“TO BEGIN THE WORLD ANEW” by Bernard Bailyn


The Genius and Ambiguities of the American Founders
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A two-time Pulitzer-winner takes to the essay form again (Faces of Revolution, 1990) as he endeavors to portray the likes of Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin in all their ambiguities, inconsistencies, and ability to think freely.

Bailyn speculates here that life on the provincial frontier, a stimulating environment free of the instinctive respect accorded the establishment, shaped the worldview of the men who designed the democratic American polity. The republic they fashioned was chock-a-block with logical dilemmas and unresolved-to-this-day problems, not to mention failures and hypocrisies, notes Bailyn (Adams Professor Emeritus/Harvard). But he points to its overall boldness crafted by artful intellect, the oh-so-canny balance of public authority and private liberties, the yin-yang of the Constitution, the Articles, the Federalist papers. In five self-contained but accordant essays, Bailyn views Jefferson's contradictory behavior as springing partly from his sense that “freedom was in its nature a fragile plant that had been and would be, again and again, overwhelmed by the forces of power; that where freedom survived it remained beset by those who lusted for domination.” He discusses Franklin's special talent for harmonizing realism and idealism, using portraits to support his idea that the fusion of these two seemingly opposed tendencies gave birth to great historical moments. He also notes the strange picture Franklin and Adams made as confrères in Paris pursuing the nascent foreign policy of America. Bailyn asserts the relevance today of the Federalist papers, with their salubrious push-pull dynamism: Hamilton vs. Madison, federal power vs. antifederalist worries of an “aristocratical” Senate, the need for a Bill of Rights to protect minorities against the majority and for states’ rights (even with the understanding that they might be abused) to counter the centralized national government.

Bailyn's distinctive voice, as level-headed and acute as ever, works as both a stimulant and a balm, wrapped in an umbra of intellectual integrity. (65 illustrations, 4 pages of color)

Pub Date: Jan. 15th, 2003
ISBN: 0-375-41377-4
Page count: 208pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1st, 2002


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