Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Gary Nash and Bernard Bailyn: Social and Ideological Roots of Revolution

The American Revolution was a unique phenomenon.  Many people from opposite ends of society came together to fight for independence from Britain, the main military and economic power at the time.  Historians disagree about some of the main causes that united American Colonists.  Gary Nash and Bernard Bailyn are two historians who see the American Revolution from two opposite ends of the spectrum: Nash focuses on socio-economic conditions, and Bailyn focuses on ideological influences.
            In his article, “Social Change and the Growth of Prerevolutionary Urban Radicalism,” Gary Nash challenges the notion that “the predicament of poverty” and social unrest was largely unknown in the American Colonies.  More importantly, Nash argues that popular ideology was affected by changing economic conditions in the colonies.  Popular ideology interacted with the Whig ideology, common among the upper levels of society[1].  Nash verifies his thesis with an analysis of the economic state of the upper and lower levels of society within three major cites of the time: Boston, New York, and Philadelphia.  The economic margin between the top and bottom levels of society grew sharply between the end of the seventeenth century and the Revolution[2].  Per capita spending among the poor more than doubled in the 1740s and 1750s.  As one may expect, the drop in wages and increase in spending caused major social and economic displacement in the cities[3].  Economic frustrations of lower- and middle-classmen developed a consciousness and political sophistication that led to public protests, and eventually played an important role in the beginnings of the American Revolution[4].
            Bernard Bailyn takes a very different approach in assessing the causes of the Revolution.  In his article, “The Central Themes of the American Revolution,” Bailyn focuses on the ideological influences of Colonists in the last third of the eighteenth century.  The writings of the Enlightenment, he says, were not the basis of beliefs, ideas or fears that shaped Colonial reaction to particular events[5].  In the late seventeenth century fear was everywhere.  People were afraid that the insecure conditions of freedom were always endangered by power-hungry enemies who wanted to destroy it.  Power and liberty are always at odds with each other, and there is always a danger of corruption.  These ideas stuck with American Colonists, because they were under an unseen authority thousands of miles away across the Atlantic.  These ideas were reinforced once this invisible authority began tightening the reins on the Colonial economy, leading to revolution and resistance[6].
            Nash and Bailyn consider separate and sometimes opposing views of the causes for the American Revolution.  It is important to note, however, the extent to which the economic situation in the colonies interacted with the ideologies of the time.  These two causes were affected by, and affected, one another.  They both played a vital role in preparing Colonial hearts and minds for the Revolution.

[1] Gary Nash, “Social Change and the Growth of Prerevolutionary Urban Radicalism,” in The American Revolution, ed. Alfred Young (Northern Illinois University, 1976) 6.
[2] Nash, “Social Change,” 7.
[3] Nash, “Social Change,” 8-10.
[4] Nash, “Social Change,” 10-11,18.
[5] Bernard Bailyn, “The Central Themes of the American Revolution,” in Faces of Revolution (New York: Knopf, 1990) 202.
[6] Bailyn, “Central Themes,” 204-05.

No comments:

Post a Comment