Historians inevitably speculate about the relevance of their work to today’s world. Take the early modern period of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Historian Bernard Bailyn, who as a young scholar explored medieval and German history, as well as other times and places, eventually became fascinated with this era. “You could see the turn into modernity—you could see the way ideas and changing circumstances worked together,” he says. “The intersection of intellectual and social history interests me greatly, and in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, modernity becomes recognizable. We talk all the time about things that emerged then—constitutions, entrepreneurship, race relations—they are part of the modern world, we live with them now. If you look back at the sixteenth century, people’s lives were much more different from ours.”
For more than five decades, Bailyn has plumbed that epoch with an unquenchable curiosity and perhaps greater effect than any of his peers. For example, his most famous book, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (1967), is the kind of watershed work that influences all subsequent scholarship. It won both the Pulitzer Prize and Bancroft Prize in 1968, and the New York Times Book Review flatly declared, “One cannot claim to understand the Revolution without having read this book.” In it, “Bailyn uncovered a set of ideas among the Revolutionary generation that most historians had scarcely known existed,” wrote his former student Gordon Wood in the Wall Street Journal. “These radical ideas about power and liberty, and deeply rooted fears of conspiracy, had propelled Americans in the 1760s and 1770s into the Revolution.”
The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution begins with a declaration both wry and highly pertinent: “Whatever deficiencies the leaders of the American Revolution may have had, reticence, fortunately, was not one of them.” Bailyn’s analysis establishes that republicanism and liberty were not merely rhetorical tropes or propagandistic devices: The patriots believed that the British monarchy intended to impose a tyrannical political order that would usurp their freedoms. “The colonists said all this very clearly,” he says. “They believed they were entering a period in which they couldn’t control their own destiny, and that resistance was necessary.” Ideological Origins finally and conclusively demolished the argument that an earlier historian, Charles Beard, had advanced in 1913, to the effect that economic interests guided the votes of participants in the Constitutional Convention.
Bailyn’s The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson (1974), a biography of the last Royalist governor of Massachusetts, won the National Book Award in history in 1975. “To get a rounded picture and understand the Revolution properly, you also need a sympathetic understanding of those who opposed it,” he says. “Hutchinson’s career and fate were quite moving. He was a very intelligent man who was right on many technical constitutional questions, but he didn’t have the right response to the times, and in the end he was defeated and left in exile. Yet he loved this place as much as John Adams, who hated him.”
Bailyn has also done extensive work on immigration to the Americas; one of his books on the subject, Voyagers to the West (1986) won the Pulitzer Prize in history. “The Atlantic world had distinctive characteristics, especially the scale of land possessions of Europeans and, of course, the great slave population,” he says. “For every European who came to the Western Hemisphere in the colonial period, there were four Africans who crossed the ocean. North America had a significant part of it, but the West Indies, with their great sugar plantations, drew the major part of the slave population.”
Atlantic history, aimed at encouraging the view of America’s history in its formative years as part of a greater regional world, has been a focus for Bailyn over the past fifteen years. For this he organized an annual seminar for young historians from around the world at his institutional home, Harvard University, where he is Adams University Professor. After earning his bachelor’s degree at Williams College, he served in the Army Signal Corps in World War II, and then came to Harvard, completing his PhD in history in 1953. He has remained on the Harvard faculty ever since. Recipient of a plethora of honorary degrees and awards, Bailyn was named the Jefferson Lecturer by the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1998, and delivered the first Millennium Lecture at the White House.
Doing history “is as much a question of setting the problems as solving them,” he says. “You need to see what the great issues are.” For him, the people of the early modern era have never ceased to provoke engaging questions. “They gave us the foundations of our public life,” he avers. “It doesn’t seem to me there is anything more important than to find out how that happened and what it was. Their world was very different from ours, but, more than any other country, we live with their world and with what they achieved.”
By Craig Lambert
Craig Lambert is deputy editor of Harvard Magazine.