In This Review

To Begin the World Anew: The Genius and Ambiguities of the American Founders
To Begin the World Anew: The Genius and Ambiguities of the American Founders
By Bernard Bailyn
Alfred A. Knopf, 2003, 174 pp

This slender volume contains more startling revelations and useful insights than many longer works. Although all of Bailyn's essays are noteworthy, the two on politics and the creative imagination and realism and idealism in American diplomacy are truly indispensable: a synthesis of art history and political history resting on monumental and exhaustive scholarship. By comparing portraits of American and British gentry in the late colonial era, "Politics and the Creative Imagination" shows how the American "provincial" identity encouraged the revolutionary generation to conceive radical solutions to contemporary political problems. Bailyn draws illuminating and convincing parallels between these acts of political imagination and moments in art history when "provincials" have reinterpreted and renewed metropolitan aesthetic values. In "Realism and Idealism in American Diplomacy," meanwhile, Bailyn brilliantly uses the example of Benjamin Franklin to show how the latter's conception of himself changed as his experience broadened -- and how images of Franklin (on coffee cups, medallions, portraits, etc.) permeated eighteenth-century Europe. Had there been T-shirts at the time, Franklin's image would have adorned them. And on Bailyn's evidence, there is no doubt that Franklin would have carefully selected the images as part of his program of public diplomacy.