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The Revolution of Bernard Bailyn

The eminent historian, who died last week at 97, helped put ideas back in the center of the study of early America.
August 15, 2020
The Revolution of Bernard Bailyn
U.S. President Barack Obama presents a 2010 National Humanities Medal to Bernard Bailyn, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author in American history, during a ceremony at the White House in Washington. (Brooks Kraft LLC / Corbis / Getty)

Bernard Bailyn, a historian celebrated both for his work on early America and for mentoring a generation of scholars who would go on to make their own major contributions to the field, died last week. In a long career—he finished his dissertation in 1953 and his most recent book was published just four months before his death at age 97—Bailyn helped to revitalize the study of the colonial era and the Founding, bringing both lay readers and his fellow historians toward a richer understanding of the role of ideas and ideology in early American politics.

Early in Bailyn’s career, the reigning academic orthodoxy—inspired by Progressive Era historians like Charles Beard—held that the American Revolution was hardly revolutionary and that the complaints of tyranny coming from the patriots were really propaganda to disguise and defend their economic self-interest. Bailyn disagreed: He had spent years studying the pamphlet literature produced by the colonists, and saw in their writings genuine conviction.

Bailyn noticed in these texts deep discourses on the nature of power, fear or even paranoia about liberty and tyranny, and any number of conspiracy theories. He traced the pedigree of these modes of writing and thinking back nearly a century. The Whig radicals and the “country” opposition literature that could be found in English pamphlets during the days of the Glorious Revolution created the ideological and rhetorical lenses through which the American colonists would interpret the crises with Britain in the 1760s, like the clash over the Stamp Act and the stationing of British troops in Boston.

As Bailyn put it in the foreword to his most acclaimed work, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (1967), “Study of the pamphlets confirmed my rather old-fashioned view that the American Revolution was above all else an ideological, constitutional, political struggle.” At its core, the American Revolution was formed, fueled, and fought with ideas; ideas that would have implications for and effects on the American people and the republic they would establish. Through what Bailyn imaginatively called the “contagion of liberty,” these ideas would spread and allow other ideas concerning the abolition of slavery, the disestablishment of religion, and the expansion of democratic rights, to take root and grow.

Bailyn was awarded both the Pulitzer and Bancroft prizes for Ideological Origins in 1968—and that year he came out with The Origins of American Politics, a collection of three lectures, derived from a previous project on colonial politics, exploring just why in the first place colonial society had been so susceptible to ideological politics. Then, turning from the patriots to the loyalists, Bailyn produced The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson (1974), a sympathetic portrait of the last royal governor of Massachusetts Bay, for which he was awarded the National Book Prize.

Fascinated by the connections and networks people made with one another through print and material culture, as well as the byways and movements of peoples across land and sea, Bailyn championed the field of “Atlantic history.” He would win a second Pulitzer for Voyagers to the West (1986), a demographic study and social history of British immigration to the colonies on the eve of the Revolution. In its spiritual prequel, The Barbarous Years (2012), Bailyn would focus on “the peopling of British North America” in the 17th century, highlighting the internal and external conflict among the British, Dutch, Swedish, Africans, and Native Americans. Bailyn’s final book, published this past April, Illuminating History, offers reflections on his life as a historian, the art of history writing, and his final contributions to the study of colonial America.

Robert C. Maynard, the journalist and longtime editor of the Oakland Tribune, wrote in a 1990 column, “One of the great regrets of my life, and it might have changed the course of my life, concerns Professor Bernard Bailyn. I had the opportunity to study with him at Harvard [in the 1960s], and I passed it up to concentrate on the ‘dismal science’ of economics. I have often regretted that decision.”

Studying with Bailyn certainly changed the course of many of his students’ lives. He trained a host of influential and award-winning historians of early America, such as Gordon Wood, Mary Beth Norton, Jack Rakove, and the late Pauline Maier. Bailyn’s mentorship is celebrated for producing one of the greatest cohorts of up-and-coming historians the field has ever seen. But his tutelage extended well beyond his graduate students; he also helped develop the International Seminar on the History of the Atlantic World, which sought to train younger scholars interested in Atlantic History.

For such an influential figure, it is striking that Bailyn rarely waded into the waters of present-day controversy. Unlike many other historians who write regularly on contemporary affairs, you would be hard pressed to find opinion columns he wrote across the decades. That said, he was widely quoted by journalists and judges—including Supreme Court justices in their legal opinions. And he did feel compelled to give voice to some of his concerns about the historical profession, including not just the academy’s trend towards hyper-specialization but also the sin of “presentism”—that is, interpreting the past in contemporary terms and with modern expectations.

In 1975, at the International Congress of the Historical Sciences, Bailyn famously clashed with Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm and others who sought to link the American Revolution with modern Communist revolutions. “There is always a need to extract from the past some kind of bearing on contemporary problems, some message, commentary, or instruction to the writer’s age, and to see reflected in the past familiar aspects of the present,” Bailyn warned. “In the absence of critical control, this generates an obvious kind of presentism, which at worst becomes indoctrination by historical example.” Rather than disparaging the American royalists as mere reactionaries or as detached conservatives, Bailyn sought to tell the story from their perspective in his book on Thomas Hutchinson and encouraged historians to do the same when writing about the Russians who had stayed loyal to the tsar—encouraging compassion for the ‘losers of history.’

The balancing of historical sensibility, sympathy, and scrutiny was a recurring theme in Bailyn’s career. And while he did not remark on current affairs with the frequency of some other historians, the occasions when he did are instructive. In 1977, when disputes arose about the historical accuracy of Alex Haley’s book Roots and its hugely popular TV adaptation, Bailyn commented, “It’s a work of fiction . . . and its importance is as a work of fiction and a very powerful one. I don’t think its importance rests on whether or not such-and-such a ship was in such-and-such a place. I don’t give a damn if they don’t find the ship he names. It is a powerful book for other reasons altogether.”

In 1982, when some pundits were bemoaning the supposed end of the American Dream, a reporter asked Bailyn about the cultural changes the country was witnessing. No doubt drawing on his experience studying the paranoia of the American revolutionaries, Bailyn responded: “That’s ridiculous. . . . There’s never been a time when people didn’t think the country was falling apart.”

In the early 1990s, Bailyn and his Harvard colleague Stephan Thernstorm were jointly teaching a course for which they used a diary belonging to a Southern slaveholder. The students accused Bailyn of not giving equal time to the writing of slaves, to which Bailyn—at least according to an account of this incident reported in Playboy magazine—said no texts by slaves of the era existed. Bailyn and Thernstorm reportedly dropped the class from their teaching assignments.

Over the years, Bailyn was accused in various reassessments of his work of not appreciating enough the role of women in the Revolution, as well as understating the darker elements of the Founding era, such as slavery and the clashes with Native Americans. He was sanguine about such criticism, however, writing: “Succeeding generations will write different kinds of histories—and should.”

In 2017, a conference was organized at Yale to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Ideological Origins. Some of Bailyn’s most acclaimed students, as well as leading younger scholars like Joanne Freeman and Steven Pincus, presented papers on the book’s still-provocative thesis. One famed Bailyn alumnus, Richard D. Brown, commented that after fifty years of intense debate, the verdict was in: “Bailyn’s insight was accurate: Revolutionary ideology redirected the arc of American history toward liberty and equality.” The announcement of a recently discovered rare copy of the Declaration of Independence in England was timed to coincide with the conference to honor Bailyn’s contributions to Atlantic history.

Surrounded by former colleagues, students, friends, and the newest generation of early American scholars—I was fortunate and honored, as a graduate student, to be there myself—Bailyn defended his thesis against its critics, old and new, and offered some “confessions” about the book’s enduring legacy. He said he stood amazed and humbled by his book’s endurance and influence. His ultimate reflection, however, centered on the nature of power and early Americans’ obsession with it. His final comments were about the Constitution: “It did not solve the ancient and persistent problems of power—nothing could—but it created a system for their resolution that would last as long as officials ruled within the boundaries of the Constitution and that an informed, alert, and uncorrupted electorate was committed to preserving the freedoms of a republican state.”

In addition to his Bancroft and Pulitzer prizes and National Book Award, a slew of other prestigious awards was bestowed upon Bailyn by various universities, historical associations, and journals. And in 2011, President Barack Obama honored him with a National Humanities Medal for “for illuminating our Nation’s early history and pioneering the field of Atlantic history.”

Bailyn’s passing last week at his home in Belmont, Massachusetts, marks a watershed in the historical study of early America. Thanks to Bailyn and those who came in his wake, it is now generally accepted that ideas were indeed at the heart of the American Revolution. The challenge today is understanding exactly what those ideas were and what were their repercussions.

The debate continues. Rather “than generate clear resolutions,” Alan Taylor writes in American Revolutions (2016), the American Revolution “created powerful new contradictions.” Echoing Bailyn’s discussion of the “contagion of liberty,” Taylor argues that “the revolution generated clashing contagions, of slavery and liberty, and pitted them against one another” and which one would win out was far from obvious. Similarly, the New York Times’s “1619 Project” centered slavery in the minds and hearts of the patriots, claiming the Revolution was fought in defense of slavery (although the Times eventually published a “clarification” walking back that assertion). Sean Wilentz, in his latest work, No Property in Man (2018), defends the Founding and examines the anti-slavery attitudes that went into the framing of the Constitution—for which he attracted fierce criticism. A Bailyn student, C. Bradley Thompson, has also sought to defend the Founding with America’s Revolutionary Mind (2019), connecting the moral principles of the revolution with the Lockean Enlightenment. Thompson’s detractors from the illiberal right say his interpretation of the Founding reveals the “moral and intellectual bankruptcy” of libertarianism. Meanwhile, Gordon Wood—critical both of Taylor’s book and the 1619 Project—has zeroed in on a key question: “Can a revolution conceived mainly as sordid, racist and divisive be the inspiration for a nation?” Answering this fundamental question—a question that all Americans must consider—will be that much harder without Bernard Bailyn.

Daniel N. Gullotta

Daniel N. Gullotta is the Archer Fellow in Residence at the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University, and a Ph.D. candidate at Stanford University specializing in American religious history. Substack: The Letters of Wyoming. Twitter: @danielgullotta.