The Ideological Origins of American Insurrection
In the preface to the 50th anniversary edition of his Pulitzer prize winning study, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, the Harvard historian Bernard Bailyn reflects back on his book’s original argument of 1967, one based on an unprecedented attention to the language and rhetoric of the manifold political pamphlets that circulated in the American colonies between 1760 and 1776. Towards the end of his retrospection, Bailyn underlines the importance of the reception of ancient Roman republicanism among the American revolutionaries and cites one of the most well-known expressions of whiggish sentiment of the time—Trenchard and Gordon’s essays from the 1720s known as Cato’s Letters. Quoting the letters’ assertion that “words are too weak” to express the magnitude of the impact of the history of ancient Rome on the 18th century republican mind, Bailyn wonders if pictures might come closer to the mark. He then goes on to point to Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s famous views of Rome as emblematic of the sentiment towards the ancient world that lurked behind the American colonies’ decision to break with the British crown. Much like the rebel pamphlets that he studied so closely, Bailyn asserts, Piranesi’s images reveal a fascination with ancient Rome’s tradition of republicanism and with the corruption that brought that tradition to an end.
Bernard Bailyn passed away in 2020, marking the end of one of the great careers of an American intellectual historian. However his work undoubtedly lives on. Reading his famous book in early 2021, for instance, amid the recent chaos at the US Capitol, raises abiding questions about corruption and empire, conspiracy and ideology, themes that evidently still haunt American politics today. Indeed one of the principal points that Bailyn makes in The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution is that conspiracies about secret cabals were foundational to the American republic, making the conspiratorial motivation of the mob that recently assaulted the Capitol sadly fitting. Just as that 21st century mob believed that the ratification of a supposedly corrupt election needed to be stopped, so too did 18th century republican radicals believe that the Coercive Acts passed by British Parliament in 1774 were designed “to enslave America; and the same minister who means to enslave them would, if he had an opportunity, enslave England.” Bailyn was by no means the only distinguished historian of American politics to note this conspiratorial tendency. Richard Hofstadter’s “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” of 1964 makes a similar, though more historically wide-ranging, point.
If such academic theses help give us some perspective, when combined with recent historical events they also give teeth to the habitual and anodyne point that democracies are incredibly fragile. This brittleness is easy to take for granted and is all the more so in long-standing democracies like those found in the United States and Europe, where meditations on the values underlying democracy can all too easily appear cliché and tired. Because of this danger, and especially under the present circumstances, I am drawn to Bailyn’s point about images as vehicles for conveying the danger of political corruption. Millions of people around the world will have already experienced something of the recent events in Washington through images. Though the journalism that accompanies these pictures provides essential context for what has actually occurred, the images themselves reveal, much as Bailyn thought of Piranesi, a fascination with America’s tradition of republicanism and with the corruption that threatens to bring that tradition to an end.
One image in particular speaks to this point with special force. Among the many candid photos that have been posted online of Trump supporters inside the Capitol’s rotunda, one taken by the photojournalist Saul Loeb frames the trespassers in front of John Trumbull’s General George Washington Resigning His Commission of 1826, itself an object of my research here in the Bilderfahrzeuge Group. Conceived as a foil to the artist’s more famous painting of the signing of the Declaration of Independence itself, Trumbull took up the theme of Washington’s resignation after the revolutionary war because it was one of the most celebrated acts of virtue of the time. As Bailyn would have surely appreciated, the act itself was often likened to the resignation of the Roman general Cincinnatus, who, according to some sources, handed over his military power to the Senate after successfully defending the Roman Republic in the 5th century BCE. Trumbull was very much taken by these comparisons and they influenced his painting. Not only did he earlier compose a now-lost history painting of Cincinnatus which endowed the Roman general with Washington’s features, but he also described his painting of Washington in the Capitol rotunda as follows:
What a dazzling temptation was here to earthly ambition! Beloved by the military, venerated by the people, who was there to oppose the victorious chief, if he had chosen to retain that power which he had so long held with universal approbation? The Caesars—the Cromwells—the Napoleons—yielded to the charm of earthly ambition, and betrayed their country; but Washington aspired to loftier, unperishable glory—to that glory which virtue alone can give, and which no power, no effort, no time, can ever take away or diminish.
While this description clarifies how Trumbull’s paintings were designed to celebrate moral righteousness and to inspire virtue, its focus on the “unperishable” and timeless qualities of Washington’s act quite directly resonates with the fascination with the imposing threat to American democracy represented in recent photographs of Donald Trump and his supporters. Trumbull‘s canvas commemorates the inaugural, peaceful transition of power that literally founded the United States, making the photojournalist’s decision to frame the would-be insurrectionists in front of it especially, if ironically, fitting. Unfortunately, Trump’s supporters also believe they are virtuous, a fact that is all too easy for us in academia to forget and one that continues to be all too difficult for all of us to dispel.