- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 26, 2003

Unless one has a particular interest in a period of the past, history for most of us probably is a primer, an emollient and ragged account of who did what to whom and why. George Washington's temper and lacerating tongue, for instance, is likely to surprise those who casually look over their shoulders at our heritage. Or, no surprise, when the media focuses on the past, the result is often a cat fight of "presentism" rather than thoughtful analysis; Bernard Bailyn notes the "savagery of condemnation" to which Thomas Jefferson recently has been subjected indicted for racism plus "the likelihood" (in Mr. Bailyn's view) of sexual relations with his slave, Sally Hemings.
Serious history is fundamentally a matter of ambiguity and uncertainties, as emphasized by Mr. Bailyn's subtitle. (His title, "To Begin the World Anew," is from Thomas Paine.) Emeritus professor of history at Harvard, Mr. Bailyn has been awarded among his many honors two Pulitzer Prizes.
If he is not the dean of Revolutionary Era scholars, he certainly is on any short list.
In his new book, two convictions dominate: That the Founders "were truly creative people, and that their creative efforts, the generation-long enterprise that elevated these obscure people from their marginal world to the center of Western civilization, were full of inconsistencies, logical dilemmas, and unresolved problems."
Creative the Founders distinctly were, minds stimulating each other and sparking fresh insights and intellectual thrusts to "the recasting of the world of power, the re-formation of the structure of public authority, of the accepted forms of governance, obedience, and resistance, in practice as well as in theory." And "mysteriously," such a transformation occurred within a single generation 200 years ago.
Americans have inclined over time to think of this remarkable period in an isolated and distant part of the world as something ordained by a concatenation of circumstance and fortune. Notwithstanding James Russell Lowell's warning, Americans often think of the Constitution as "a machine that would go of itself." The Founders' concern was "the possibility, indeed the probability, that their creative enterprise … would fail; would collapse into chaos or autocracy."
This exercise in what was considered then as utopian leaps and political heresy was abetted by the "provincialism" of the Founding generation. That quality with its association of "rootlessness, of alienation" from the old World fostered the "ambivalence [that] tended to shake their minds from the roots of habit and tradition," the author writes.
Mr. Bailyn offers the intelligibility of "images" as well as the articulate prose of the Founders to convey the character of time and place comparable to his use of "demographic history" in his superb "Voyagers to the West" in 1986, in which he correlated specific points of emigrant origins and settlement in the New World. The imagery of the Revolutionary generation is found in the illustrations in portraiture and architecture, for example, plain and unadorned compared to the "overrefined, overelaborated, dogmatic" modes of England. That comparison is more than metaphor.
Considering Jefferson and his reputation, Mr. Bailyn finds it even in his own time "more fluid, more malleable" than any other great figure of his generation. A prevalent contemporary notion, shoving aside the fatuous hoohah about racism and hypocrisy, is that he was more comfortable wandering among the abstractions of theory and romantic idealism. Not so, contends, Mr. Bailyn.
"Coupled incongruously with his soaring idealism was the realism and hard-headed pragmatism of an excellent 'man of business.'" He had a "true instinct for the moment to act and the moment to relent," a mature and shrewd politician. "Jefferson would, if need be, jump out of a syllogism to save the major premise," writes Mr. Bailyn, as he addresses the anomalies that were pronounced in the man. But it was a fear of power "the very heart of the original Revolutionary ideology" that was the animating spirit behind all of his thinking, and ultimately the source of his deepest ambiguities.
In his essay on Benjamin Franklin, Mr. Bailyn excavates a substratum of that fascinating personality a blend of realism and idealism that was tenacious, subtle and thoughtful. Franklin knew well what unconstrained power could threaten. American politicians "were, or became, realists, and for him what stood out in America's Revolutionary history was not the opportunism and self-interest of the nation's new leaders, but their idealism, their determination to restrain the misuse of power and to protect the individual from an overmighty state."
Franklin in his Paris years would become the embodiment abroad of America, "hence of the idealistic hopes of the Enlightenment." In fact, his image as it was presented in art would evolve from that of a successful bourgeois, the man of science, to a final stage in which his iconography "entered into allegory … as a mythological figure, the liberator of America and the nemesis of evil, tyranny, and Britain."
It is, however, Mr. Bailyn's essay on The Federalist Papers that is most commanding. The general impression of that enduring collection of papers in support of ratification of the Constitution is likely of an "integrated, systematic treatise on basic principles of political theory produced in calm contemplation." In fact, they were polemical essays directed to specific objections in the fierce political battle that would determine the new nation's future.
Rather than a smooth collaborative effort by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay, there is something "helter skelter" about the "Federalist" papers, writes Mr. Bailyn.
The three wrote independently, on deadline, in effect, and their contributions included contradictions and disagreements (Jay wrote only five of the 85 articles, Madison, 29, and Hamilton, 51.
He notes the "strange and important" paradox of "The Federalist," written in a pre-industrial era, many of the assumptions of which have been drastically modified in two centuries: What, he asks, accounts for the papers' authority today and where does its value lie?
The great achievement of the authors is that in explaining in detail how the new government should and could work, "their ultimate accomplishment was to remove the Revolutionary ideology from what Hamilton called 'halcyon scenes of the poetic or fabulous age' and place it squarely in the real world … to embrace the Revolutionary heritage, and then to update it in ways that would make it consistent with the inescapable necessity of creating an effective national power." Networks of interests in "tense equilibrium" were the core and substance of the Constitution.
"For all its distance from us in time and culture, for all the changes that have overtaken the world since 1788, the Federalist papers remain relevant, and acutely relevant, because they address masterfully our permanent concerns with political power under our Constitution and in general … Their constitutional idiom is ours … and we share their cautious optimism that personal freedom and national power the preservation of private rights and the maintenance of public safety can be compatible" but always a struggle to sustain.
In that over-simplified dichotomy, of "originalists" or "strict constructionists" and "a living Constitution," he would appear to be among proponents of the latter. The continuous debate between the two perspectives is a useful one when conducted in good faith even if intensely a sinew in that tense equilibrium. "The Federalist" did not provide a dogma so much as a supple doctrine. In a moment of professorial pique, however, Mr. Bailyn does takes a gratuitous if mild swipe at one of the "originalists," Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas.
That aside, the clarity and coherence of "To Begin the World Anew," make Mr. Bailyn's book, as is always the case, a rewarding one.

Woody West is associate editor of The Washington Times.

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