We’ve been re-reading that classic, magnificent, super-charged, and piercingly relevant masterpiece of discovery about the real roots and goals of the American Revolution called The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, by Bernard Bailyn. It was republished last year for its fiftieth anniversary, but there is nothing stuffy, boring, or outdated about this electric book.
That being the case, we’re going to devote a few series to this book, beginning here, with Bailyn’s masterful description of how radically… old-fashioned the American revolutionaries’ ideas about representative government were in the 1770s. In fact, they were positively medieval. This is the heart of Chapter Five: Transformation.
We all learn that the Americans (our shorthand going forward for revolution-minded American colonists in the mid-1700s) demanded representative government—government consented to by the governed. But that gloss is tragically incomplete, for it describes where we landed—with difficulty, just barely—by the Constitutional Convention in 1787, and where we as a nation only fully rested after the Civil War.
Bailyn takes us back to the pre-Revolution mindset by comparing the American colonies to medieval England, before the 1400s. At that time, representatives of the common people to Parliament in London were “local men, locally minded, whose business began and ended with the interests of the constituency”. They were given explicit, written instructions about what they were to ask for and what they were allowed to promise in return. For instance, did the constituents want access to a waterway? That’s what their representative would ask for. The was the only reason he was sent to London to sit in Parliament. It was the only thing he would discuss in Parliament. He would not get involved in any other representative’s requests, which were all hyper-local as well. There would be no point. There were no grand debates about larger issues, no votes on items that impacted the whole kingdom—that was restricted to the House of Lords. (From 1341 on the Commons met separately from the Lords. Throughout the 14th century the Commons only acted as a single body twice, to complain about taxes in 1376 and to depose Richard II, with the House of Lords, in 1399).
In return, the local representative to the Commons might be allowed to promise that men from his locality would serve on a work crew elsewhere, or patrol the coast, or something else. The representative was sent to Parliament for that single purpose–to get the new mill–and was not authorized or expected to participate in any other discussion. If he got the mill but promised something he had not been authorized to promise, he would not be sent to Parliament again. Government was pinpoint specific and local, an amalgam of individual grants and favors repaid individually. [Bailyn 162-3]
Over the 1400s and 1500s, this slowly changed. It became something we recognize today as “right” and much more inspiring. Members of Parliament were not “merely parochial representatives, but delegates of all the commons of the land”; as Edmund Burke, the great political theorist (1730-1797) summed it up, members of Parliament stood for the interest of the entire kingdom of England. They were not
…a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests, which [they] must maintain against other agents, [but] Parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole, where, not local purposes, not local prejudices ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole. [Bailyn 163]
This sounds right to us. That’s the American political philosophy we know and love. We are one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. We’re greater than the sum of our parts. Our members of Congress are in Washington not just to get our individual states things they want, like new roads. They’re not there to write laws that only benefit their individual states. They’re in Washington to write laws that preserve the national trust, that promote democracy for all citizens. They’re supposed to work together for the common good. That’s how we define government of the people, by the people, and for the people.
Well, that’s how we define it now. But in the American colonies, the polar opposite was true.
Bailyn points out that this new, universal definition of political representation developed in England as it became more modern. The population grew, and towns and counties were less isolated and less independent, less like small kingdoms unto themselves. There was more of a sense of Parliament representing the English people, not this town and that town.
Just as this concept was settling into place in England, the Thirteen Colonies were being formed, and the situation in America was entirely different. It was a throwback to medieval times: a small population lived in tiny towns that were separated by long distances and therefore basically governed themselves. They were technically bound to follow laws made by the general court of the colony they were in, but those laws were few and not far-reaching. Local town government was much more important and vital and apparent to the vast majority of American colonists than the central, colonial government in the capital city. Each town sent representatives to the general court in the capital, usually once a year, and each town gave their representatives explicit, written instructions about what benefits to ask for and what concrete items they could give in return for the benefits. If a representative violated these written instructions they would not be re-elected by their town.
So as England was finalizing the concept of the representative as politician, of men skilled in general principles of law who worked with other politicians to create general laws that would benefit the kingdom as a whole, America remained firmly rooted in and dedicated to the concept of the non-professional representative, the local man bound to local interests. Americans preferred their representatives to be local businessmen, which at that time meant most representatives were farmers representing farmers, whose concerns were often minutely focused. As Bailyn notes, “disgruntled contemporaries felt justified in condemning Assemblies composed of ‘plain, illiterate husbandmen, whose views seldom extended farther than to the regulation of highways, the destruction of wolves, wildcats, and foxes, and the advancement of the other little interests of the particular counties which they were chosen to represent.'” [Bailyn 165]
It’s ironic, then, that as the revolutionary age began in America, it was England, not America, that had the attitude of “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”.
How did America move from this medieval concept of government to the vision of democracy and justice for all? We’ll move closer next time.