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Encountering Bernard Bailyn

An Appreciation

By Jack N. Rakove | HUMANITIES, January/February 1998 | Volume 19, Number 2

When I entered graduate school in the history department at Harvard in 1969, I knew almost nothing about Bernard Bailyn, nor was I interested in the field of early American history that he taught. The fact that his study of The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution had received the Pulitzer Prize in the spring of 1968 was lost on me, overshadowed by the tumultuous events that marked my final semester of college: the aftermath of the Tet offensive, Lyndon Johnson's abdication and the Gene McCarthy boomlet, the assassination of Martin Luther King. The notion that someone immersed in the events of the 1960s would want to carry his interest in American politics back to its eighteenth-century origins would have struck me as quaint. For all I knew or cared, real American history began sometime around the New Deal -- the rest was prologue, nothing more. Of course, one might be expected to know something about the colonial and Revolutionary eras -- but who would want to make them the subject of his own work?

A funny thing happened to me, though, on my way to becoming a historian of modern America. When I went to sign up for my first graduate seminar with the late Frank Freidel, a distinguished biographer of Franklin Roosevelt, he surprised me with his advice. "You'll learn a lot more if you take Professor Bailyn's seminar," Frank said, smiling beneath the last flattop haircut sported by any member of the Harvard faculty. I dutifully wandered down the corridor of the top floor of Widener Library to Bailyn's office and secured the necessary permission.

For me, as for literally scores of his students, that seminar was a transforming intellectual experience. It also offers something of a key to understanding the distinctive contribution Bailyn has made to the study of American history in the half century since he first came to Harvard, fresh from Williams College, the United States Army, and a year of study in postwar Paris.

To an untutored naif like myself, Bailyn's seminar was at once mystifying and elating. For the first half of the course, we were never quite sure what the subject was. Each week's readings were so eclectic that we went to class wondering what we would possibly discuss. Much of this reading lay in the general field of American and English history in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. But why were we reading Lord Denning's report on the Profumo spy scandal of 1963, or E. H. Carr's account of the nineteenth-century Russian liberal, Alexander Herzen, and his circle of like-minded exiles from tsarist autocracy? Or why should we bother with as downright moldy and justly neglected a piece of scholarship as Harlan Updegraff's Origins of the Moving School in Massachusetts?

Two answers began to emerge to the puzzle as the weeks went by, and they guided our work ever after. First, the great conceptual challenge that a working historian faces is to define a good problem, and the essence of a good problem lies in identifying two points in time between which something significant (and often surprising) had happened. History is primarily about change and movement, Bailyn taught us; however hard we have to work to understand just what the past was like, the deeper challenge is to explain how one part of the past gave way to another. Second, because change can only be described through narrative, historians must be sensitive to all the matters of exposition that make narrative effective. Sometimes this meant recognizing the importance of adjectives (the point of reading Lord Denning's account, which interrupted its spare legal language to apply a few salacious modifiers to those two famous prostitutes, Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies). Sometimes it meant recalling the importance of transitions (the point of reading David Cecil's brilliant Prologue to his life of Melbourne). Always it involved understanding that expository decisions are as essential to historians as their mastery of sources and all the other technical skills on which our scholarship depends.

With that seminar, I was hooked -- a common fate for many of his students. The next year I was a teaching assistant in two of Bailyn's lecture courses. Here I saw a different facet of his approach to teaching. In his graduate courses, Bailyn mustered an admirable patience that most professors find hard to sustain, making us kick problems around, false leads and all, before nudging us (or sometimes commanding us, with an imperious "Look!") to consider the points he wanted us to see. His undergraduate lectures took a different form. Bailyn was not a classroom lecturer in the grand style; he never gave the sort of polished performance that is full of bons mots and witticisms and manages to reach its scintillating conclusion seconds before the bell. For the first twenty minutes of class, one barely needed to take a note, because he usually spent the time restating the problem he had been discussing at the close of the previous class. But round about 25 minutes past the hour, it would be off to the races, as a whole new topic was introduced and brilliantly sketched, opening up interpretive vistas more rapidly than anyone could imagine. Bailyn's inclination to review and revolve problems gave his students a glimpse of how the analysis and interpretation of the past diverged from the simple narratives or stale controversies that (then and now) remain too much the stuff of history as it is taught in secondary schools.

Teaching has a chemistry of its own, and the personal bonds it forms explain much about how great scholars draw students into their fields of study. In his early years as a Harvard professor, it was the promise of future scholarship conveyed in his teaching that helped Bailyn attract such talented students as Richard Bushman, Stanley Katz, Michael Kammen, and Gordon Wood. But the examples by which scholars teach must ultimately be found in their writings.

Bailyn had published his first monograph, a study of The New England Merchants in the Seventeenth Century, in 1955, and several influential interpretive essays in the years that followed. But his arrival as a major force in American history and letters had to await the publication of the first edited volume of Pamphlets of the American Revolution in 1965. Its lengthy introduction, originally titled "The Transforming Radicalism of the American Revolution," was reprinted two years later as The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. Not since Charles Beard published his Economic Interpretation of the Constitution in 1913 has a single book so radically transformed the writing of American history. But where Beard's interpretive punch masked research that was both hasty and flawed, Bailyn's Ideological Origins has sources of power that will preserve its authority well into the new century.

What did it mean to say that the origins of the American Revolution were ideological in nature? Since the 1950s, other scholars, notably Edmund Morgan of Yale, had demonstrated that the colonists were deeply principled and consistent in defending the rights that the British empire set out to curtail after 1763. But Bailyn's use of the concept of ideology added a new and potent element to this view. Americans reacted to British policy as they did, Bailyn argued, because they had also absorbed, from English sources, a hard-edged, suspicious view of politics that emphasized the dangers that grasping wielders of power always posed to the rights of their subjects. Rather than dismiss British initiatives as honest mistakes or miscalculations, the colonists were predisposed to interpret each British miscue as evidence of a systematic plot to turn the virtuous Americans into political slaves. Independence came, Bailyn concluded, not only because Americans adhered to their principles, but also because their ideology -- at times near paranoiac in its obsessions -- drove them into revolution.

But the telling of this ideological story occupied only half of the book, for in two concluding chapters, Bailyn offered a more complicated explanation of the radicalism of the Revolution. Its deeper significance lay, he argued, in the fundamental challenge it posed to much of the received political wisdom of the age. The decade of "pounding controversy" that followed the Stamp Act led the colonists to give new shapes and meanings to such familiar concepts as representation, sovereignty, rights, and the nature of a constitution. And in developing these positions, Bailyn suggested, Americans also came to understand how different their society had become from the parent culture they had long sought to imitate. Now standing on native ground, Americans realized that they had already departed in bold and progressive ways from Old World norms. Some began to sense, too, that their new republics should carry this departure further, extending the revolutionary impulse to challenge other sources of power -- established religion, chattel slavery, social hierarchies -- that had not been at issue in 1765.

Bailyn closed Ideological Origins by allowing the loyalist opponents of the Revolution to offer a last word of rebuke. In their quite sensible view, the revolutionaries' clamor for their just rights barely disguised the anarchic results to which their protests must lead. No form of authority, however traditional or proper, would be safe ever after, the loyalists warned. Yet as Bailyn's moving conclusion made clear, the future deservedly belonged to the revolutionaries. No intelligent reader could doubt that Bailyn's own sentiments lay with the revolutionaries and their "refusal to truckle" before any arbitrary source of authority.

Yet when Bailyn published his next book, in 1974, some critics (and even a few of his students) wondered whether he was either a closet Tory or a budding reactionary. In The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson (the next-to-last royal governor of Massachusetts), Bailyn offered an engrossing, sympathetic, and deeply moving portrait of the man whom the militant patriots of Boston -- the Adamses and their allies -- so detested. Bailyn's Hutchinson is an able public servant, equally committed to the welfare of his colony and the empire, and a thoroughly decent man, the moral superior to his detractors, who treated him as a lackey of his imperial bosses and a traitor to his native Massachusetts. How had this capable and decent man so gravely mistaken the nature of the revolutionary challenge, Bailyn asked, contributing by his very miscues to the political disaster he hoped to avert?

The answer to this question illuminates one of the great recurring themes in Bailyn's writings. From his first book, Bailyn has always been fascinated by the difficulties that members of the colonial elite had repeatedly met in trying to set themselves up as New World avatars of an Old World aristocracy. In many ways Hutchinson personified everything a colonial aristocracy might have become, had the Revolution not intervened. And that was the source of his travail in Massachusetts, and the larger debacle to which his political errors led. Hutchinson ultimately failed, Bailyn suggested, because his very success in manipulating his imperial connections rendered him unable to grasp, much less respond to the raw resentment his own privilege and power evoked. Habituated as Hutchinson was to the "closely calibrated world of status, deference, and degree -- the Anglo- American political world of privilege and patronage and of limited, arbitary access -- he could not respond to the aroused moral passion and the optimistic and idealist impulses that gripped the minds of the Revolutionaries and that led them to condemn as corrupt and oppressive the whole system by which their world was governed." In social terms, Hutchinson was no more exalted a personage than his foes and rivals; he was only more successful in working the levers of imperial influence and privilege.

That was the world to which Americans were no longer willing to "truckle," as they imagined a society in which privilege and ascriptive power would lose their sway. But how had masses of colonists come to question the received wisdom that made hierarchy and deference natural building blocks of the social order? That question, too, had long intrigued Bailyn, going back to his early studies of the New England merchants and the emerging cousinry of great planters who governed Virginia. It was a question to which he returned as he put his studies of the Revolution behind him and took up the new project on which he is still at work: a projected multi-volume study of immigration into the American colonies.

All the time he was working on the Revolution, Bailyn also monitored the flood of new monographs on the settlement of the American colonies that began to appear in the late 1960s. These works were based on close analysis of the demography of settlement and the formation of local communities, and they provided a new and provocative portrait of colonial society. Bailyn was certainly impressed by the findings of these younger scholars, some of whom (like Philip Greven and Lois Green Carr) he had trained, and all of whom he had influenced. But the very technical exactitude of this scholarship, with its obsessive focus on family and community history, raised troubling questions for a historian who remained concerned with the imperative of narrative. How, Bailyn wondered, could historians transcend the gritty data on which so much of this new social history rested? How could they provide compelling accounts of what these discrete social processes meant both to the participants and the societies they were piecemeal creating?

Bailyn first raised these questions in his presidential address to the American Historical Association in 1981, and then offered his own solutions in two books published almost simultaneously five years later. The Peopling of British North America was a set of three lectures designed to illustrate the proposition that the great theme of immigration provided the one best rubric for incorporating all the disparate findings of the new studies into one comprehensive framework. It was quickly followed by the Pulitzer Prize winning Voyagers to the West, which represented Bailyn's own self-conscious effort to provide a model version of a monograph in social history. Working outward from a single archive -- a government survey of roughly ten thousand emigrants departing for America just before the Revolution -- Bailyn examined this outflow from Britain from four distinct perspectives.

Voyagers opens with an account of the problem that British policymakers faced when they finally grasped the sheer scale of the emigration to America that their victory in the Seven Years War (1756-63) had made possible. Working from the survey the government then commissioned to assay this problem, Bailyn then turns to a close quantitative assessment of the volume and flow of the emigration, demonstrating that it followed two distinct vectors. With this established, Bailyn next explores and details all the structural links that entrepreneurs and speculators had to forge to transfer this population from one side of the Atlantic to the other. As in his first book on the early New England merchants, this section of Voyagers revealed Bailyn's fascination with the dynamics of commerce in all its marvelous complexity.

Had the book ended there, it would have been a wonderful study in the economics of emigration and settlement. Yet something vital would have been missing: an understanding of what migration had meant to the men and women whose life histories would be bound with America's long after the speculators had lost their investments and other entrepreneurs had moved on to new ventures. In almost three hundred concluding pages -- nearly a book in itself -- Bailyn traced a set of voyages and voyagers as they carried emigrants from origins as out-of-the-way as the Hebrides and Orkney Islands off Scotland's northern coast to newly opening lands extending from Nova Scotia and central New York to Florida and the Mississippi delta. This section of Voyagers breathes life into the often-arid generalizations of social history on every page, thereby fulfilling the challenge that Bailyn had set in his presidential address of 1981: to write a social history that would deploy all the tools of modern scholarship, yet still convey, through vivid narrative, the sensations of movement and experience that are always the ultimate stuff of history.

More than that still, Bailyn meant Voyagers to illustrate one of the great themes of his writings on the Revolution: the extent to which the emerging liberal society of eighteenth- century America was predicated on a rejection of the hierarchies and privileges of the old imperial regime. Bailyn's voyagers reached America too late, and were too preoccupied with settlement, to have much to do with the Revolution. But in their own way, they exemplified and reinforced its deepest tendencies. For these voyagers were seeking a measure of personal independence and self-sufficiency that Britain had not allowed them to enjoy, but which, if they were lucky enough to survive the tossings and turnings of migration, America promised to provide.

Teaching Voyagers to the West (as I regularly do) to our graduate students carries me back to the heady experience of Bailyn's seminar. For the one lesson I learned best in 1969 was that I was preparing to write a book (on what subject I hardly knew), and that when I did, Bailyn's extraordinary lessons and example would set the standard I would aspire to meet. That standard was never imposed, however; Bailyn left us to puzzle things out for ourselves, goaded only by his critical eye and his alarming propensity to call us short with the most famous of all his questions: "So what?"

Bernard Bailyn has just turned seventy-five, and he remains as actively engaged in original research as he was when he was the young star of the Harvard history department in the 1950s. His studies of the peopling of British North America continue, and for the past few years, he has been conducting a highly energized series of seminars and workshops on the settlement and economic development of the early modern Atlantic world. He is, in fact, the youngest historian I know.

Jack N. Rakove won the 1997 Pulitzer Prize in history for his book, Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constution. He is Coe Professor of History and American Studies at Stanford University.