Monday, August 24, 2009

Bailyn on Booknotes

From Bernard Bailyn on Booknotes with Brian Lamb:

LAMB: I mean it just rang like today when there was a leak of a document coming out. How much of that went on back in those days?

BAILYN: Well, there was a lot and that enters into this Franklin story a great deal. That was, he took with him to Europe when he went in 1776 an early draft of the Articles of Confederation. It was not what was finally accepted and there are significant differences.

But he was so eager to promote the constitutional forms that had been worked out in America that he took it and had it published, as he did many other documents from the states, had it published and translated and it was in that form actually that it reached an English audience through the translation of this draft form that went into French first.

It was typical. I have a good deal of this in the book. It's typical of the kinds of complexities in the dissemination of American documents during that period.

LAMB: You also write about the Constitution circulating around Europe being translated back in those days.


LAMB: How much of that went on and why did it go on?

BAILYN: A great deal. There was a great interest in this and it enters into the thinking of people working through reform movements all over Europe. The book begins with an argument about American provincialism.

The first chapter tries to explain something we don't often think about that at the beginning of the revolution these people were provincials. No one knew of their importance. We think of them now as Mount Rushmore, I mean these vast figures.

They weren't vast figures and their provincialism, their removal from the center of the heart of cultured Western Europe was part of the power that they could develop in thinking through new ideas.

The last chapter, which kind of wraps this up in a way, the last chapter shows the way in which these provincial ideas become cosmopolitan and circulate through so much, not only of England where it would naturally circulate, but France as well into Switzerland, into Latin America and the way these ideas played out in complex ways all throughout the Atlantic world.

And, it seems to me that one of the big stories in this is the way in which these provincial efforts then succeed locally and then radiate out into the whole of the Atlantic world.
BAILYN: Yes. Well, what Madison is saying is that they paid attention to the great names and the great thoughts of the past. The historical documents they were familiar with and the great names like Montesquieu, but as he explains, and that paragraph is exactly to the point, they did not revere them to the point where they dominated their thinking and that they - the fact that they were able to break free from these dominating ideas was one of the keys to their success and Madison was keenly aware of that.

LAMB: What's original about the work that they did?

BAILYN: As I enumerated in there, there are a whole series of basic ideas about public life which were considered at the time to be illogical, for example that you could divide sovereignty. Well, nobody believed you could divide sovereignty but we do between the states and the nation, and no one believed that that was possible at the time and they showed in ways, Madison especially, the way in which this could operate successfully.

Nobody believed that a free republican state could exist on a large scale. It would just fall to pieces because there were no controls over it if people were simply governing themselves. Again, they showed the way in which this was not so, that you could - it could operate successfully over a large expanse. And so, there are a number of these key issues that they're discussing which are original.

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