for some hidden interest. The expression of even the classic and well-defined natural rights philosophy became, in Davidson’s view, “the propagandist’s rationalization of his desire to protect his vested interests.”19

With this conception of ideas as weapons shrewdly used by designing propagandists, it was inevitable that the thought of the Revolutionaries should have been denigrated. The Revolutionaries became by implication hypocritical demagogues, “adroitly tailoring their arguments to changing conditions.” Their political thinking appeared to possess neither consistency nor significance. “At best,” said Schlesinger in an early summary of his interpretation, “an exposition of the political theories of the antiparliamentary party is an account of their retreat from one strategic position to another.” So the Whigs moved, it was strongly suggested, easily if not frivolously from a defense of charter rights to the rights of Englishmen, and finally to the rights of man, as each position was exposed and became untenable. In short, concluded Schlesinger, the Revolution could never be understood if it were regarded “as a great forensic controversy over abstract governmental rights.”20

IT IS ESSENTIALLY ON THIS point of intellectual consistency that Edmund S. Morgan has fastened for the past decade and a half in an attempt to bring down the entire interpretive framework of the socioeconomic argument. If it could be shown that the thinking of the Revolutionaries was not inconsistent after all, that the Whigs did not actually skip from one constitutional notion to the next, then the imputation of Whig frivolity and hypocrisy would lose its force. This was a central intention of Morgan’s study of the political thought surrounding the Stamp Act. As Morgan himself has noted and others have repeated, “In the last analysis the significance of the Stamp Act crisis lies in the emergence, not of leaders and methods and organizations, but of well-defined constitutional principles.” As early as 1765 the Whigs “laid down the line on which Americans stood until they cut their connections with England. Consistently from 1765 to 1776 they denied the authority of Parliament to tax them externally or internally; consistently they affirmed their willingness to submit to whatever legislation Parliament should enact for the supervision of the empire as a whole.”21 In other words, from the beginning they consistently denied Parliament’s right to tax them, but at the same time they consistently affirmed Parliament’s right to regulate their trade. This consistency thus becomes, as one scholar’s survey of the current interpretation puts it, “an indication of American devotion to principle.”22

It seemed clear once again after Morgan’s study that the Americans were more sincerely attached to constitutional principles than the behaviorist historians had supposed, and that their ideas could not be viewed as simply manipulated propaganda. Consequently the cogency of the Progressive historians’ interpretation was weakened if not unhinged. And as the evidence against viewing the Revolution as rooted in internal class conflict continued to mount from various directions, it appeared more and more comprehensible to accept the old-fashioned notion that the Revolution was after all the consequence of “a great forensic controversy over abstract governmental rights.” There was, it seemed, no deprived and depressed populace yearning for a participation in politics that had long been denied; no coherent merchant class victimizing a mass of insolvent debtors; no seething discontent with the British mercantile system; no privileged aristocracy, protected by law, anxiously and insecurely holding power against a clamoring democracy. There was, in short, no internal class upheaval in the Revolution.23

If the Revolution was not to become virtually incomprehensible, it must have been the result of what the American Whigs always contended it was—a dispute between Mother Country and colonies over constitutional liberties. By concentrating on the immediate events of the decade leading up to independence, the historians of the 1950s have necessarily fled from the economic and social determinism of the Progressive historians. And by emphasizing the consistency and devotion with which Americans held their constitutional beliefs, they have once again focused on what seems to be the extraordinary intellectuality of the American Revolution and hence its uniqueness among Western revolutions. This interpretation, which, as Jack P. Greene notes, “may appropriately be styled neo-whig,” has turned the Revolution into a rationally conservative movement, involving mainly a constitutional defense of existing political liberties against the abrupt and unexpected provocations of the British government after 1760. “The issue then, according to the neo-whigs, was no more and no less than separation from Britain and the preservation of American liberty.” The Revolution has therefore become “more political, legalistic, and constitutional than social or economic.” Indeed, some of the neo-Whig historians have implied not just that social and economic conditions were less important in bringing on the Revolution than we once thought, but rather that the social situation in the colonies had little or nothing to do with causing the Revolution. The Whig statements of principle iterated in numerous declarations appear to be the only causal residue after all the supposedly deeper social and economic causes have been washed away. As one scholar who has recently investigated and carefully dismissed the potential social and economic issues in pre-Revolutionary Virginia has concluded, “What remains as the fundamental issue in the coming of the Revolution, then, is nothing more than the contest over constitutional rights.”24

In a different way, Bernard Bailyn in a recent article has clarified and reinforced this revived idealistic interpretation of the Revolution. The accumulative influence of much of the latest historical writing on the character of eighteenth-century American society has led Bailyn to the same insight expressed by Samuel Williams in 1794. What made the Revolution truly revolutionary was not the wholesale disruption of social groups and political institutions, for compared to other revolutions such disruption was slight; rather it was the fundamental alteration in the Americans’ structure of values, the way they looked at themselves and their institutions. Bailyn has seized on this basic intellectual shift as a means of explaining the apparent contradiction between the seriousness with which the Americans took their Revolutionary ideas and the absence of radical social and institutional change. The Revolution, argues Bailyn, was not so much the transformation as the realization of American society.

The Americans had been gradually and unwittingly preparing themselves for such a mental revolution since they first came to the New World in the seventeenth century. The substantive changes in American society had taken place in the course of the previous century, slowly, often imperceptibly, as a series of small piecemeal deviations from what was regarded by most Englishmen as the accepted orthodoxy in society, state, and religion. What the Revolution marked, so to speak, was the point when the Americans suddenly blinked and saw their society, its changes, its differences, in a new perspective. Their deviation from European standards, their lack of an established church and a titled aristocracy, their apparent rusticity and general equality now became desirable, even necessary, elements in the maintenance of their society and politics. The comprehending and justifying, the endowing with high moral purpose, of these confusing and disturbing social and political divergences, Bailyn concludes, was the American Revolution.25

Bailyn’s more recent investigation of the rich pamphlet literature of the decades before independence has filled out and refined his idealist interpretation, confirming him in his “rather old-fashioned view that the American Revolution was above all else an ideological-constitutional struggle and not primarily a controversy between social groups undertaken to force changes in the organization of society.” While Bailyn’s book-length introduction to the first of a multivolumed edition of Revolutionary pamphlets makes no effort to stress the conservative character of the Revolution and indeed emphasizes (in contrast to the earlier article) its radicalism and the dynamic and transforming rather than the rationalizing and declarative quality of Whig thought, it nevertheless represents the culmination of the idealist approach to the history of the Revolution. For “above all else,” argues Bailyn, it was the Americans’ worldview, the peculiar bundle of notions and beliefs they put together during the imperial debate, “that in the end propelled them into Revolution.” Through his study of the Whig pamphlets Bailyn became convinced “that 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 America was only the most immediately visible part—lay at the heart of the Revolutionary movement.” No one of the various acts and measures of the British government after 1763 could by itself have provoked the extreme and violent response of the American Whigs. But when linked together they formed in the minds of the Americans, imbued with a particular historical understanding of what constituted tyranny, an extensive and frightening program designed to enslave the New World. The Revolution becomes comprehensible only when the mental framework, the Whig worldview into which the Americans fitted the events of the 1760s and 1770s, is known. “It is the development of this view to the point of overwhelming persuasiveness to the majority of American leaders and the meaning this view gave to the events of the time, and not simply an accumulation of grievances,” writes Bailyn, “that explains the origins of the American Revolution.”26

It now seems evident from Bailyn’s analysis that it was the Americans’ peculiar conception of reality more than anything else that convinced them that tyranny was afoot and that they must fight if their liberty was to survive. By an empathic understanding of a wide range of American thinking Bailyn has been able to offer us a most persuasive argument for the importance of ideas in bringing on the Revolution. Not since Tyler has the intellectual character of the Revolution received such emphasis and never before has it been set out so cogently and completely. It would seem that the idealist explanation of the Revolution has nowhere else to go.27


LABELING THE RECENT historical interpretations of the Revolution as “neo-Whig” is indeed appropriate, for, as Page Smith has pointed out, “After a century and a half of progress in historical scholarship, in research techniques, in tools and methods, we have found our way to the interpretation held, substantially, by those historians who themselves participated in, or lived through the era of, the Revolution.” By describing the Revolution as a conservative, principled defense of American freedom against the provocations of the English government, the neo-Whig historians have come full circle to the position of the Revolutionaries themselves and to the interpretation of the first generation of historians.28 Indeed, as a consequence of this historical atavism, praise for the contemporary or early historians has become increasingly common.

But to say that “the Whig interpretation of the American Revolution may not be as dead as some historians would have us believe” is perhaps less to commend the work of David Ramsay and George Bancroft than to indict the approach of recent historians.29 However necessary and rewarding the neo-Whig histories have been, they present us with only a partial perspective on the Revolution. The neo-Whig interpretation is intrinsically polemical; however subtly presented, it aims to justify the Revolution. It therefore cannot accommodate a totally different, an opposing, perspective, a Tory view of the Revolution. It is for this reason that the recent publication of Peter Oliver’s “Origin and Progress of the American Rebellion” is of major significance, for it offers us—“by attacking the hallowed traditions of the revolution, challenging the motives of the founding fathers, and depicting revolution as passion, plotting, and violence”—an explanation of what happened quite different from what we have been recently accustomed to.30 Oliver’s vivid portrait of the Revolutionaries, with his accent on their vicious emotions and interests, seriously disturbs the present Whiggish interpretation of the Revolution. It is not that Oliver’s description of, say, John Adams as madly ambitious and consumingly resentful is any more correct than Adams’s own description of himself as a virtuous and patriotic defender of liberty against tyranny. Both interpretations of Adams are in a sense right, but neither can comprehend the other because each is preoccupied with seemingly contradictory sets of motives. Indeed, it is really these two interpretations that have divided historians of the Revolution ever since.

Any intellectually satisfying explanation of the Revolution must encompass the Tory perspective as well as the Whig, for if we are compelled to take sides and choose between opposing motives—unconscious or avowed, passion or principle, greed or liberty—we will be endlessly caught up in the polemics of the participants themselves. We must, in other words, eventually dissolve the distinction between conscious and unconscious motives, between the Revolutionaries’ stated intentions and their supposedly hidden needs and desires, a dissolution that involves somehow relating beliefs and ideas to the social world in which they operate. If we are to understand the causes of the Revolution, we must therefore ultimately transcend this problem of motivation. But this we can never do as long as we attempt to explain the Revolution mainly in terms of the intentions of the participants. It is not that men’s motives are unimportant; they indeed make events, including revolutions. But the purposes of men, especially in a revolution, are so numerous, so varied, and so contradictory that their complex interaction produces results that no one intended or could even foresee. It is this interaction and these results that recent historians are referring to when they speak so disparagingly of those “underlying determinants” and “impersonal and inexorable forces” bringing on the Revolution. Historical explanation which does not account for these “forces,” which, in other words, relies simply on understanding the conscious intentions of the actors, will thus be limited. This preoccupation with men’s purposes was what restricted the perspectives of the contemporaneous Whig and Tory interpretations, and it is still the weakness of the neo-Whig histories, and indeed of any interpretation which attempts to explain the events of the Revolution by discovering the calculations from which individuals supposed themselves to have acted.

No explanation of the American Revolution in terms of the intentions and designs of particular individuals could have been more crudely put than that offered by the Revolutionaries themselves. American Whigs, like men of the eighteenth century generally, were fascinated with what seemed to the age to be the newly appreciated problem of human motivation and causation in the affairs of the world. In the decade before independence, the Americans sought endlessly to discover the supposed calculations and purposes of individuals or groups that lay behind the otherwise incomprehensible rush of events. More than anything else, perhaps, it was this obsession with motives that led to the prevalence in the eighteenth century of beliefs in conspiracies to account for the confusing happenings in which men found themselves caught up. Bailyn has suggested that this common fear of conspiracy was “deeply rooted in the political awareness of eighteenth-century Britons, involved in the very structure of their political life”; it “reflected so clearly the realities of life in an age in which monarchical autocracy flourished, [and] in which the stability and freedom of England’s ‘mixed’ constitution was a recent and remarkable achievement.”31

Yet it might also be argued that the tendency to see conspiracy behind what happened reflected as well the very enlightenment of the age. To attribute events to the designs and purposes of human agents seemed after all to be an enlightened advance over older beliefs in blind chance, providence, or God’s interventions. It was rational and scientific, a product of both the popularization of politics and the secularization of knowledge. It was obvious to Americans that the series of events in the years after 1763, those “unheard of intolerable calamities, spring not of the dust, come not causeless.” “Ought not the PEOPLE therefore,” asked John Dickinson, “to watch? to observe facts? to search into causes? to investigate designs?”32 And these causes and designs could be traced to individuals in high places, to ministers, to royal governors, and their lackeys. The belief in conspiracy grew naturally out of the enlightened need to find the human purposes behind the multitude of phenomena, to find the causes for what happened in the social world just as the natural scientist was discovering the causes for what happened in the physical world.33 It was a necessary consequence of the search for connections and patterns in events. The various acts of the British government, the Americans knew, should not be “regarded according to the simple force of each, but as parts of a system of oppression.”34 The Whigs’ intense search for the human purposes behind events was in fact an example of the beginnings of modern history.

In attempting to rebut those interpretations disparaging the colonists’ cause, the present neo-Whig historians have been drawn into writing as partisans of the Revolutionaries. And they have thus found themselves entangled in the same kind of explanation used by the original antagonists, an explanation, despite obvious refinements, still involved with the discovery of motives and its corollary, the assessing of a personal sort of responsibility for what happened. While most of the neo-Whig historians have not gone so far as to see conspiracy in British actions (although some have come close),35 they have tended to point up the blundering and stupidity of British officials in contrast to “the breadth of vision” that moved the Americans. If George III was in a position of central responsibility in the British government, as English historians have recently said, then, according to Edmund S. Morgan, “he must bear most of the praise or blame for the series of measures that alienated and lost the colonies, and it is hard to see how there can be much praise.” By seeking “to define issues, fix responsibilities,” and thereby to shift the “burden of proof” onto those who say the Americans were narrow and selfish and the empire was basically just and beneficent, the neo-Whigs have attempted to redress what they felt was an unfair neo-Tory bias of previous explanations of the Revolution;36 they have not, however, challenged the terms of the argument. They are still obsessed with why men said they acted and with who was right and who was wrong. Viewing the history of the Revolution in this judicatory manner has therefore restricted the issues over which historians have disagreed to those of motivation and responsibility, the very issues with which the participants themselves were concerned.

The neo-Whig “conviction that the colonists’ attachment to principle was genuine”37 has undoubtedly been refreshing, and indeed necessary, given the Tory slant of earlier twentieth-century interpretations. It now seems clearer that the Progressive historians, with their naive and crude reflex conception of human behavior, had too long treated the ideas of the Revolution superficially if not superciliously. Psychologists and sociologists are now willing to grant a more determining role to beliefs, particularly in revolutionary situations. It is now accepted that men act not simply in response to some kind of objective reality but to the meaning they give to that reality. Since men’s beliefs are as much a part of the given stimuli as the objective environment, the beliefs must be understood and taken seriously if men’s behavior is to be fully explained. The American Revolutionary ideas were more than cooked-up pieces of thought served by an aggressive and interested minority to a gullible and unsuspecting populace. The concept of propaganda permitted the Progressive historians to account for the presence of ideas, but it prevented them from recognizing ideas as an important determinant of the Americans’ behavior. The weight attributed to ideas and constitutional principles by the neo-Whig historians was thus an essential corrective to the propagandist studies.

Yet in its laudable effort to resurrect the importance of ideas in historical explanation, much of the writing of the neo-Whigs has tended to return to the simple nineteenth-century intellectualist assumption that history is the consequence of a rational calculation of ends and means, that what happened was what was consciously desired and planned. By supposing “that individual actions and immediate issues are more important than underlying determinants in explaining particular events,” by emphasizing conscious and articulated motives, the neo-Whig historians have selected and presented that evidence which is most directly and clearly expressive of the intentions of the Whigs—that is, the most well-defined, the most constitutional, the most reasonable of the Whig beliefs, those found in their public documents, their several declarations of grievances and causes. It is not surprising that for the neo-Whigs the history of the American Revolution should be more than anything else “the history of the Americans’ search for principles.”38 Not only, then, did nothing in the Americans’ economic and social structure really determine their behavior, but the colonists in fact acted from the most rational and calculated of motives: they fought, as they said they would, simply to defend their ancient liberties against British provocation.

By implying that certain declared rational purposes are by themselves an adequate explanation for the Americans’ revolt—in other words, that the Revolution was really nothing more than a contest over constitutional principles—the neo-Whig historians have not only threatened to deny what we have learned of human psychology in the twentieth century, but they have also in fact failed to exploit fully the terms of their own idealist approach by not taking into account all of what the Americans believed and said. Whatever the deficiencies and misunderstandings of the role of ideas in human behavior present in the propagandist studies of the 1930s, these studies did for the first time attempt to deal with the entirety and complexity of American Revolutionary thought—to explain not only all the well-reasoned notions of law and liberty that were so familiar but, more important, all the irrational and hysterical beliefs that had been so long neglected. Indeed, it was the patent absurdity and implausibility of much of what the Americans said that lent credence and persuasiveness to their mistrustful approach to the ideas. Once this exaggerated and fanatical rhetoric was uncovered by the Progressive historians, it should not have subsequently been ignored—no matter how much it may have impugned the reasonableness of the American response. No widely expressed ideas can be dismissed out of hand by the historian.

In his recent analysis of Revolutionary thinking, Bernard Bailyn has avoided the neo-Whig tendency to distort the historical reconstruction of the American mind. By comprehending “the assumptions, beliefs, and ideas that lay behind the manifest events of the time,” Bailyn has attempted to get inside the Whigs’ mind, and to experience vicariously all of what they thought and felt, both their rational constitutional beliefs and their hysterical and emotional ideas as well. The inflammatory phrases—“slavery,” “corruption,” “conspiracy”—that most historians had either ignored or readily dismissed as propaganda took on a new significance for Bailyn. He came “to suspect that they meant something very real to both the writers and their readers: that there were real fears, real anxieties, a sense of real danger behind these phrases, and not merely the desire to influence by rhetoric and propaganda the inert minds of an otherwise passive populace.”39 No part of American thinking, Bailyn suggests—not the widespread belief in a ministerial conspiracy, not the hostile and vicious indictments of individuals, not the fear of corruption and the hope for regeneration, not any of the violent seemingly absurd distortions and falsifications of what we now believe to be true, in short, none of the frenzied rhetoric—can be safely ignored by the historian seeking to understand the causes of the Revolution.

Bailyn’s study, however, represents something other than a more complete and uncorrupted version of the common idealist interpretations of the Revolution. By viewing from the “interior” the Revolutionary pamphlets, which were “to an unusual degree, explanatory,” revealing “not merely positions taken but the reasons why positions were taken,” Bailyn like any idealist historian has sought to discover the motives the participants themselves gave for their actions, to reenact their thinking at crucial moments, and thereby to recapture some of the “unpredictable reality” of the Revolution.40 But for Bailyn the very unpredictability of the reality he has disclosed has undermined the idealist obsession with explaining why, in the participants’ own estimation, they acted as they did. Ideas emerge as more than explanatory devices, as more than indicators of motives. They become as well objects for analysis in and for themselves, historical events in their own right to be treated as other historical events are treated. Although Bailyn has examined the Revolutionary ideas subjectively from the inside, he has also analyzed them objectively from the outside. Thus, in addition to a contemporary Whig perspective, he presents us with a retrospective view of the ideas—their complexity, their development, and their consequences—that the actual participants did not have. In effect his essay represents what has been called “a Namierism of the history of ideas,”41a structural analysis of thought that suggests a conclusion about the movement of history not very different from Sir Lewis Namier’s, where history becomes something “started in ridiculous beginnings, while small men did things both infinitely smaller and infinitely greater than they knew.”42

In his England in the Age of the American Revolution, Namier attacked the Whig tendency to overrate “the importance of the conscious will and purpose in individuals.” Above all he urged us “to ascertain and recognize the deeper irrelevancies and incoherence of human actions, which are not so much directed by reason, as invested by it ex post facto with the appearances of logic and rationality,” to discover the unpredictable reality, where men’s motives and intentions were lost in the accumulation and momentum of interacting events. The whole force of Namier’s approach tended to squeeze the intellectual content out of what men did. Ideas setting forth principles and purposes for action, said Namier, did not count for much in the movement of history.43

In his study of the Revolutionary ideas, Bailyn has come to an opposite conclusion: ideas counted for a great deal, not only being responsible for the Revolution but also for transforming the character of American society. Yet in his hands ideas lose that static quality they have commonly had for the Whig historians, the simple statements of intention that so exasperated Namier. For Bailyn the ideas of the Revolutionaries take on an elusive and unmanageable quality, a dynamic self-intensifying character that transcended the intentions and desires of any of the historical participants. By emphasizing how the thought of the colonists was “strangely reshaped, turned in unfamiliar directions,” by describing how the Americans “indeliberately, half-knowingly” groped toward “conclusions they could not themselves clearly perceive,” by demonstrating how new beliefs and hence new actions were the responses not to desire but to the logic of developing situations, Bailyn has wrested the explanation of the Revolution out of the realm of motivation in which the neo-Whig historians had confined it.

With this kind of approach to ideas, the degree of consistency and devotion to principles become less important, and indeed the major issues of motivation and responsibility over which historians have disagreed become largely irrelevant. Action becomes not the product of rational and conscious calculation but of dimly perceived and rapidly changing thoughts and situations, “where the familiar meaning of ideas and words faded away into confusion, and leaders felt themselves peering into a haze, seeking to bring shifting conceptions somehow into focus.” Men become more the victims than the manipulators of their ideas, as their thought unfolds in ways few anticipated, “rapid, irreversible, and irresistible,” creating new problems, new considerations, new ideas, which have their own unforeseen implications. In this kind of atmosphere the Revolution, not at first desired by the Americans, takes on something of an inevitable character, moving through a process of escalation into levels few had intended or perceived. It no longer makes sense to assign motives or responsibility to particular individuals for the totality of what happened. Men were involved in a complicated web of phenomena, ideas, and situations from which in retrospect escape seems impossible.44

By seeking to uncover the motives of the Americans expressed in the Revolutionary pamphlets, Bailyn has ended by demonstrating the autonomy of ideas as phenomena, where the ideas operate, as it were, over the heads of the participants, taking them in directions no one could have foreseen. His discussion of Revolutionary thought thus represents a move back to a deterministic approach to the Revolution, a determinism, however, which is different from that which the neo-Whig historians have so recently and self-consciously abandoned. Yet while the suggested determinism is thoroughly idealist—indeed, never before has the force of ideas in bringing on the Revolution been so emphatically put—its implications are not. By helping to purge our writing about the Revolution of its concentration on constitutional principles and its stifling judicial-like preoccupation with motivation and responsibility, the study serves to open the way for new questions and new appraisals. In fact, it is out of the very completeness of his idealist interpretation, out of his exposition of the extraordinary nature—the very dynamism and emotionalism—of the Americans’ thought that we have the evidence for an entirely different, a behaviorist, perspective on the causes of the American Revolution. Bailyn’s book-length introduction to his edition of Revolutionary pamphlets is therefore not only a point of fulfillment for the idealist approach to the Revolution, it is also a point of departure for a new look at the social sources of the Revolution.

IT SEEMS CLEAR that historians of eighteenth-century America and the Revolution cannot ignore the force of ideas in history to the extent that Namier and his students have done in their investigations of eighteenth-century English politics. This is not to say, however, that the Namier approach to English politics has been crucially limiting and distorting. Rather it may suggest that the Namier denigration of ideas and principles is inapplicable for American politics because the American social situation in which ideas operated was very different from that of eighteenth-century England. It may be that ideas are less meaningful to a people in a socially stable situation. Only when ideas have become stereotyped reflexes do evasion and hypocrisy and the Namier mistrust of what men believe become significant. Only in a relatively settled society does ideology become a kind of habit, a bundle of widely shared and instinctive conventions, offering ready-made explanations for men who are not being compelled to ask any serious questions. Conversely, it is perhaps only in a relatively unsettled, disordered society, where the questions come faster than men’s answers, that ideas become truly vital and creative.45

Paradoxically it may be the very vitality of the Americans’ ideas, then, that suggests the need to examine the circumstances in which they flourished. Since ideas and beliefs are ways of perceiving and explaining the world, the nature of the ideas expressed is determined as much by the character of the world being confronted as by the internal development of inherited and borrowed conceptions. Out of the multitude of inherited and transmitted ideas available in the eighteenth century, Americans selected and emphasized those which seemed to make meaningful what was happening to them. In the colonists’ use of classical literature, for example, “their detailed knowledge and engaged interest covered only one era and one small group of writers”: Plutarch, Livy, Cicero, Sallust, and Tacitus—those who “had hated and feared the trends of their own time, and in their writing had contrasted the present with a better past, which they endowed with qualities absent from their own, corrupt era.”46 There was always, in Max Weber’s term, some sort of elective affinity between the Americans’ interests and their beliefs, and without that affinity their ideas would not have possessed the peculiar character and persuasiveness they did. Only the most revolutionary social needs and circumstances could have sustained such revolutionary ideas.47

When the ideas of the Americans are examined comprehensively, when all of the Whig rhetoric, irrational as well as rational, is taken into account, one cannot but be struck by the predominant characteristics of fear and frenzy, the exaggerations and the enthusiasm, the general sense of social corruption and disorder out of which would be born a new world of benevolence and harmony where Americans would become the “eminent examples of every divine and social virtue.”48 As Bailyn and the propaganda studies have amply shown, there is simply too much fanatical and millennial thinking even by the best minds that must be explained before we can characterize the Americans’ ideas as peculiarly rational and legalistic and thus view the Revolution as merely a conservative defense of constitutional liberties. To isolate refined and nicely reasoned arguments from the writings of John Adams and Jefferson is not only to disregard the more inflamed expressions of the rest of the Whigs but also to overlook the enthusiastic extravagance—the paranoiac obsession with a diabolical crown conspiracy and the dream of a restored Saxon era—in the thinking of Adams and Jefferson themselves.

The ideas of the Americans seem, in fact, to form what can only be called a revolutionary syndrome. If we were to confine ourselves to examining the Revolutionary rhetoric alone, apart from what happened politically or socially, it would be virtually impossible to distinguish the American Revolution from any other revolution in modern Western history. In the kinds of ideas expressed, the American Revolution is remarkably similar to the seventeenth-century Puritan Revolution and to the eighteenth-century French Revolution: the same general disgust with a chaotic and corrupt world, the same anxious and angry bombast, the same excited fears of conspiracies by depraved men, the same utopian hopes for the construction of a new and virtuous order.49 It was not that this syndrome of ideas was simply transmitted from one generation or from one people to another. It was rather perhaps that similar, though hardly identical, social situations called forth within the limitations of inherited and available conceptions similar modes of expression. Although we need to know much more about the sociology of revolutions and collective movements, it does seem possible that particular patterns of thought, particular forms of expression, correspond to certain basic social experiences. There may be, in other words, typical modes of expression, typical kinds of beliefs and values, characterizing a revolutionary situation, at least within roughly similar Western societies. Indeed, the types of ideas manifested may be the best way of identifying a collective movement as a revolution. As one student of revolutions writes, “It is on the basis of a knowledge of men’s beliefs that we can distinguish their behavior from riot, rebellion or insanity.”50

It is thus the very nature of the Americans’ rhetoric—its obsession with corruption and disorder, its hostile and conspiratorial outlook, and its millennial vision of a regenerated society—that reveals, as nothing else apparently can, the American Revolution as a true revolution with its sources lying deep in the social structure. For this kind of frenzied rhetoric could spring only from the most severe sorts of social strain. The grandiose and feverish language of the Americans was indeed the natural, even the inevitable, expression of a people caught up in a revolutionary situation, deeply alienated from the existing sources of authority and vehemently involved in a basic reconstruction of their political and social order. The hysteria of the Americans’ thinking was but a measure of the intensity of their revolutionary passions. Undoubtedly the growing American alienation from British authority contributed greatly to this revolutionary situation. Yet the very weakness of the British imperial system and the accumulating ferocity of American antagonism to it suggests that other sources of social strain were being fed into the revolutionary movement. It may be that the Progressive historians, in their preoccupation with internal social problems, were more right than we have recently been willing to grant. It would be repeating their mistake, however, to expect this internal social strain necessarily to take the form of coherent class conflict or overt social disruption. The sources of revolutionary social stress may have been much more subtle but no less severe.

Of all of the colonies in the mid-eighteenth century, Virginia seems the most settled, the most lacking in obvious social tensions. Therefore, as it has been recently argued, since conspicuous social issues were nonexistent, the only plausible remaining explanation for the Virginians’ energetic and almost unanimous commitment to the Revolution must have been their devotion to constitutional principles.51 Yet it may be that we have been looking for the wrong kinds of social issues, for organized conflicts, for conscious divisions, within the society. It seems clear that Virginia’s difficulties were not the consequence of any obvious sectional or class antagonism, Tidewater versus Piedmont, aristocratic planters versus yeoman farmers. There was apparently no discontent with the political system that went deep into the social structure. But there does seem to have been something of a social crisis within the ruling group itself, which intensely aggravated the Virginians’ antagonism to the imperial system. Contrary to the impression of confidence and stability that the Virginia planters have historically acquired, they seemed to have been in very uneasy circumstances in the years before the Revolution. The signs of the eventual nineteenth-century decline of the Virginia gentry were, in other words, already felt if not readily apparent.

The planters’ ability to command the acquiescence of the people seems extraordinary compared to the unstable politics of the other colonies. But in the years before independence there were signs of increasing anxiety among the gentry over their representative role. The ambiguities in the relationship between the burgesses and their constituents erupted into open debate in the 1750s. And men began voicing more and more concern over the mounting costs of elections and growing corruption in the soliciting of votes, especially by “those who have neither natural nor acquired parts to recommend them.”52 By the late sixties and early seventies the newspapers were filled with warnings against electoral influence, bribery, and vote seeking. The freeholders were stridently urged to “strike at the Root of this growing Evil; be influenced by Merit alone,” and avoid electing “obscure and inferior persons.”53 It was as if ignoble ambition and demagoguery, one bitter pamphlet remarked, were a “Daemon lately come among us to disturb the peace and harmony, which had so long subsisted in this place.”54 In this context, Robert Munford’s famous play The Candidates, written in 1770, does not so much confirm the planters’ confidence as it betrays their uneasiness with electoral developments in the colony, “when coxcombs and jockies can impose themselves upon it for men of learning.” Although disinterested virtue eventually wins out, Munford’s satire reveals the kinds of threats the established planters faced from ambitious knaves and blockheads who were turning representatives into slaves of the people.55

By the eve of the Revolution, the planters were voicing a growing sense of impending ruin, whose sources seemed in the minds of many to be linked more and more with the corrupting British connection and the Scottish factors but for others frighteningly rooted in “our Pride, our Luxury, and Idleness.”56 The public and private writings of Virginians became obsessed with “corruption,” “virtue,” and “luxury.” The increasing defections from the Church of England, even among ministers and vestrymen, and the remarkable growth of dissent in the years before the Revolution, “so much complained of in many parts of the colony,” further suggests some sort of social stress. The strange religious conversions of Robert Carter may represent only the most dramatic example of what was taking place less frenziedly elsewhere among the gentry.57 By the middle of the eighteenth century it was evident that many of the planters were living on the edge of bankruptcy, seriously overextended and spending beyond their means in an almost frantic effort to fulfill the aristocratic image they had created of themselves.58 Perhaps the importance of the Robinson affair in the 1760s lies not in any constitutional changes that resulted but in the shattering effect the disclosures had on that virtuous image.59 Some of the planters expressed openly their fears for the future, seeing the products of their lives being destroyed in the reckless gambling and drinking of their heirs, who, as Landon Carter put it, “play away and play it all away.”60

The Revolution in Virginia, “produced by the wantonness of the Gentleman,” as one planter suggested,61 undoubtedly gained much of its force from this social crisis within the gentry. Certainly more was expected from the Revolution than simply a break from British imperialism, and it was not any crude avoidance of British debts.62 The Revolutionary reforms, like the abolition of entail and primogeniture, may have signified something other than mere symbolic legal adjustments to an existing reality. In addition to being an attempt to make the older Tidewater plantations more economically competitive with lands farther west, the reforms may have represented a real effort to redirect what was believed to be a dangerous tendency in social and family development within the ruling gentry. The Virginians were not after all aristocrats who could afford having their entailed families’ estates in the hands of weak or ineffectual eldest sons. Entail, as the preamble to the 1776 act abolishing it stated, had often done “injury to the morals of youth by rendering them independent of, and disobedient to, their parents.”63 There was too much likelihood, as the Nelson family sadly demonstrated, that a single wayward generation would virtually wipe out what had been so painstakingly built.64 George Mason bespoke the anxieties of many Virginians when he warned the Philadelphia Convention in 1787 that “our own Children will in a short time be among the general mass.”65

Precisely how the strains within Virginia society contributed to the creation of a revolutionary situation and in what way the planters expected independence and republicanism to alleviate their problems, of course, need to be fully explored. It seems clear, however, from the very nature of the ideas expressed that the sources of the Revolution in Virginia were much more subtle and complicated than a simple antagonism to the British government. Constitutional principles alone do not explain the Virginians’ almost unanimous determination to revolt. And if the Revolution in the seemingly stable colony of Virginia possessed internal social roots, it is to be expected that the other colonies were experiencing their own forms of social strain that in a like manner sought mitigation through revolution and republicanism.

It is through the Whigs’ ideas, then, that we may be led back to take up where the Progressive historians left off in their investigation of the internal social sources of the Revolution. By working through the ideas—by reading them imaginatively and relating them to the objective social world they both reflected and confronted—we may be able to eliminate the unrewarding distinction between conscious and unconscious motives, and eventually thereby to combine a Whig with a Tory (an idealist with a behaviorist) interpretation. For the ideas, the rhetoric, of the Americans was never obscuring but remarkably revealing of their deepest interests and passions. What they expressed may not have been for the most part factually true, but it was always psychologically true. In this sense their rhetoric was never detached from the social and political reality; and indeed it becomes the best entry into an understanding of that reality. Their repeated overstatements of reality, their incessant talk of “tyranny” when there seems to have been no real oppression, their obsession with “virtue,” “luxury,” and “corruption,” their devotion to “liberty” and “equality”—all these notions were neither manipulated propaganda nor borrowed empty abstractions, but ideas with real personal and social significance for those who used them. Propaganda could never move men to revolution. No popular leader, as John Adams put it, has ever been able “to persuade a large people, for any length of time together, to think themselves wronged, injured, and oppressed unless they really were, and saw and felt it to be so.”66 The ideas had relevance; the sense of oppression and injury, although often displaced onto the imperial system, was nonetheless real. It was indeed the meaningfulness of the connection between what the Americans said and what they felt that gave the ideas their propulsive force and their overwhelming persuasiveness.

It is precisely the remarkable revolutionary character of the Americans’ ideas now being revealed by historians that best indicates that something profoundly unsettling was going on in the society, that raises the question, as it did for the Progressive historians, why the Americans should have expressed such thoughts. With their crude conception of propaganda, the Progressive historians at least attempted to grapple with the problem. Since we cannot regard the ideas of the Revolutionaries as simply propaganda, the question still remains to be answered. “When ‘ideas’ in full cry drive past,” wrote Arthur F. Bentley in his classic behavioral study The Process of Government, “the thing to do with them is to accept them as an indication that something is happening; and then search carefully to find out what it really is they stand for, what the factors of the social life are that are expressing themselves through the ideas.”67 Precisely because they sought to understand both the Revolutionary ideas and American society, the behaviorist historians of the Progressive generation, for all of their crude conceptualizations, their obsession with “class” and hidden economic interests, and their treatment of ideas as propaganda, have still offered us an explanation of the Revolutionary era so powerful and so comprehensive that no purely intellectual interpretation will ever replace it.


If the tendency of subsequent scholarship is any indication, this 1966 article—my first publication in early American history—seems to have had very little influence on the historical profession. Much of the scholarship on the Revolution during the several decades following its publication ignored the “reality” of American society and instead concentrated very heavily on the “rhetoric” of the Revolution, which was by and large equated with something called “republicanism.” I suppose my book The Creation of the American Republic, 1776–1787 (1969) contributed its share to the so-called republican synthesis that emerged in the 1970s and 1980s to become something of a monster that threatened to devour us all. My article, however, was supposed to tame the monster before it was unleashed.

When I wrote the “Rhetoric and Reality” piece, I had already essentially completed my Creation of the American Republic, even though the book was published several years later. In that book I never intended to argue that the Revolution was fundamentally an “ideological” movement, or that the Revolution could be explained solely in “ideological” terms. Indeed, as I have pointed out in the introduction to this collection, I have never thought that one could explain anything fully by referring only to the beliefs of people. In writing the article I was well aware of the powerful implications of Bernard Bailyn’s introduction to his Pamphlets of the American Revolution, which had just been published in 1965 and which would eventually become The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (1967). As shatteringly important as I knew Bailyn’s work to be, I nevertheless thought it tried to explain the Revolution too much in terms of the professed beliefs of the participants. Thus I wrote the “Rhetoric and Reality” article as a corrective to the idealist tendency I saw in the neo-Whig historical literature of the 1950s and early 1960s that I believed had climaxed with Bailyn’s stunning work. Without denying in any way the significance of ideas (after all, I had just completed a book on the political thought of the Revolution), I simply tried to urge historians not to get too carried away with exclusively intellectual explanations of the Revolution. If we were ultimately to see the Revolution whole—from both the top and from the bottom—then, I suggested, we had to examine its social sources as well.

The problem with such a suggestion was that it too easily reinforced the traditional assumptions of neo-Progressive social history, which, as I indicated in my introduction, tended to create polarities of ideas versus behavior, rhetoric versus reality. Despite my perverse and misguided title, I wrote my article as a protest against just such dualities, against such sharp separations of ideas from social circumstances. I wanted to acknowledge the importance of both ideas and underlying psychological and social determinants in shaping human behavior and yet avoid returning to the crude neo-Progressive polarities of the past made famous by such historians as Charles Beard. In parts of my Creation of the American Republic, I tried to do just that, which is probably why so many historians could not decide what school of historical interpretation that book put me in.

Although cultural history of one sort or another has seized the day during the past generation (even the Marxists now write only cultural history), several historians have explicitly attempted to explore the linkages between culture and society that I suggested existed in the relatively stable colony of Virginia. Rhys Isaac, in his Transformation of Virginia, T. H. Breen in his Tobacco Culture, Richard R. Beeman in his study of Lunenburg County, and Jack P. Greene in several articles have all sought to relate social developments in Virginia to the ideology of the Revolution.1

Although these works are very different, they are imaginative examples of what might be done. History that recognizes the importance of both culture and society and both consciousness and underlying social and material circumstances is ultimately the kind of history we need to write.

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