Power: An American Revolution Enthusiast
American Revolution 1763-1789
History 371 Summer 2018
Jonathan M. Chu
Power: An American Revolution Enthusiast
In “Ideological Origins of the American Revolution”, Bernard Bailyn gives a thorough explanation of what he believes is the definition of power. He goes on to say that idea of possessing a certain sense of power drives decision that in this case affect the pursuit of liberty. Bailyn quotes James Madison to support this claim in stating that “In Europe, charters of liberty have been granted by power” Madison, 1792). As a caveat to his claim that liberty on exists as a result of idea of having power, he also identifies the underlining struggle of possession both power and liberty. Bailyn continues to explain the theory of politics that circulated during the pre-revolutionary years and that was the “disposition of power” (Bailyn, 1967).
John Adam’s make an interesting observation as it is relatable to the disposition of power. In his Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law, he purposely replaced the word “power” with “dominion” as the word “power” meant that some men innate dominion over another and the human control of human life; ultimately forces compulsion” (Bailyn, 1967) This argument posed by the “idea” of the meaning of power was centered over the inherent characteristics of hostility and its need to endlessly expand itself. The best example Bailyn gives of this was a common act of “trespassing”, where “power, it was said over and over again, has an “encroaching nature” but if at first it meets no control it creeps by the degrees and quick subdues the whole” (Bailyn 1967). In this description, Baylin explains that by nature, power does not know or understand its limits. Power “thinks” it has no boundaries and therefore it devours all in its path. “it is restless, aspiring and insatiable and that too often, in the end, it destroys its benign- necessarily benign-victim” (Baylin 1967).
In the continuing pages, Baylin goes on to explain that power is much like a predator and its prey is “liberty” this liberty or “right has a different meaning than power, power abstracted from right cannot give just a title to dominion” (Baylin 1967). These pre-revolutionary ideas proved that power and liberty were contrary to popular belief, especially for most of the political, religious and scholarly thinkers of that time. Reverend Peter Whitney states that “as great a blessing as government is, like other blessings, it may become a scourge, a curse, and severe punishment to a people” (Whitney, 1765). Reverend Whitney elucidates that “power” in the form of governance is necessary but we must also be aware that at times, “power” can become a curse “that it is due to the nature of man since we are susceptible to “corruption and his (our) lust for self-aggrandizement” (Whitney, 1765). To elaborate on Reverend Whitney’s ideology is to say that he agrees that there has to be some exercise of power in order to govern but that because men are faint hearted they become submissive to the temptations of power that often removes a man’s ability to distinguish the rightful use of his power from the corruption that is brought about by his possession of power.
The English concept of liberty can be best explained by and the English writer Trenchard who goes on to argue that “, a standing army is inconsistent with a free government…” and that “unhappy nations have lost that precious jewel liberty…” (Trenchard, 1697). Trenchard poses this argument because he believes that while a nation has a standing army, it falls subject to absolute or totalitarian forms governments and in that, nations cannot seek liberty. This ideology also falls into another concept of the English that is rooted in Saxony tradition, Witans. This gave a qualified person not only the right to speak freely but to govern through the consensus of the majority. As John Adam points out these liberties along with those of the English Constitution were “the most perfect combination of human powers in society which finite wisdom has yet contrived and reduced to practice for the preservation of liberty and the production of happiness” (Adams, 1764). As you may imagine, other nations smirked at this knew found logic when it came to assuming and distributing power but the very constitution” came to be a great source of contention, where many colonists saw this as not just a set of documents but as a “deliberately contrived design of government and a specification of rights beyond the power of ordinary legislation to alter” (Bailyn, 1967). Once again, as it pertains to the subject of “power” and its convenience, John Adam’s was quite adamant in his opinion. His beliefs in power were absolute and resolved as he goes on to say that “a constitution is “a frame, a scheme, a system, a combination of powers for a certain end, namely, the good of the whole community” (Bailyn, 1967).
As the colonist would have it, they expected that as loyal subjects to the English crown, all stated liberties in the English constitution would equally apply to them as they did to those back in England. They also believed that Common law should be equally binding. The division of the Monarchy, Aristocracy and Democracy were initially created for an even distribution of power but at times and as history tells us, this separation proved to be very futile. Moses Mather explains this theory quite simply by stating that. ” so judiciously placed (power) as to connect the force and to preserve the rights of all… neither King, Lords, or Commons could be deprived of their rights or properties but by their own consent in Parliament and no laws could be made or taxes imposed but such as were necessary and in the judgement of the three estates in Parliament, for the common good and interest of the realm” (Mather, 1731).
To summarize Baylin, he makes a great case in establishing the ground work regarding the processes that facilitate the notion that eventually would led to the rebellion, also known as the American Revolution. As history has tells the story, The American colonies were being subjected to a force of power that was not for the betterment of the community but solely for the advancement of the Monarch and his representation of Power as the Sovereign of England. The colonist believed not only believed that the taxation of their imported goods was unconstitutional by parliament, but they also felt that their rights to private property were being violated by the passing of the Stamp Act. It was because of this abuse of corrupted power and the inability to balance the responsibility of power and one’s selfish desires that led the colonist to spark a revolution.
BIBLIOGRAPHY Bailyn, Bernard. The Ideological Orgins of the American Revolution. Cambridge : The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1992.