Skip to main content


The Past Is Unpredictable

A Conversation with Bernard Bailyn

HUMANITIES, January/February 1998 | Volume 19, Number 2

Historian Bernard Bailyn, who has been chosen as the 1998 Jefferson Lecturer in the Humanities, spoke recently with editor Mary Lou Beatty about American history -- how it is taught, how it is written, and how it fits into a larger transatlantic context -- and about history in general. Bailyn, who is the Adams University Professor Emeritus at Harvard University, has written eleven books, two of them Pulitzer Prize winners, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution and Voyagers to the West. His Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson, based on his Trevelyan Lectures at Cambridge University, won the National Book Award. A former president of the American Historical Association, he was elected in 1994 to the Russian Academy of Sciences, the first American historian to be elected to that body since George Bancroft in 1867.

Mary Lou Beatty: Congratulations on your being chosen for the Jefferson lectureship. You've had a singular career as a historian, a professor for nearly fifty years at Harvard University, and the author of many highly regarded and influential books. Now, along with your series of books on the peopling of British North America, you've taken on a new project -- something called the International Seminar on the History of the Atlantic World. What is that?

Bernard Bailyn: It's an effort to bring together young historians from all over the Atlantic world to concentrate intensely for a short period of time -- ten days or so -- on common historical problems, on topics and problems they share. The purpose is to advance the first scholarly efforts of young historians of many nations, and to help them form associations during the seminar that will persist, and so build up an international cadre of young historians who then become not-so- young historians, and will carry on these connections into their later careers -- and ultimately, through cooperation among historians, to further in some small degree at least, international understanding.

Also, it's a way of deepening historical understanding. We understand much more of our own national history by seeing it in the context of Atlantic civilization as a whole. This is not an entirely new idea, but because of recent research in historical studies it has become much more important.

Q: The seminar concentrates on 1500 to 1800?

Bailyn: Yes -- that is the formative period in which the contacts between the Western European nations and the Western Hemisphere were established. In that period, you can see the connections between Western Europe and the Western Hemisphere in their first, basic forms.

Q: Is there an effort to redress the subject of European relationships with Latin America as well?

Bailyn: It's to see the whole of the Atlantic world and its common characteristics. Slavery, for instance, developed in all of the regions of the Western Hemisphere as part of the economic development of Europe, but it took different forms in different places at different times, and those peculiarities can best, most fully, be seen in an Atlantic perspective. Similarly, imperial systems and colonial governments developed, and the differences and similarities are important to notice. The seminar is not formally concentrated on the United States, although what became the United States obviously was involved, directly or indirectly, in all of this.

Q: Is there new scholarship emerging?

Bailyn: It's enormously expanding. One of the most striking things about the current work of professional historians is the amount of technical research that's emerging on all of the great questions related to Western civilization, and in other regions as well. The problem is how to get the technical work into a form that reaches a larger public. The technicians among the historians do a great deal of research and writing; how to fuse all this into presentations that can reach people generally is a real problem.

Q: But were the facts already there? Is it a case of analyzing -- by computers or otherwise -- what has already been discovered?

Bailyn: There is all sorts of research going on. The computer side is only one aspect. It's developing in many directions: in the examination of political theory; in the study of state systems as they emerged in the Atlantic world; in the history of commerce and migration. Especially migration. Migration studies are telling us far more about the initial composition of the American population than we ever knew before, by tracing the origins of people who came, not only to North America, but to the Caribbean and South America as well. There are studies now that we never had before of the origins of westward migrants -- their origins in Germany, Spain, England, Scotland, Ireland, and so forth, which is partly quantitative but not entirely. We know an enormous amount about all of this now. As I say, the question is how you can bring the technical scholarship into a general picture that can be conveyed to a broad audience.

Q: You have often said that working one's way back to the mentality of a lost world is very, very difficult. How do you apply that to these new bases of information?

Bailyn: Some of these problems that we're dealing with don't directly relate to that, but have to do simply with the objective phenomena of migration and economic development. But the ideological aspect of it is terribly important. In a way, that's where I started, in noticing how America's early development, through the Revolutionary period -- where our ideas and principles as a nation took form -- emerged from the European context.

Q: In terms of our own history, you have talked about the effects of passages of British history -- the exclusion crisis, the Glorious Revolution -- as antecedents of what happened here.

Bailyn: Such critical events in British history were very much in the minds of informed people in North America and became absorbed into their general picture of what their world was all about and where they were in this British context. They are not just quoting what happened in those events; they absorbed them into a larger picture. The difficulty -- and, I think, the value -- of writing about this is to show the way in which the particulars of these North American people's British, and more generally European and African, inheritance shaped their views of the world and then, under certain circumstances, led them to certain kinds of actions. That process is as applicable to South America and Central America as it is to the United States.

Q: In your book, Faces of the Revolution, I was particularly taken with the figure of John Adams. He comes across in unexpected ways; your view of Jefferson also seems an uncommon one. He comes across not as cerebral as I had thought, but as the consummate political tactician. And while Madison seems to be the brains of the operation, you chose not to write about him in this book.

Bailyn: Well, Madison as a personality, as opposed to Jefferson or Adams -- especially Adams -- is very elusive. He is never dramatic. He is not in any way theatrical. He is remarkably cerebral. Adams is the most open, as you see in his early writings, the diary and autobiography, which is a marvelous self- revelation. You see the emotional, questing, sensitive, romantic personality behind the facade. One can get at Jefferson too as a personality. But the biographers of Madison have a tougher time finding the person, the inner personality, as opposed to his ideas, which in my mind seem to be extremely concise and sharp and close to the inner grain of the problems that he's dealing with.

Q: You have written too about Thomas Paine, the "bankrupt British corset maker," as some called him.

Bailyn: Paine is another character altogether. The thing that interested me in what I wrote about Paine is the brilliant rhetoric of his pamphleteering. His writing has an energy and drama and verbal flair that none of the American pamphleteers had. He brought over a different kind of combative, flamboyant, completely irreverent, even violent, consciousness into the American picture, and so his initial pamphlet, Common Sense, had a remarkable impact because it is so brilliant a piece of rhetoric and so perverse and challenging an argument against all of the ordinary notions that Americans had as British subjects.

Q: He proclaimed the view that we had matured and were ready for independence, that corrupt, antiquated Britain was dragging us down, that we would have progressed faster, been richer and freer, on our own. That is the Paine thesis, isn't it?

Bailyn: Yes, Paine condemned the entire British world for all of the evils of a corrupt, monarchical system. There were many Americans in the Revolutionary movement who were not so convinced that the established forms were bad, only that they had been corrupted. But Paine laid out forceful arguments, in brilliant rhetoric, to condemn the entire system of European monarchy and aristocracy. Despite the fact that many Americans -- John Adams, for example -- couldn't easily stomach what he said, nevertheless, he had a great influence in his early years here.

Q: You point out that the colonies were not really so downtrodden in the pre-Revolutionary years as they were said by many to be.

Bailyn: That goes back to a larger issue, which is the degree to which America, before any of the Revolutionary developments took place, had already moved in directions that were quite different from the establishments in Europe -- in regard to, for example, the position of religion in ordinary life, representative government, and a whole range of other traditional conditions. Before people started to apply any radical ideas of the late eighteenth century, the targets of reform here were already softening, so to speak, already changing toward more liberal forms. The way in which those early developments reinforced the ideas that came to maturity in the Revolution is one of the important elements in early American history.

Q: You have said that the Revolutionary war was not inevitable. Is the propelling figure, then, Thomas Hutchinson, the last royal governor of Massachusetts? Or is that too simple?

Bailyn: Hutchinson was the target of all of the radicals and many of the moderate Revolutionaries of the time. But in the research for the biography I wrote I found him a very interesting person, with many sympathetic qualities. He was intelligent, extremely well informed, deeply involved with his family and community, and also, incidentally, an excellent historian. But despite all that he was the most accursed figure of the Anglo-American establishment. Many decent people never changed their belief that he was the villain behind all of the evils attributed to Britain. For all his talents and real devotion to America, he failed, as a politician and as a thinker. His failure was his inability to sense the motion of the time, people's feelings toward the public issues of his age, and a new kind of political morality. He was deeply committed to things as they were, and insensitive to the deepest moral issues of his time. He acted on traditional, received assumptions about how politicians should behave and how public life is organized, when all those things were being undermined and were moving in new directions. He could not respond to the issues that were moving to more sensitive and imaginative people. Consequently, being in power when the crisis exploded -- a position he came to hate and tried to evade -- he ended up, in public opinion, as one of the great villains of his time. But as I say, I found him, when I wrote about him, a complex and interesting person, much more tragic than villainous.

Q: Did Ben Franklin do him in? Was he the agent provocateur in pushing us toward a permanent break with England?

Bailyn: That has to do with Franklin's publication -- rather devious publication -- in 1773 of letters Hutchinson had written in the late 1760s to an official in England. Read in a certain way, they seemed to indicate that Hutchinson sympathized with, even encouraged, constraints on liberty in America. In fact, that was a misinterpretation, but for Franklin, who had once worked with Hutchinson but who apparently believed it, it was a very useful thing to publicize because, by attributing the evils of British policies to the recommendations of this American official and other such people, it would take the blame off the British crown and Parliament and create some cooling off of the heated controversy. Franklin himself was very much involved in backstairs negotiation in the months before the final break; he wanted room to maneuver, and was still hoping for reconciliation.

Q: Was Franklin a born-again Tory?

Bailyn: No, but he was remarkably bifocal. He loved England, although not its aristocracy. He had a limited circle of friends and acquaintances in and around London, and what he knew of them and of their England he liked. But he was devoted too to the American world, and knew better than anyone else of his time what its potential was, what its future could be. So he saw the conflict both ways. Until about 1774, he was hoping for and trying to bring about a reconciliation. When that clearly failed, he landed with both feet in the American camp.

Q: I want to play some theoreticals with you. What if Britain had won the war? There was an upper Canadian rebellion that preceded our own and had a quite different outcome.

Bailyn: I've written a bit about this. If there hadn't been a Revolution, America would still have modernized politically and economically, in the same way that Canada and Australia have done. These settler societies of the British world developed into modern, capitalist democracies, and so would we have done without the Revolution. But the fact that the Revolution happened, with the ideas, the ideological commitments, and the institutions that came out of the Revolutionary upheaval, has made an enormous difference. We were formed by that experience as others were not, and we emerged into the modern period with basic commitments -- to constraints on the use of power and to the equality of access and opportunity -- as others did not.

Q: So the Revolution, though not the upheaval that the French Revolution was, made a difference.

Bailyn: Yes, the Revolution made a great difference. As I say, we would have become a modern liberal democratic capitalist nation in any case, but the speed of that development and its peculiar institutional and ideological character were in large part the result of the Revolution.

But the Revolution, though it was formative in our life, did not do everything. Its social effect was initially circumscribed -- it did nothing to improve the lot of slaves or women, for example. It was focused on the single, basic question of what a free political system should be. The way that question was answered has permanently shaped our public life, and in the end has affected all the elements of our society that were once excluded.

The areas that seemed peripheral in the eighteenth century were gradually affected, as the effects of the Revolution's radicalism radiated out. We are still, to this day, groping with the Revolution's implications. The greatest problems of our time, the most vital contemporary issues we struggle with, are implicit in the Revolution: the meaning of equality and the uses and misuses of power.

Q: Was the overriding notion the idea that power itself is inherently evil?

Bailyn: The most fundamental issue that they had to deal with is how to construct a state system that has the power that's necessary in a civilized society and that at the same time does not impair individual freedom -- in fact protects it. They recognized perfectly well the need for power. That's why we have the Constitution we have, which created a national power system. But they hoped that the system would work in such a way that it would itself limit the abuses of power, and they were well aware of what those abuses could be.

One of the most interesting aspects of all this is that it happened more than two hundred years ago, and in a very different world -- preindustrial, preromantic. It was a very different world from ours. Despite that fact, so much of their thinking remains relevant to us. If you stop to think about it, it is astonishing that people should still read The Federalist as some kind of deep expression of what America is all about politically, some kind of profoundly relevant commentary. That's quite extraordinary. The reason for that, I think, is because in the end they were concerned very much with what we're concerned about, namely, the uses and abuses of public power with respect to the rights of individuals. That's what it was all about. And their comments on that remain not only relevant but truly penetrating despite the fact that they lived in a very different world.

Q: I remember as a newspaper editor going back to The Federalist to try to understand English common law regarding high crimes and misdemeanors.

Bailyn: People do that all the time. It's surely unique. There are very few people concerned with French political life who draw their ideas from what went on in 1790. And in Britain, they don't celebrate Pitt or Burke in contemporary politics the way we do Jefferson or Washington.

We're thought of often as a "young" people who don't have much history and are not much involved with what history we do have. But in fact our references in public life back into that historical period are continuous and significant -- our eighteenth-century past is more deeply relevant than equivalent periods are for any other nation I can think of, with the possible exception of Ireland.

Q: You mentioned earlier, in talking about your Seminar on the Atlantic world, that new information is emerging on the roles of people -- slaves and women, for instance -- who have not featured in history before. Is that changing our understanding of the period?

Bailyn: I think we have a much richer history now than we had when I started studying history. In the past fifty -- in fact the past twenty-five -- years, there's been an immense broadening of understanding of areas of history we hadn't probed before. All of that is deepening our understanding of how we got to be the way we are. The difficulty is, as you expand these subjects -- and should do -- how can you bring everything together into some kind of coherent general picture of what our historical development has been?

Q: In refocusing history we inevitably raise issues such as poverty, social inequalities, racism. And in delving more deeply, historians seem to be making moral judgments. Is this valid for a historian to do?

Bailyn: Historians are people, and consequently they're going to have their own views, moral and otherwise, on these and other issues. But their obligation is to describe and to analyze properly, as far as they can, what happened. Their own views will emerge, and they will comment on such things. But it isn't a profession that's devoted to working out moral codes for humanity.

Q: I wanted to quote Professor Bailyn back to Professor Bailyn.

Bailyn: What did I say?

Q: In your book, On the Teaching and Writing of History, you wrote, "Without presenting the past in the correct context of its own time, and somehow disengaging it from one's present -- without grasping the past as the present it once was -- one can never understand what really happened or how that distant present changed . . . eventually, into the present we ourselves are experiencing." Isn't that virtually impossible to achieve?

Bailyn: First of all, I approve of that saying (laughter). I'm glad to hear it. Sure, it's impossible, in any pure sense. There's no perfect recovery of a past situation. It's impossible to get wholly into other people's minds or to appreciate fully the conditions that shaped their experience and sensibilities. But to try -- to approach that ideal as far as possible -- is part of the obligation that historians have.

It doesn't take a philosopher, an epistemologist, to note that it's impossible to recover fully a past situation if only because we know what the outcome was while the people at the time did not. That lack of knowledge of the outcome is the most profoundly shaping element in any past situation, just as it is for us now. Nevertheless, it is still the obligation of historians to get as close to that past reality, whose future we know but they did not, as they can. That this can be done in any pure and perfect sense, as I say, is impossible. Nobody can do that, but you try to approach it, simply to know what happened and why, to better understand where we've come from and what our present world is composed of.

Q: You have talked about the teaching of history helping in the writing of it. In fact, one of your books carries a dedication to your graduate students. I'll quote you to you again: "When you say something aloud to another person or a group of people, you can hear falsenesses that you otherwise aren't aware of." I thought that was a wonderful moment, and all too true.

Bailyn: I've often brought in some of my own research to my students. When you're alone working on material, your critical powers get absorbed in your own concentration, but when you hear yourself saying it, you can clearly hear things that are simply repetitive or boring or off the point. I found it very useful to be able to lecture on things that I was writing about.

Q: History, both written and taught, you refer to as a craft. You say that, at its best, it can be an art form. Setting your own books aside for the moment, what books do you think have achieved art?

Bailyn: Well, there are classic books that survive as literature -- Macaulay's History of England, for example. I still have students reading Macaulay; otherwise, I don't think they'd ever look at it. His are wonderfully crafted pieces of literature, which is why they were so widely read in his own time. I don't think anybody reads Gibbon now in order to understand Byzantine history -- there are modern books that are technically more up to date, more accurate, deeper -- but one reads Gibbon for pleasure because of the art that's involved in it. Those are classic works. Some modern historians have that literary capacity as well, and they are read for that reason.

Q: Arthur Schlesinger's Age of Jackson?

Bailyn: That was a very popular book for the right reason.

Q: And Oscar Handlin's The Uprooted?

Bailyn: These are books that were, and I think still are, widely read because they're written so well and because they reach into large problems and have something important to say. But however history is written, it is essentially a craft, which has established methods and controls, a discipline and a basic intellectual responsibility.

Q: But there are intellectual limits. You quoted the physicist Richard Feynman, "Creativity in science is imagination in a straitjacket." And you added, "So, too, is creativity in history."

Bailyn: Exactly.

Q: How did you come to be interested in history?

Bailyn: My interest developed when I was in college, doing mainly English literature and some philosophy and discovering more and more that the kind of literary studies that interested me were really contextual, that is, what interested me most were the circumstances, the contexts, of literary works. And I was involved with a professor of philosophy at Williams College, where I was a student, who was a Hegelian and very much an Emersonian aphorist. He was quite brilliant, but very difficult to pin down. Nothing he said was within any kind of critical control, and so while he was himself pretty rigorous, as far as I could tell, his students were not. They were given to saying anything that came into their heads, with no kind of control, and the more impressive it sounded, the better they liked it. I reacted pretty severely against this, and it seemed to me that history was a way of studying many aspects of life that had some kind of control and where one could be proved right or wrong to some extent. It seemed to me, as I went through those two and a half years of college (interrupted by the war), that it made more sense for me to study history than either literature or philosophy. And during the war years, in the army, I was even more convinced of that. By the time I was out of the army, it was clear that I would do history.

Q: Your military biography is a little cryptic. Were you in intelligence?

Bailyn: I was with the Army Security Agency, where I worked on what was called traffic analysis, which is the analysis of intercepted radio contacts among scattered enemy forces, and tracking their movements. I was involved in that for some time, but I was also trained in German for the occupation and ended up in Germany briefly.

Q: So you were disciplined in the hunting for clues to things.

Bailyn: Exactly. And the similarity of military traffic analysis to the historical study of transoceanic commercial links is really quite striking. I was surprised to notice this when I began to study the history of transatlantic trade.

Q: You've been married to a distinguished professor for forty-five years now.

Bailyn: She gets more distinguished by the year.

Q: That's a lovely thing to say. You have two sons. Are they in the academic world?

Bailyn: Yes. One is a professor of astronomy at Yale, the other teaches linguistics and Slavic languages in Stony Brook. This year he has spent most of his time in Russia.

Q: The family tradition is continuing.

Bailyn: It seems to be.

Q: How do you see the role of historians? What does a historian contribute to the rest of us?

Bailyn: Sanity. History, in some very basic way, contributes to social sanity in the sense that it establishes in a realistic sense, as far as that's possible, what's happened and where we've come from, what experiences we've had. It's interesting that people who design a completely enclosed, tyrannical or negative utopian world, as Orwell did in 1984, always show the necessity in those worlds to falsify history.

In the worst times in the Soviet regime there was a wonderfully bitter and profound saying among intellectuals -- that the past is unpredictable. They knew that the past was being manipulated -- falsified -- to support current policy, as a kind of control over the present. The truth of what had happened, which could be legitimate grounds for dissent, was a threat to the stability of the regime, so the past had to be twisted and turned in whatever way would seem to support present policies. It seems to me that historians are doing exactly the opposite. They are trying to establish what happened in a way that will allow people to realistically understand their own world, to make informed choices, and so to control their own lives. Historians aim to establish the course of development that explains why we are what we are, and what our values and experiences have been.

And beyond that, historians broaden ordinary experience, so that people know more about other people and other situations and other values and ways of life than they otherwise would, and so have a broader understanding of life.

Q: I'm going to turn to the future for a moment. Where do you see the profession of history taking us in the next fifty years? What new explorations await us all?

Bailyn: That's very hard to say. I think we're on an expansive road at the moment, broadening in all sorts of ways. Some years ago I tried to sketch what I thought those new ways might be, or at least what some of the dominant new lines might be. One, I thought, which is already happening but will develop much more in the future, is the exploration of what might be called latent events -- underlying conditions, like slow demographic changes, all those deep, underlying shifts and movements that people at the time were not aware of but that basically shaped, limited, and conditioned their lives. Another is the broadening range of historians' perspectives -- the enlargement of the units of what they study, away from local or national units, toward international, even global developments. My own project on Atlantic history is an example, as are transnational and comparative studies which bring together phenomena that once were discussed in isolation. Two years ago an international historical organization appeared called the Forum on European Expansion and Global Interaction; it already has about two hundred members from all over the world. And a third line that is developing and will certainly continue to in the future is the study of subjective experiences -- mentalité, peoples' deeper, interior lives. All of this will, I think, continue strongly in the future and enrich the whole field of history. But will these be the only ones? Who knows? There's no telling what new ideas, new approaches, new ways of thinking about the past will appear. In this sense, the past IS unpredictable.

Q: Well, thank you very much. This has been fascinating.