Writing built the United States

If it hadn’t been for the writings of the leaders of the American Revolution, the United States wouldn’t have existed. The best thing that happened to this country is that its founders wrote generously. 

Consider the US constitution. At a glance it’s the American version of what every nation has: a written document that renders a country governable. Dig deeper and a crucial difference appears: the American Constitution, unlike other countries’, created the American state. The words that constitute this legal document designed a country that hadn’t existed before—neither in land nor in the minds of those who lived within its borders.

The Constitution came to light thanks to not as popular, though as important, earlier writings. The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, by Bernard Bailyn, is an essential book if you want to learn about them. The publication explores the Founders’ ideological struggles, why the colonists rebelled against the British, and the gradual formation of the American identity.

Bailyn starts his book strong: 

Whatever deficiencies the leaders of the American Revolution may have had, reticence, fortunately, was not one of them. They wrote easily and amply, and turned out in the space of scarcely a decade and a half and from a small number of presses a rich literature of theory, argument, opinion, and polemic. Every medium of written expression was put to use.

This insatiable appetite to write was an attempt at answering difficult questions. The most important was who the colonists were. At first, they viewed themselves as English citizens. That didn’t prove to be the case. They had no collective identity, no word in the dictionary to define them, no governing principles to line up around. Their place in the world was disorienting. By writing in public, the Founders and those who had a similar intellectual struggle sought to work out these challenges. They wrote “columns of arguments and counter-arguments, official documents, speeches, sermons, political comments, and pamphlets.” All of which, Bailyn tells us, had a unifying trait: 

They are, to an unusual degree, explanatory. They reveal not merely positions taken but the reasons why positions were taken; they reveal motive and understanding: the assumptions, beliefs, and ideas—the articulated world view—that lay behind the manifest events of the time.

So their writings aimed to explain. To whom? Mainly themselves. To the Founders, thinking was writing: they wrote, first and foremost, to understand. As the writings shifted and grew, the Founders arrived at conclusions they wouldn’t have reached if they didn’t record their thoughts or correspond to each other. In writing they reasoned why a revolution against the British was necessary. They detailed the rights a state should grant its citizens. The more they wrote, the closer they inched towards what we now know as the United States, eventually producing the more popular documents that built a functional state within a malleable political system.

So how do you start building even without a clear idea of what you’re trying to build? By writing without reservation on whatever provokes you enough to do so, by distributing what you wrote for the world to see it, and by acting the moment you reach a defining moment of clarity. And don’t fret—you will.