"To Begin the World Anew" -
Politics and the Creative Imagination
by Bernard Bailyn
The Jefferson Lecture
The National Endowment of the Humanities 1998
© 1998 by Bernard Bailyn
For some time I have been puzzling over the sources of the creative imagination in various fields of activity. I began close to home, so to speak, with an effort some years ago to probe the creative imagination among historians, but have tried to go beyond that, into other spheres, seeking to uncover some general clues to the sources of those mysterious impulses that propel the mind beyond familiar ground into unexpected territories -- that account for the sudden appearance of strange and creative configurations of thought, expression, vision, or sound.
At times the creative imagination seems to work in isolation, when an individual, impelled by some uninstructed spark of originality, glimpses relationships or possibilities never seen before, or devises forms of expressions never heard before. But most often the creative imagination does not flare in isolation. Creative minds stimulate each other, interaction and competition have a generative effect, sparks fly from disagreement and rivalry, and entire groups become creative. We know something about how that has happened -- how such creative groups have formed -- in art, in science, and in literature; but the same, I believe, has happened in politics, though in ways we do not commonly perceive. I do not mean sudden turns in legislation or public policy. I mean the recasting of the entire world of power, the re-formation of the structure of public authority, of the accepted forms of governance, obedience, and resistance, in practice as well as in theory.
The creative reorganization of the world of power and all its implications has happened at various points in history, but rarely, if ever, I believe, as quickly, successfully, and -- so it seems to me -- mysteriously as by a single generation on the eastern shores of North America two hundred years ago.
The Founders of the American nation were one of the most creative groups in modern history. It has now become fashionable to mock them because of their apparent failings. Because they did not do everything we wish they had done, what they did do can be lost in a welter of accusations: of racism, sexism, hypocrisy, power mongering, compromises and violations of principle that good men should never have done. But this is the worst kind of condescension. For we are privileged to know and to benefit from the outcome of their efforts, which they could only hopefully imagine. Complacently enjoying their successes, we condemn their failings, ignoring their main concern: which was the possibility, indeed the likelihood, that their entire creative enterprise -- to reform, transform, the entire political system -- would fail: would collapse into chaos or autocracy. Again and again they were warned of the folly of defying the received traditions, the sheer unlikelihood that they, obscure people on the outer borderlands of European civilization, knew better than the established authorities that ruled them; that they could successfully create something freer, ultimately more enduring than what was then known in the centers of metropolitan life.
Since we inherit and build on their achievements, we now know, what the established world of the 18th century flatly denied but which they broke through convention to propose:
that absolute power need not be indivisible but can be shared among states within a state and among branches of government, and that the sharing of power and balancing of forces can create not anarchy but freedom.
We know for certain, what they could only experimentally and prayerfully propose, that formal, written constitutions, upheld by judicial bodies, can effectively constrain the tyrannies of both executive force and populist majorities.
We know, because they had the imagination to perceive it, that there is a sense, mysterious as it may be, in which human rights can be seen to exist independent of privileges, gifts, and donations of the powerful, and that these rights can somehow be defined and protected by the force of law.
We casually assume, because they were somehow able to imagine, that the exercise of power is no natural birthright but must be a gift of those who are subject to it.
And we know, what Jefferson so imaginatively perceived and brilliantly expressed, that religion -- religion of any kind, secular or revealed -- in the hands of power can be the worst kind of tyranny -- that, as he wrote in his greatest state paper,
to suffer the civil magistrate to intrude his powers into the field of opinion, and to restrain the profession or propagation of principles on [the] supposition of their ill tendency, is a dangerous fallacy ... because [the magistrate] being, of course, judge of that tendency will make his opinions the rule of judgment ... Truth [Jefferson concluded in his Statute of Religious Liberty] is great and will prevail if left to herself ... she is the proper and sufficient antagonist of error and has nothing to fear from the conflict unless, by human interposition, disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate -- errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them.
These were extraordinary flights of the creative imagination -- political heresies at the time, utopian fantasies -- and their authors and sponsors knew that their efforts to realize these creative aspirations had no certain outcomes. Nothing was assured; the future was unpredictable. Everywhere there were turns and twists that had not been expected. Though they searched the histories they knew, consulted the learned authorities of the day, and reviewed the master works of political theory, they found few precedents to follow, no comprehensive guides, no models to imitate. They groped in darkness with logical, ideological, and conceptual problems that seemed to have no solutions. The deeper they went the more intractable the problems appeared.
So they were asked: how could constitutions that were to restrict the exercise of power effectively dominate the agencies of power that had created them?
Were individual rights to be protected against the state? What rights? Who defines them?
Conscience was declared to be free. But was not religion, and specifically Christianity, the ultimate source of morality and probity and hence of justice and fairness? So should Christianity not be enforced as a matter of state policy?
There was no end to the problems, and there was never any certainty in the outcome. Some of the problems in the course of time would be solved, some persist to this day and will never be fully resolved. But what strikes one most forcefully in surveying the struggles and achievements of that distant generation is less what they failed to do than what they did do, and the problems that they did in fact solve. One comes away from encounters with that generation, not with a sense of their failings and hypocrisies -- they were imperfect people, bound by the limitations of their own world -- but with a sense of how alive with creative imaginings they were; how bold they were in transcending the world they had been born into -- a world in which the brutality of unlimited state power was normal -- and in conceiving of a state system in which power was limited, defined, and defensive, and whose force would liberate people, not confine them.
How did that happen? What accounts for their creative imagination? What conditions made it possible? Can such conditions and such achievements recur?
I do not know the answers to those questions. But surveying that lost, remote world, one comes repeatedly on a distinctive element that seems to have played a role -- a significant role -- and which, in a very general sense, seems to have been an element in the creativity of other circles, in art, in literature, and even, perhaps, in science.
In a brief but brilliant essay entitled "Provincialism," the art critic Kenneth Clark commented on the differences between metropolitan and provincial art. Through the centuries, he wrote, metropolitan art, emerging from dominant centers of culture, has set the grand styles that have radiated out into the world, creating standards and forming assumptions that only idiots, Clark wrote, would challenge. But in time metropolitan art, for all its successes -- and in part because of them -- becomes repetitive, over-refined, academic, self-absorbed as it elaborates, polishes, and attenuates its initial accomplishments. A kind of scholasticism sets in, -- while out on the margins, removed from the metropolitan centers, provincial art develops free of those excesses. Artists on the periphery struggle to free themselves from what they know of the dominant style. They introduce simplicity and common sense to a style that has become too embellished, too sophisticated, too self-centered. The provincials are concrete in their visualization, committed to the ordinary facts of life as they know them, rather than to the demands of an established style that has taken on a life of its own. And they have a visionary intensity, which at times attains a lyrical quality, as they celebrate the world around them and strive to realize their fresh ambitions.
There are dangers in the provincial arts, Clark points out: insularity; regression into primitivism; complacence in the comforting familiarity of local scenes. But the most skillful provincial artists have the vigor of fresh energies; they are immersed in and stimulated by the ordinary reality about them; and they transcend their limited environments by the sheer intensity of their vision, which becomes, at the height of their powers, prophetic.
Thus Kenneth Clark on provincialism in art. To a remarkable degree I believe the same might be said of provincialism in politics and the political imagination -- particularly, in my view, the politics of Revolutionary America.
The American founders were provincials -- living on the outer borderlands of an Atlantic civilization whose heartlands were the metropolitan centers of England, France, the Netherlands, the German states, and Spain. The world they were born into was so deeply provincial, so derivative in its culture, that it is difficult for us now to imagine it as it really was -- difficult for us to re-orient our minds to this small, remote world. We cannot avoid reading back our powerful cosmopolitan present, the sense we have of our global authority and our expanded social consciences -- reading back all of that into that small, unsure pre-industrial borderland world. Language can mislead us. The vocabulary of politics in 18th-century America was metropolitan, trans-cultural, European if not universal; but the reality of their lives, the political and social context in North America, was parochial, and the provincialism of those borderland people, had, I believe, precisely those creative qualities that Clark describes in provincial art.
How provincial were they? There is literary evidence, some of it eloquent. William Byrd II, returning to Virginia after 10 years of intense striving in England's literary and political circles, called his native land a "silent country." Though surrounded by "my flocks and my herds," he wrote back to England, "my bond-men and bond-women, and every soart of trade amongst my own servants," he was lonely. There was no one to respond to his wit, his satire; no one to acknowledge his intellectual achievements, no way to establish his worth as a man of letters, as a man of the world. He was no longer in the world. Nostalgically, he kept his rooms in London, practiced his languages, continued to write -- for his own satisfaction -- and poured out his heart to his diary. Later, throughout the pre-Revolutionary period, there would be an outpouring of belles lettres in the colonial towns and cities -- "aping metropolitan rites and fashions," aspiring to the images of a greater beau monde, echoing the metropolitan styles in amusement, wit, and social discourse.
In 1763 Benjamin Franklin, back in urban and enterprising Philadelphia after years in England, knew better than anyone else how far that city had advanced in literary accomplishments in the 40 years since he had launched his Junto's program of cultural development. But he wondered why it was that the "petty island" from which he had just returned -- a mere stepping stone in a brook next to America, "scarce enough of it above water to keep one's shoes dry" -- should have, in every neighborhood, more sensible and elegant minds than could be collected in "100 leagues of our vast forests." The most gifted Americans, he wrote, merely "lisp attempts at painting, poetry, and musick."
But the witness of art and architecture is more objective and more revealing.
John Adams spoke with bitter envy of the rich and powerful in his world, of a smug, arrogant almost unreachable American aristocracy, of great American mansions, of grand estates and grand prospects. But what was the scale? How grand was grand?
Some of the grand places he and his contemporaries knew are familiar to us -- they have survived or been rebuilt -- though we don't often think of them in this connection. (NB: At this point, Professor Bailyn began showing a number of slides to illustrate his lecture.)
Longfellow House (1759)
Wentworth-Gardner House (Portsmouth NH 1760) -- built with Wentworth wealth derived from timber conracts with the British navy
Westover, the Byrd's house in Virginia (1730-34) and its entrance hall
Carter's Grove (1750-53) and its entrance hall
Gunston Hall (1755-58) (George Mason's) and its proud "Palladium Room"
Van Cortlandt Manor, on the Hudson (1740's), built with third generation Anglo-Dutch wealth
These are typical houses of the American aristocracy that Adams knew. But how should we understand their scale? How grand were they? With what should they be compared? With...
Blenheim (Woodstock, Oxfordshire), the establishment of the Dukes of Marlborough?
or with any of the other dwellings of the English nobility or higher aristocracy:
Stowe House in Buckinghamshire?
Chatsworth, in Derbyshire (Dukes of Devonshire), with its grand entrance hall?
Longleat (Wiltshire), the Marquesses of Bath?
Walpole's Houghton (Norfolk), with its snug, comfy living rooms?
Between Chatsworth in Derbyshire and Westover in Virginia -- between Longleat and Carter's Grove -- the gulf is too great, the scales are simply incommensurate. A more meaningful comparison is with the properties of the prosperous English gentry in Britain's domestic borderlands -- places like William Weddell's Newby Hall, in remote northeast Yorkshire -- a person and place, Weddell and Newby Hall, that have a peculiar role in North American history since in order to finance his building plans Weddell raised his rents, with the result that some of his tenants left the land and emigrated across the Atlantic, where their destinies can be traced.
Weddell's Newby Hall is, I believe, the comparable English provincial establishment. In exterior appearance it is not of a different scale from Byrd's Westover, but it was conceived, built, and furnished at a different level of worldliness.
One begins to see the difference in the Entrance Hall and Staircase. But the Tapestry Room is in a different world from anything in Westover. The Palladium Room of George Mason's Gunston Hall is a nice country parlor in comparison. The hangings in the Tapestry Room were made on order by the Gobelins factory, to designs by Boucher; and the chairs were made by Chippendale.
Finally, Weddell's pride and joy, his Statue Gallery: 3 rooms especially designed by Robert Adam for the contents of 19 chests of statuary Weddell had shipped from Rome in the same months of 1765 when the Americans, on the far periphery of his world, were rebelling against the Stamp Act duties.
At the end of his gallery were, and still are, his 2 main treasures, the wonderful Venus, once in the Palazzo Barberini in Rome, for which Weddell paid a great sum -- some said £3,500, some £6,000 -- and the statue of Athene, for which he paid over £1,000.
There is nothing in the American provinces to compare with this. Weddell too was a provincial Briton, though well connected, but what distinguishes him from his wealthy American counterparts was not his affluence -- the Carter family in Virginia was worth half a million pounds sterling, and prosperous Philadelphia merchants had estates of £70 or £80,000. What distinguishes Weddell was not his wealth but his cultural awareness, the worldliness of his sensibilities, in a word, his sophistication.
And what of the people, the American aristocracy, the local elites that so intimidated Adams -- what of their style, their manner, the images they projected? We know how they presented themselves: many portraits survive. Sometimes they posed theatrically, self-consciously, with somewhat painfully contrived elegance heightened by the painters' -- especially Copley's -- ambitions:
Jeremiah Lee of Marblehead, Massachusetts, and Mrs Lee
Isaac Smith of New York, and the formidable, no-nonsense Mrs Smith
Thomas Mifflin of Philadelphia, and his wonderfully beady-eyed wife -- wealthy Quakers who travelled in Europe;
and Boston's shrewd, successful merchants:
Peter Faneuil (Smibert)
John Erving (Copley)
and Eleazer Tyng (Copley)
Wonderful faces -- but with what images should these portraits of the provincial elite be compared? With ...
William, Duke of Cumberland, the victor over the Scots in the rebellion of '45
-- or others of the nobility or higher aristocracy?
The younger Duke of Cumberland?
The infamous Duchess of Devonshire?
The 2d Earl of Buckinghamshire?
The gulf between these truly grand, worldly, sophisticated images and those of the Americans is too great, the comparison almost useless. The comparison is not very useful even with the lesser, less olympian aristocracy:
The Earl of Hillsboro, for example, whose imperious attitude toward America when he was secretary of state and whose personal snubs Benjamin Franklin never forgot and never forgave; OR
Mary, Countess Howe, a superbly graceful person, whose husband Sir Richard would lead the naval forces against America in the Revolution
The most meaningful comparisons must be with the domestic English gentry, people like Gainsborough's immediate neighbors and friends in the Suffolk countryside, near his native village of Sudbury, whom he painted in studiously casual poses against the background of their property:
Mr and Mrs Andrews;
Mr and Mrs William;
and a near caricature of studied nonchalance,
Again, there is a different level of worldliness and sophistication -- not so much a matter of wealth, but of style, and the sense of what Edmund Burke called the necessary condition of any true aristocracy -- "uncontending ease, the unbought grace of life."
Two American portraits make the point more precisely. Two leaders of the Revolutionary generation who played key roles in the creative restructuring of public law and institutions -- came, as it happened, from Connecticut. Both were painted by Ralph Earle when they were at the height of their powers; and Earle -- less accomplished a painter than Copley, less dramatic, less artistically ambitious and stylized, more flatly descriptive, but closer, I think, to the grain of everyday reality -- Earle captured something of the essential qualities of these provincial public men and their culture.
The first is a double portrait of Oliver Ellsworth and his wife.
Ellsworth -- a lawyer, jurist, and politician; a key figure in the Philadelphia convention -- made the first full formulation of the principle of judicial review of legislation, hence the juridical enforcement of a written Constitution. As a Senator, he wrote the great Judiciary Act of 1789, which created out of nothing the federal court system, devised the first set of Senate rules, and drafted the legislative procedures for admitting new states, something unheard of in European public law. Thereafter he served as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and commissioner to France.
Ellsworth and his wife presented themselves for Earle's portrait as the Halletts and Andrews's did, as a prosperous married couple against the background of their property: in the Ellsworths' case their renovated "seat" as it was called, in Windsor, Conn.
The contrast with the Halletts and Andrews's could not be more vivid.
They are a proud, carefully and elegantly dressed, provincial couple. The details are interesting.
Mrs Ellsworth, then only 36 but the mother of nine children, has on a silk robe over a matching silk skirt; she wears a stiff muslin collar, and that strange, starched headdress, typical of country gentlewomen of the time. And Ellsworth sits displaying a copy of the Constitution. His expression is arresting. Earle caught, I think, the man's intelligence and firmness, his essential gravitas (lightened, though, it seems to me, by a very slight suggestion of good humor); there is about Ellsworth an understated, quiet dignity and the basic simplicity that made him a popular figure in his native town of Windsor, Connecticut, even at the height of his national and international fame.
And the second is Earle's portrait of Roger Sherman, the self-educated frontier farmer, shoemaker, surveyor, lawyer, jurist, merchant, and landowner, a member of the committees that drafted the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation, chairman of the committee whose "Connecticut Compromise" created the bicameral structure of the United States Congress, Federalist pamphleteer in the ratification struggle, and United States Senator. He was, John Adams said, as "honest as an angel and as firm in the cause of American Independence as Mount Atlas." Sherman did not "pose" for Earle -- he was incapable of "posing" for anyone -- he quite literally "sat" for him, and the result is one of the most striking portraits of the age.
Sherman is utterly unpretentious and unselfconscious -- the painting is honest down to the worn spot on the right knee -- he is wigless and sternly, starkly unfashionable.
Later, in the 19th century his image would be wonderfully transformed as he appears in the Capitol's Statuary Hall. But THIS is how he really was: rustic, awkward in manner, terse, a severely self-disciplined and unbending Calvinist, close to the soil and to small-scale mechanical arts.
Sherman, the ultimate American provincial, was one of the most innovative thinkers of his age. He was awkward, a contemporary wrote, "unaccountably strange in manner. But in his train of thinking there is something ... deep and comprehensive."
Earle's stiffly posed, resolute faces -- and even Copley's glossier and more fashionable portrayals of American businessmen, lawyers, and politicians -- reflect the consciousness of recently earned distinctions and relatively shallow prosperity. If these people formed an aristocracy it was not a very secure, graceful, or elevated aristocracy. Their acquisitions were within the reach of everyday competition; they lacked the magnificence by which a ruling order in the 18th century reinforced itself. Striving, searching, and tense, they were, and were aware of being, provincials.
But what of such worldly figures as Jefferson and Franklin? Jefferson was the friend, indeed confidant, of Condorcet, Lafayette, and La Rochefoucauld; advisor to the liberal noblemen who began the French Revolution; correspondent of Scottish philosophers and English scientists alike. Was he not the ultimate cosmopolitan in his deep appreciation of European art, architecture, technology, philosophy, science, and history? But it was he who wrote so famously from Paris that "No American should come to Europe under 30 years of age." For in Europe, he warned, an American acquires a fondness for luxury and dissipation and a contempt for the simplicity of his own country, gets entangled in "female intrigue destructive of his own and others' happiness, or a passion for whores destructive of his health, and in both cases learns to consider fidelity to the marriage bed as an ungentlemanly practice and inconsistent with happiness." Jefferson was, in fact -- despite our present obsession with his supposed relationship with a slave woman -- a provincial Puritan. He lectured his daughter Patsy, studying at a fashionable French convent, on the importance of "the needle and domestic economy" in the simple society to which they would return, and he longed to be back in Monticello.
Franklin, of course, floated easily in French salon society, but, keenly aware of his provincial origin, he shrewdly overcame its stigma in France by flaunting it -- cleverly establishing his cosmopolitan credentials by exaggerating, caricaturing, hence implicitly denying, his provincialism. He knew that by projecting himself as a gifted backwoods innocent, he would become nature's own scientist and philosopher, and thus the very embodiment of the fashionable ideas of the philosophs. And he was subtlety itself in transmuting his provincialism in the title of his final portrait, Duplessis' masterpiece. The identification on the frame is not "Benjamin Franklin" but, significantly, "Vir," that is, man -- mankind. It was, in other words, a portrait not simply of Franklin the Pennsylvania printer turned philosoph, but a portrait of the rich fulfillment of a humanity which provincials and cosmopolites shared equally.
The founders were provincials, alive to the values of a greater world, but not, they knew, of it -- comfortable in a lesser world but aware of its limitations.
And as provincials, in the pre-Revolutionary years, their view of the world was discontinuous. Two forces, two magnets, affected their efforts to find standards and styles: the values associated with unaffected native simplicity and those to be found in an acquired cosmopolitan sophistication. For many -- the ablest, best informed, and most ambitious -- the result was a degree of rootlessness, of alienation either from the higher sources of culture or from the familiar local environment. Few, in that era, whose perceptions surpassed local boundaries -- and over 1,000 Americans travelled to Europe in the generation before the Revolution -- could rest content with a simple, consistent image of themselves. Their view of the world and of their place in it was ambivalent, uncertain; and that ambivalence tended to shake their minds from the roots of habit and tradition. Like the 18th-century Scots, whose similar borderland situation stimulated an extraordinary renaissance in letters, natural science, and social science, the Americans' ambivalent identities led them to the interstices of metropolitan thought where were found new views and new approaches to the old.
Never having been fully immersed in, never fully committed to or comfortable with, the cosmopolitan establishment, in the crucible of the Revolution they challenged its authority, and when faced with the great problems of public life they turned to their own local, provincial experiences for solutions. Like Clark's provincial artists, they adhered to the facts of everyday life, and from them developed a fresh vision of what might be accomplished, what might be created. "The axioms of Montesquieu or any other great man," the New Jersey engineer and pamphleteer John Stevens wrote, "tho' [others] may deem them 'as [undeniable] as any [axioms] in Euclid,' shall never persuade me to quarrel with my bread and butter." "Is it not the glory of the people of America," Madison wrote,
that whilst they have paid a decent regard to the opinions of former times and other nations, they have not suffered a blind veneration for antiquity, for custom, or for names to overrule the suggestions of their own good sense, the knowledge of their own situation, and the lessons of their own experience?
So they referred the great, classic problems of politics not to the experience of the ages or to the wisdom of the metropolitan authorities, but to their own provincial situation, and developed their ideas and their vision of the future from what they knew to be true, and then shaped them to conform to the idealistic programs of political reform that were elsewhere deemed hopelessly utopian.
They attacked head-on the over-refined, over-elaborated, dogmatic metropolitan formulas in political thought, challenging assumptions that only idiots, they were indeed told, would question.
So the great men had told them -- and the metropolitan world demonstrated -- that dual sovereignties: sovereign states within a sovereign state -- could not co-exist. That would lead, everyone knew, systematically and inevitably, to conflict and chaos, for sovereign power was in its nature indivisible. But "I ask," Ellsworth declared in a wonderful moment in the ratification debate, "why can they not [co-exist]? It is not enough to say they cannot. I wish for some reason." Their solution to this ancient problem -- federalism: imperfect but effective -- was a formalization of the de facto constitutional world that they, as British provincials, ruled by both their local assemblies and Parliament, had known for generations.
So they reconsidered the immemorial doctrine of the separation of powers, and recast the elements involved from legalized social orders -- crown, nobility, and commons -- which had never been a direct part of their lives, to functioning branches of government -- executive, legislative, judicial -- which had been.
So too they confronted the authorities -- Montesquieu above all -- who propounded as absolute dogma the idea that free republican states, like the Swiss cantons, must be small. For, knowledgeable people said again and again, large republics, lacking the coercive power of monarchies, would simply splinter and crumble into anarchy until order was restored by military force. How could representative government and consensual law reach into the raw outer fringes of an extended republic?
To this they replied that the form of representation that had developed in the American provinces demolished such received logic. The actual representation of interests and people in the governments of these colonies -- as opposed to Europe's representation of estates and privileged localities -- made the extension of the nation to continental proportions perfectly compatible with republican freedoms. Ancient and modern thinkers both, they said, simply had no notion, because they had no experience, of the dynamic system of representation that had grown up in America -- a system that shifted with the growth and movement of the population and in which representatives were bound to constituents' wishes. "For the American states [Madison said] were reserved the glory and the happiness of diffusing this vital principle throughout the constituent parts of government."
Disposed, in the upheaval of the Revolution, to find in their own awkward, supposedly diminished provincial world not deprivation but the source of new advantages -- discovering that the glass was half full not half empty -- they weeded out anachronisms in the received tradition, discarded elements that were irrelevant to their provincial situation, and built, with great imagination, a new structure on the actualities of the world they had known and a new, intense vision of what the future might be.
But the effect of their provincialism ran deeper than that. As their identity as a separate people took form through the Revolutionary years they came to see that their remoteness from the metropolitan world gave them a moral advantage in politics. The leadership of Britain, like that of the rest of Europe, they learned from innumerable publications and from the hundreds of friends and relatives who returned from visits to the home country, had succumbed to corruption and corrosive cynicism. Since freedom in the end depends on the integrity and to some degree the virtue of rulers and ruled alike, Britain was no longer the bastion of liberty it once had been. America -- in the provincial simplicity of its manners, its lack of luxury and pomp, its artlessness, homeliness, lack of affectation and cynicism -- America had taken Britain's place as the guardian and promoter of liberty.
In a morally enervated world overcome with corruption, America -- they believed -- was unique; and that sense of moral integrity, nourished in the awareness of provincial simplicity and innocence, fortified and justified their determination to defy tradition, to build their own, different political world, and to create a new and permanent model for the benevolent use of power everywhere.
It was an intensely creative moment in western history. America's Revolutionary leaders, Madison declared, "accomplished a revolution which has no parallel in the annals of human society. They reared the fabrics of governments which have no model on the face of the globe."
Convinced of their moral integrity and the rightness of the principles they wished to make real -- well informed but relying heavily on their own local experience and common sense -- the Revolutionary leaders believed that, as Tom Paine put it, they had it in their power to begin the world anew.
Their provincialism, and the sense they derived from it of their own moral stature, nourished their political imaginations. Uncertain of their place in the established, metropolitan world, they had never felt themselves bound by it and were prepared to challenge it and build on the world they knew. With fresh energy, and ambitious to recast the over-refined, artificially elaborated system that had ruled them, they sought to achieve a total transformation of government and politics. Their unlikely experiment on the outer fringes of European civilization threatened the stability of state systems throughout the greater world, and it contained within it a force that would radiate out into areas of social life they had not intended to reform.
In all of this, I believe, there are broad implications. In the most general sense, what stimulated the Founders' imagination and hence their capacity to begin the world anew was the fact that they came from outside the metropolitan establishment, with all its age-old, deeply buried, arcane entanglements and commitments. From their distant vantage point they viewed what they could see of the dominant order with a cool, critical, challenging eye, and what they saw was something atrophied, weighted down by its own complacent, self-indulgent elaboration, and vulnerable to the force of fresh energies and imaginative designs. Refusing to be intimidated by the received traditions and confident of their own integrity and creative capacities, they demanded to know why things must be the way they are; and they had the imagination, energy, and moral stature to conceive of something closer to the grain of everyday reality, and more likely to lead to human happiness.
We have neither their need nor their opportunity to begin the world anew. But we do have the obligation, as inheritors of their success, to view every establishment critically, to remain in some sense on the margins, and forever to ask, with Ellsworth, why things must be the way they are, knowing, as he did, that it is never enough to say they must be so -- one needs to know why.