There Are No Right Answers

Bailyn v. Nash and what it
means to the study of history

by Erin Klitzke

          Often, people say that the victors write the history.  This, however, is not true.  Many times, looking back, historians unearth evidence and accounts from the losing side of a conflict as well as the winning side.  By using different data, these historians can come to different conclusions about why events happened the way they did.  Events surrounding the Stamp Act crisis in America during the 1760s are no exception.  The fact that Bernard Bailyn and Gary Nash can come to such different conclusions when discussing the same series of events pertaining to the Stamp Act crisis shows that history is multifaceted and that one can come to multiple answers, each with their own degree of correctness, but there is no absolute right answer.

          The Stamp Act, a piece of British legislation in 1765, caused an uproar within the colonies.  The Stamp Act required the printing of all official documents, from wills to marriage licenses to decks of cards, on stamped paper.  This piece of legislation was direct internal taxation handed down from Parliament to the colonies.  This was a violation of their British liberties, as the colonists had no representation in Parliament.  As such, protests rose throughout the colonies, some of the most violent being in Boston, where rioters destroyed the home of one potential agent dealing in stamps and later destroyed the home of Thomas Hutchinson, the lieutenant governor of Massachusetts.[1]

          Two historians debated why the citizenry of Boston hated Thomas Hutchinson so much.  Bernard Bailyn took the stand in his article “Thomas Hutchinson,” featured in Faces of Revolution: Personalities and Themes in the Struggle for American Independence that the hatred directed at Hutchinson was “morbid, pathological, [and] paranoiac in [its] intensity.”[2]  Gary Nash takes a different position in his article from The American Revolution: Explorations in the History of American Radicalism, “Social Change and the Growth of Prerevolutionary Urban Radicalism.”  Nash believes that, in essence, the economic situation and the decisions made by Hutchinson regarding economic issues caused his misfortune.[3]

          Part of the reason Bailyn concluded what he did was due to the evidence he used.  In his article and in his book, The Origin of American Politics, Bailyn looks at pamphlets, transcripts of speeches and sessions in various legislatures, and accounts of the politics of the age, mostly in England.  Bailyn believes that “[the] political culture of colonial America – the assumptions, expectations, patterns of responses, and clusters of information relevant to the conduct of public affairs was...British with a peculiar emphasis.”[4]  He also says that the American colonists believed that there was a conspiracy afoot at this time, stemming from beliefs about how the British system of government operated.  However, in order to understand Bailyn’s arguments, one must understand the British system of government.

          The British system of government has a balance of powers between monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy.  Through this, the British created “the freest country in the world” according to philosopher Montesquieu.[5]  However, power was not truly separated in Britain during this period – in all actuality, powers were not separated, but the system ended up working anyway.  Bailyn states: “The source of the harmony and political stability of Hanoverian England lay not in the supposed balance of these socio-constitutional [ie, the separation of powers] orders but in the two sets or groups of conditions, the ones underlying, the other manifest....”[6]  The two ‘manifest’ conditions were the issues regarding church and state and the power of the Crown.  The ‘underlying’ conditions were that government played “only a very restricted role in society”[7] and the perception “that the officers of the government, both of central government and of local, were entitled to the power they enjoyed; that they belonged in seats of authority....”[8]  The reason that the system of separation of powers did not work is complex, hinging on the “use of ‘influence’ in managing elections and in controlling the houses that were elected were the key to the surface stability of government,” the idea that “[t]here must be patronage in abundance” in order to keep the government under control, and the concept of “virtual representation rather than actual: that is, representatives must not be closely bound to the wishes of their constituents, but must remain susceptible to pressure from the government.”[9]  This is how Bailyn explains how the government in Britain worked during this period.  He points out, though, that not everyone liked it, nor trusted it, but a solution to the mistrust of government came about later: the idea that British people needed

[To] preserve, against all the evils of the time, the three virtues which alone would sustain the nation’s freedom: “independent life; / Integrity in office; and o’er all / Supreme, a passion for the commonweal.”[10]

This idea lead to the development of something of a “country ideology,” which supported getting landed gentry into the House of Commons.  It was an idea that caught on in the colonies.  However, while the country ideology was mainstream in the colonies, it remained on the fringes – the extreme fringes – of British political thought.  In addition to the concept of country ideology, colonists in America during the period reacted to the idea of dichotomies in the British system of government in the opposite of the residents of mainland Britain.  Also, they perceived that colonial governors had far more power than they actually did.  Bailyn concludes that governors had to deal with

an apparent excess of jurisdiction in the hands of the first – the executive or monarchical – order of what were presumed to be mixed and balanced governments, coupled incongruously with a severe reduction of the “influence” available to the executive – “influence which England allowed the governors to enforce its authority, and discipline and control the whole of the polity; and a social and economic order that blurred the expected distinctiveness of political leadership, prevented the settlement of stable interest groups, and drew the government closely into the process of development.[11]

This resulted in, among other things, “a political system...[that was] troubled and contentious” and

evoked in their most extreme forms both the deeply bred belief that faction was seditious, a menace to government itself, and the fear, so vividly conveyed by the radicals...that the government was corrupt and a threat to the survival of Liberty.[12]

Such is Bailyn’s argument – that the perceived conspiracy drove otherwise rational people to extreme measures during the Stamp Act crisis.

          Nash, however, took an entirely different route when deciding what evidence he looked at to come to his conclusions.  Nash looked at accounts from the common people, economic data, and the actual numbers involved as he sought to prove that poverty and economic issues did in fact play a role in the Revolution and especially in the behavior of people toward Thomas Hutchinson.[13]  He went on to conclude further that the cause of the problem was the development of class-consciousness on the part of poorer Bostonians.[14]

          The evidence used and the conclusions reached by these two historians offer a stark contrast to each other.  While Bailyn believes that political thought and perception of politics – in simple terms, the ‘conspiracy’ he explains in his Origins – heavily influenced the actions of Bostonians, Nash takes a more straightforward approach in saying that the motivation of Bostonians was rooted in the economic crises of the time.  In addition, it seems to be a case of top-down versus bottom-up views of history.  Bailyn believes that things filter from the upper classes to the “rabble” – the lower classes – while Nash shows that the rabble had its own ideas.  Each man reached these conclusions based on the evidence used:  Bailyn through the writings of the politically savvy and the elite thinkers, Nash through using economic and sociopolitical data to give voices to the usually voiceless masses.

          So, which man is right?  It is impossible to know for sure.  Each looked at different evidence to reach conclusions, evidence that is different by nature.  In the way that each made his conclusions based on the evidence used, each man is right.  Neither one, however, is telling the whole of the story.  One cannot create a cohesive, comprehensive account of what really happened, not even if one were there when the event occurred.  One bases everything on one’s own perception of events.  Only by examining many accounts can a historian even begin to glimpse what might have been, and even then, there is no guarantee that the conclusions that historian reaches are entirely correct.  In light of this, it becomes apparent that it is not even responsible to ask who is right in this situation, because the answer is that we will never know for certain who was right and who was wrong.  A better question to ask, in this context and in all contexts when it comes to history, is “Which answer is more right than the other?”

          So, one asks the question “Why did Bailyn and Nash write this at all?”  One answer is the sociopolitical atmosphere of the times in which Bailyn and Nash wrote.  Both men wrote around the time of the bicentennial, the celebration of America’s 200TH birthday.  Perhaps they hoped to reach a larger audience due to a somewhat renewed interest in the American Revolution that came with the times.  Nash tells his reader another reason why he wrote his account in the opening to his piece.  He writes

My own work in colonial history began with an emphasis on the elite groups.... When, in 1966, I moved from Princeton to Los Angeles...I became deeply involved in the Civil Rights movement...particularly in interracial attempts to bring from the ashes of the Watts Revolt...a community-based movement that might initiate changes in a society where racism was deeply institutionalized.[15]

This tells the reader that Nash did not always think the way he did, and he goes on to state “My course in the history of colonial and revolutionary America began to change under [the] dual influence” of his diverse students.  He began to pay more attention to the “urban experience” and class interaction in coastal cities before, during, and after the Revolution.[16]  Bailyn, obviously, still looks toward the elite, more educated groups for his evidence and explanations, because he believes that the perceptions of these educated elite caused irrational behavior.  The arguments of each, while they may be irreconcilable, offer two halves to a whole story that begs telling.  Because they look at such different segments of society, they offer a contrast to each other, but they also compliment each other in many ways, when meshed together properly.  As for how to mesh the two arguments together properly, that is for each reader to decide on his or her own.  One possible enmeshing of these two accounts is to assume that Bailyn is right that elites in America perceived a conspiracy within the British government and the lower classes did not.  Working for two different reasons to the same ends, the upper class, as per Bailyn’s theory, acted, while the lower classes, as per Nash’s theory, acted.  This is only one possible combination of many.

          History is a study where there are no completely right answers.  That may be a reason the subject draws people to it.  To each story, there are a thousand sides, a million views, and primary documents to support many.  History is the study of a past that has many facets to it, each facet a story that awaits telling.  This complexity is a reason for joy.  Unlike some studies, where there is a concrete answer, history is one where we will never know the full truth of anything, only single perceptions of it.  No answer is right or wrong unless the evidence directly refutes it – and even then, there may be evidence that supports it.  The desire to look for more answers that rises from this means that no story is lost forever.  Every tale that history has to tell will be told in time, for that is all it is a matter of – time.  Nothing is ever lost forever because historians seek new answers as well as new and better evidence all the time.

          Reading Gary Nash and Bernard Bailyn illustrates that even though two men can come to drastically different conclusions regarding events, they can each be right, at least in part.  Each man, in light of the evidence each used, was right. This is in spite of the fact that it is impossible to reconcile each conclusion in full with the other.  Only by dissecting the arguments and piecing them back together again do they mesh in any conceivable and cohesive way.  Through this, one learns that there are no right answers in history.  Each historian has his or her own perception of events, just as each individual has his or her own perception of events.  The only way you can be right or wrong is if there is evidence to support or refute your own, and even then, you may be correct in some way.  History is a study where everything has the possibility of being known – if you look long and hard enough in the right places.  Eventually, history, together with its related fields, tells every story there is to tell.  This is the nature of history: a study where there are no completely right answers.

[1] Gary B, Nash, “Social Change and the Growth of Prerevolutionary Urban Radicalism,” in Alfred F. Young ed., The American Revolution: Explorations in the History of American Radicalism (Northern Illinois University Press, 1976) pp. 3-36, pp. 19, 27-28

[2] Bernard Bailyn, “Thomas Hutchinson,” in Faces of Revolution: Personalities and Themes in the Struggle for American Independence (Alfred A. Knopf, 1990) pp. 42-66, pp. 42

[3] Nash, “Social Change and the Growth of Prerevolutionary Urban Radicalism,” pp. 3-36

[4] Bernard Bailyn, The Origin of American Politics (Vintage, 1965) pp. 57

[5] Ibid, pp. 19

[6] Ibid, pp. 24

[7] Ibid, pp. 25

[8] Ibid, pp. 26

[9] Ibid, pp. 30

[10] Ibid, pp. 50

[11] Ibid, pp. 104-105

[12] Ibid, pp. 105

[13] Nash, “Social Change and the Growth of Prerevolutionary Urban Radicalism,” pp. 32-36

[14] Ibid, pp. 11

[15] Ibid, pp. 3

[16] Ibid