When published in the 1960s, this book had a revolutionary effect on our understanding of the American Revolution. Its impact is undiminished by the passage of the last 40 years. Bailyn's scholarship and exposition remains as exciting as it must have been at the time of initial publication. Bailyn attempted to take a fresh look at the thinking of the individuals who made the Revolution. His work was based on an extensive survey and analysis of the large number of political pamphlets published in the years leading up to the revolution. His work benefited as well greatly from a number of other significant works of scholarship, such as Caroline Robbins' book on the Commonwealth tradition in 18th century thought. More than anything else, Bailyn succeeded in determining what key terms like 'power', 'liberty', and republicanism meant to the Revolutionary generations. In doing so, he was able to strip away anachronistic accretions from these terms and ideas and recover the actual thinking of the Revolutionaries and their opponents.
Bailyn's achievement is manifold. He was able to show that dominant intellectual influence on the Revolutionaries was a compound of classical models, Common Law legal tradition, Enlightenment ideology, covenant theology, and a strong tradition of British intellectual and political dissent that had its roots in the Commonwealth period of the 17th century. The latter tradition was especially important and acted as the binding matrix for other traditions and interpretative lens through which other received ideas were focused. Bailyn shows how these ideas were articulated in the specifically American context and how they led inevitably to confrontation with the expanding imperial authority of Britain. This conflict led to new expansions of the basic ideology, some of which would represent completely novel ideas. The traditional ideas of representation and consent, constitutional basis of society, and sovereignty were overthrown and replaced to a very large extent by the concepts we still uphold.
The development of these new ideas and the necessity to give them practical scope would lead to what Bailyn artfully termed "The Contagion of Liberty"; the expansion of concepts of rights and freedom well beyond the original categories of thought received by the Revolutionary generations. These would include attacks on slavery, the questioning of establishment of religion, speculation about democracy as a legitimate and potentially stable form of government, and an increasing emphasis on social equality generated from the realization of political equality. As Bailyn remarks, the thinking and writing on these topics provides the bridge between the world of the 18th century intellectuals and what would become the world of Madison and de Toqueville.
Bailyn's analysis and scholarship are superb. The organization and quality of writing in this book are outstanding. Just as important, Bailyn is very good at supporting his analysis with well chosen excerpts from contemporary political pamphlets. His judicious choice of quotations not only serves to support his conclusions but gives a fine idea of the words and thoughts of the Revolutionaries and their opponents.
This is a fundamental book for understanding the American past.