Excerpt from Bailyn on Power

By historian Bernard Bailyn.

Excerpt: The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, Chapter 3, from pp 55-69

The theory of politics that emerges from the political literature of the pre-Revolutionary years rests on the belief that what lay behind every political scene, the ultimate explanation of every political controversy, was the disposition of power. The acuteness of the colonists’ sense of this problem is, for the twentieth century reader, one of the most striking things to be found in the eighteenth century literature: it serves to link the Revolutionary generation to our own.

The colonists had no doubt about what power was and about its central, dynamic role in any political system. Power was not to be confused, James Otis pointed out, with unspecified physical capacity—with the “mere physical quality” described in physics. The essence of what they mean by power was perhaps best revealed inadvertently by John Adams as he groped for words in drafting his Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law.  Twice choosing and then rejecting the word “power,” he finally selected as the specification of thought he had in mind “dominion,” and in this association of words the whole generation concurred. “Power” to them meant the dominion of some men over others, the human control of life: ultimately force, compulsion….

Most commonly the discussion of power centered on its essential characteristic of aggressiveness: its endlessly propulsive tendency to expand itself beyond its legitimate boundaries. In expressing this central thought, which explained more of politics, past and present, to them than any other single consideration, the writers of the time outdid themselves in verbal ingenuity. All sorts of metaphors, similes, and analogies were used to express this view of power.  Power, it was said over and over again, has “an encroaching nature”; “… if at first it meets with no control [it] creeps by degrees and quick subdues the whole.” Sometimes the image is of the human hand, “the hand of power,” reaching out to clutch and to seize: power is “grasping” and “tenacious” in its nature; “what it seizes it will retain.” Sometimes power “is like the ocean, not easily admitting limits to be fixed in it.” Sometimes it is “like a cancer, it eats faster and faster every hour.”….

What gave transcendent importance to the aggressiveness of power was the fact that its natural prey, its necessary victim, was liberty, or law, or right. The public world these writers saw was divided into distinct, contrasting, and innately antagonistic spheres: the sphere of power and the sphere of liberty or right. The one was brutal, ceaselessly active, and heedless; the other was delicate, passive, and sensitive. The one must be resisted, the other defended, and the two must never be confused….

Not that power was in itself—in some metaphysical sense—evil. It was natural in its origins, and necessary. It had legitimate foundations “in compact and mutual consent”—in those covenants among men by which, as a result of restrictions voluntarily accepted by all for the good of all, society emerges from a state of nature and creates government to serve as trustee and custodian….

Belief that  a proper system of laws and institutions should be should be suffused with, should express , essences and fundamentals– moral rights, reason, justice– had never been absent from English notions of the constitution….[I]f the ostensible purpose of all government was the good of the people, the particular goal of the English constitution–“its end, its use, its designation, drift, and scope”– was known by all and declared by all to be the attainment of liberty. This was its particular grandeur and excellence; it was for this that it should be prized….

Advertisements
%d bloggers like this: