Faces of Revolution

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Faces of Revolution: Personalities and Themes in the Struggle for American Independence brings together ten essays written over a period of thirty years by a Pulitzer Prize- winning historian, whose name is synonymous with the intellectual history of the American Revolutionary era. All but the last essay, which explores the persistence and transformation of Revolutionary ideals in the Constitution, have been previously published. They are grouped into three thematic categories that explore, respectively, the political personalities, religious thought, and themes of the Revolution.

A biography of five significant figures opens the book, illustrating how individuals perceived and acted upon important Revolutionary ideas. The most richly detailed portrait is that of John Adams, an ambitious and driven man whose desire for success and reputation was constantly at war with his innate Puritan disdain for the pursuit of honor and wealth. The constant struggle to keep the passions and irrationalities of his own nature in check predisposed Adams to view society as equally in need of such control through a government of separated powers that restrained the potentially dangerous “democratical” element. In contrast to Adams, Bailyn presents Thomas Jefferson, who was as appalled as Adams by the corruption and aristocratic privilege of Europe, though he accepted the liberal Enlightenment ideas and was an uncritical, almost reflexive, champion of republicanism. At the same time, ironically, Jefferson was an adroit politician, whose skill at maneuvering in Old World capitals contrasted with Adams’ stiff manner and blunt outspokenness.

The sketch of the third “personality,” Thomas Hutchinson, is reprinted from the opening chapter of Bailyn’s biography, The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson (1974). Bailyn offers a tolerant portrait of the loyalist governor of Massachusetts who fled to England in 1774. Bailyn finds Hutchinson, who was one of the most hated men in the Colonies, to have been essentially the same as his fellow provincials in many respects: a Scripture- reading, family man from a long-established line of colonial merchants and public servants. Unlike John Adams, who constantly struggled against an impetuous nature, Hutchinson was innately cautious, temperate, and circumspect. Had not the political climate changed radically in the 1760’s, Hutchinson would have continued to progress, Bailyn believes, toward the culmination of a successful career in public affairs. Not evil incarnate, he was merely a man of limited vision. Never having felt deep discontent or passionate aspirations, Hutchinson failed to understand the motivations of those who did, and was consequently unable to grapple with radical politics.

The final two essays on the firebrand pamphleteer Thomas Paine and a Boston shopkeeper with the unlikely name of Harbottle Dorr, Jr., speak to the public perception of British government and crown officials such as Hutchinson. Bailyn sees the real significance of Paine’s Common Sense not in its arguments for independence, which were undisciplined and contradictory, but in its tone of unrestrained outrage. Paine was “not someone who had reasoned doubts about the British constitution and the related establishment in America, but someone who hated them both and wished to strike back at them in a savage response.”

Harbottle Dorr was typical of those colonial readers among whom Paine’s rhetorical rage stirred a deeply felt response. During the Stamp Act controversy in 1765, Dorr began preserving Boston newspapers as...

(The entire section is 1469 words.)