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A Provincial Enterprise
To Begin the World Anew, by Bernard Bailyn
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There are three color plates in this book, the central one, spread across two pages, a reproduction of Ralph Earl’s 1792 portrait of Oliver Ellsworth and his wife. Ellsworth was a jurist and politician with an estate in Windsor, Connecticut. He was an important figure at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. The federal court system was largely Ellsworth’s creation, and he served as Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, 1796-1800. Ellsworth was, in short, a Founder, though not one of the best-known ones. In this fine collection of essays, subtitled “The Genius and Ambiguities of the American Founders,” historian Bernard Bailyn employs Ellsworth as a convenient lay figure for some reflections on the origins of this remarkable and unprecedented experiment in ordered liberty, the United States of America.

The Ellsworth portrait shows a sober, respectable couple in unadorned surroundings, their large clapboard house visible in the distance behind a plain wooden fence. The author contrasts this image of modest provincial sobriety with European portraiture of the time, and notes:

Their provincialism, and the sense they derived from it of their own moral stature, had nourished their political imaginations. Uncertain of their place in the established, metropolitan world, they did not think themselves bound by it; they were prepared to challenge it, and, as Thomas Paine put it, to begin the world anew.

In the first of these five essays, titled “Politics and the Creative Imagination,” Bailyn brings forward the effect of provincialism — of one’s own awareness of one’s provincialism — on the process of creative thinking about political matters, drawing a parallel with a well-known commentary by Kenneth Clark on the differences between metropolitan and provincial art. “Artists on the periphery intoduce simplicity and common sense to a style that has become too embellished, too sophisticated, too self-centered.” The following essays carry this theme of political creativity forward into sketches of Jefferson and Franklin, and then to an account of how the Federalist papers came to be written.


I suspected, on picking up this book, that it would be a pot-boiler of the type academics turn out when they have nothing much new to tell us — a hastily-assembled structure of lectures and magazine pieces cemented together, like Aunt Polly’s sermons, with a thin mortar of originality. Not at all: if To Begin the World Anew is indeed stitched together from odd pieces, the stitching is beautifully done, wellnigh invisible in fact, and a small number of key themes — creativity, provincialism, idealism, the balancing of personal liberty with national power — are kept near the front of our minds. Bailyn covers a surprising amount of territory, too, from the imaginative world of the founders to the crucial points of their arguments, from the complexities and contradictions of Jefferson’s personality to Benjamin Franklin’s “bland and righteous innocence.” The essay on Franklin in Paris is used to illustrate historian Felix Gilbert’s remark that America’s basic attitude to foreign policy has always been shaped by “the tension between Idealism and Realism.” The most entertaining part of this essay, though, is a long digression on the iconography of Franklin, with no less than 23 different portraits of the man by way of illustration.

Bailyn’s account of the Federalist papers is straightforward yet perceptive. It is surprisingly comprehensive, too, covering, in just thirty pages, not only the origins, authorship and purpose of The Federalist but also, in an appendix to the essay, a survey of the various citations of it in Supreme Court deliberations down to our own time. “Between 1930 and 1959 the number of cases per decade in which the justices cited The Federalist doubled over those of the preceding ten decades, and the rate doubled again in the 1960s, and doubled yet again in the 1980s.” The appeal of these documents seems unrelated to ideology: among current justices, Clarence Thomas and Ruth Bader Ginsburg have cited them least — only once each.

The book closes with an essay titled “Atlantic Dimensions,” covering the effect of American revolutionary ideas on other countries of the “Atlantic world” — that is, Britain, Europe. the Caribbean and Latin America. The circumstances of these other nations were, of course, all different. European countries suffered from the problem of an “installed base.” They had entrenched bureaucracies, established churches, feudal landowning classes, and medieval mercantilist traditions. In Latin America the legacy of Spanish and Portuguese despotic imperialism, with their authoritarian power structures, deeper class divisions, and multicolored racial patchworks, ensured that when the imperial power withdrew, the overwhelming imperative everywhere was the maintenance of order. A loose North American style of federalism really had no chance in any of these environments. Still liberal-minded reformers seized hungrily on our founding documents — the Declaration, the state and federal constitutions, The Federalist. Translations appeared with astonishing speed. The Declaration was available in French within a month of its publication, and in German shortly afterwards. By 1783 there were nine different French translations. In the turmoil of the revolutionary decades, through to the mid-19th century, all looked to the United States for inspiration. (And sometimes offered further inspiration of their own. Bailyn has turned up a demand by Swiss reformers of 1830 that their governments must be “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”)

What an astonishing thing it was, this business of provincial farmers, planters, merchants and lawyers building up an entire political order from scratch! There had been nothing like it before. Probably there will be nothing like it again, unless we find a way to colonize remote planets. Oliver Ellsworth and his wife gaze out at us from their portrait: short on style and sophistication, far from centers of metropolitan fashion, too busy with practical affairs to relax into the unaffected ease of the aristocrats in contemporary European portraits, yet full of self-assurance and independence and gravitas. Here we see heroism without hauteur, glory without glamor, a whole new order of society made by calm, middling, sensible people, arguing it all out in level, earnest tones, writing it down in plain words. What a thing it was!

(Republished from The New York Sun by permission of author or representative)
• Category: History • Tags: Review 
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