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Bernard Bailyn, eminent historian of early America, dies at 97
Although his name may not ring a bell with the legions of readers who devour bestselling books on the founding of America, few historians since World War II have left an imprint on that field of study that rivals Bailyn’s.

by Renwick McLean



NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Bernard Bailyn, who reshaped the study of early American history with seminal works on merchants and migrants, politics and government, and recast the study of the origins of the American Revolution, died Friday at his home in Belmont, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston. He was 97.

His wife, Lotte Bailyn, said the cause was heart failure.

Although his name may not ring a bell with the legions of readers who devour bestselling books on the founding of America, few historians since World War II have left an imprint on that field of study that rivals Bailyn’s. From the beginning, his work was innovative: He was among the first historians to mine statistics from historical records with a computer. And his insights and interpretations, notably in his classic 1967 work, “The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution,” could be groundbreaking.

On topic after topic, in more than 20 books that he wrote or edited, he shifted the direction of scholarly inquiry, in the process winning two Pulitzer Prizes, a National Book Award, a Bancroft Prize (the most prestigious award given to scholars of American history) and, in 2011, the National Humanities Medal, presented in a White House ceremony by President Barack Obama. And as a professor at Harvard University for more than a half-century, he seeded many of the nation’s top university history departments with his acolytes.

“He has transformed the field of early American history as much as any single person could,” Gordon Wood, a historian at Brown University and a former student of Bailyn’s, said in an interview for this obituary in 2008. “He transformed the history of education. He turned over our entire interpretation of the Revolution. He changed the way we think about immigration. Almost every single thing he did had a profound impact on the field.”

When Bailyn entered graduate school in 1946, the field of Colonial history was viewed by many as a backwater. Almost from the beginning, he brought methodological rigor and startlingly fresh interpretive questions.

Early in his career, he and his wife, while studying Colonial-era shipping, entered statistics from Massachusetts shipping records into a primitive computer and found that Boston had one of the largest merchant fleets in the British Empire in the early 1700s, indicating a surprisingly vibrant and self-reliant economy. The resulting work, “Massachusetts Shipping, 1697-1714: A Statistical Study” (1959), was one of the first historical works to include data analyzed by a computer.

In other studies, Bailyn examined specific social groups, like New England merchants (whose moneymaking, he argued, was as important to understanding the country’s origins as their Puritan religion) and the Virginia gentry.

He remains best known for “The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution,” published in 1967. It began as a bibliographical essay on hundreds of Colonial pamphlets published between 1750 and 1776, which he had been charged with preparing for publication. But it grew into a sweeping study that changed the course of debate about the nation’s founding.

The book, which won both a Pulitzer and the Bancroft Prize, challenged the then-dominant view of Progressive Era historians like Charles Beard, who saw the founders’ revolutionary rhetoric as a mask for economic interests.

For Bailyn, the pamphlets revealed a striking pattern. Although the colonists opposed taxes, restrictions on trade and other economic measures, and were frustrated with their subordinate status in British society, it was a fundamental distrust of government power, in Bailyn’s view, that led them to throw off the Colonial yoke.

The colonists had inherited this ideology from opposition politicians and writers in England, he argued. But it became particularly potent in the relative isolation of the American Colonies, where unpopular policies enacted an ocean away were interpreted as signs of a corrupt conspiracy to deny colonists their freedom.

The impact of Bailyn’s book reverberated far beyond Colonial history. Historian Forrest McDonald wrote in The New York Times Book Review in 1990 that in the two decades after “Ideological Origins” was published, “ideological interpretation of the whole sweep of American history from the 1760s to the 1840s expanded into a veritable cottage industry.”

It also drew readers from beyond the scholarly world. A 1971 article in the Times about Daniel Ellsberg, the leaker of the Pentagon Papers, described him pulling a copy of the Bailyn book out of his briefcase and being moved almost to tears as he read from its final paragraph.

Today, as debate over the origins and meaning of the American Revolution remains contentious, the book remains on syllabuses, drawing engagement even from younger scholars who might otherwise dismiss decades-old historical works as outmoded.

“Most of the books published in the decades after ‘Ideological Origins’ responded to it in some way — often by challenging its arguments,” historian Mary Beth Norton, a former Bailyn student, wrote in 2017 in one of a number of roundtables marking the book’s 50th anniversary. “That is a remarkable achievement for a book published half a century ago.”

Bailyn was known not just for rigorous scholarship but also for his elegant prose. For him, “a kind of literary imagination” was essential to the historian’s craft.

“Like a novelist,” he wrote, the historian must conjure “a nonexistent, an impalpable world in all its living comprehension, and yet do this within the constraints of verifiable facts.”

Although he stressed the importance of narrative, he did not write to popularize history and rarely gave interviews. But he wrote not just for other scholars but also for his “better students,” as he put it in one of those rare interviews, in 1994: nonscholars with “an active interest in history who would be sufficiently interested to read some detailed material.”

Within the profession, Bailyn was a frequent critic of overspecialization, abstraction and politicized “presentism” — interpreting past events in terms of modern thinking and values. For him, it was essential to respect the strangeness and pastness of the past, and to see it, as much as possible, on its own terms.

“The establishment, in some significant degree, of a realistic understanding of the past, free of myths, wish fulfillments and partisan delusions,” he said in a 1995 lecture, “is essential for social sanity.”




Bernard Bailyn — Bud to his friends — was born Sept. 10, 1922, in Hartford, Connecticut, to Charles and Esther (Schloss) Bailyn. His father was a dentist, his mother a homemaker.

In 1940, he entered Williams College in Massachusetts, where he majored in English and dabbled in philosophy. He earned a bachelor’s degree in 1945, after he had been drafted into the Army.

Growing up, he later recalled, he had not much been engaged by history. But while serving in the Signal Corps, he studied the German language and social geography. After the war, he enrolled in graduate school at Harvard.

At the time, Harvard was still a redoubt of the old WASP establishment. Bailyn, who was Jewish, later recalled how one of his professors, eminent scholar Samuel Eliot Morison, had taken little interest in him and repeatedly confused him with a member of the Harvard Yacht Club.

By his account, he fell into Colonial history almost accidentally, driven mainly by a desire to examine, as he put it later, “the connections between a distant past and an emerging modernity.”

He earned his Ph.D. in 1953 and joined the Harvard faculty. He was famous for his vivid lectures and heady if intimidating graduate seminar, where he would punctuate wayward discussion with what historian Jack Rakove recalled as “the most famous of his questions, ‘So what?’”

The book on the Revolution cemented his reputation, but Bailyn continued into new territory and new genres. In 1975, he published “The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson,” a biography of the last Colonial governor of Massachusetts.

The book, which won the National Book Award, was an attempt to explore, as he put it, “the origins or the Revolution as experienced by the losers.” But it was read by some as a defense of the establishment — or even, some suggested, of Richard Nixon, who had resigned the presidency the year before the book was published — at a time of political upheaval at Harvard and across the country.

Bailyn, who once described himself as “not very political,” cheerfully scoffed at the idea. But he did allow that he had come to feel sympathy for Hutchinson, whom he described as “that rather stiff, intelligent, highly literate, uncorrupted, honest, upright provincial merchant-turned-judge and politician.”

In more recent decades, as interest in the experiences of women, African Americans and other marginalized groups exploded among historians, Bailyn’s name was sometimes invoked as “pejorative shorthand for an outmoded view of the past that celebrates elites,” as historian Kenneth Owen put it in 2017.

For his part, Bailyn often spoke against what he called the “fashionable” tendency to excoriate the American founders, whom he called, for all their faults, “one of the most creative groups in history.”

“They gave us the foundations of our public life,” he told an interviewer in 2010. “Their world was very different from ours, but, more than any other country, we live with their world and with what they achieved.”

Bailyn won a second Pulitzer in 1987, for “Voyagers to the West,” the first volume of a series called “The Peopling of British North America,” which traces the journeys of the nearly 10,000 Britons who were known to have emigrated to America from 1773 to 1776 and explores the processes by which the Colonies became a distinctly American society.

A second volume, “The Barbarous Years,” published in 2013, chronicles the chaotic, violent decades between the founding of Jamestown in 1607 and the 1675 conflict known as King Philip’s War, which effectively pushed Native Americans out of New England.

It was a finalist for the Pulitzer, but, like “Voyagers,” it drew some strong criticism from fellow historians for what they saw as inadequate or dismissive treatment of nonwhite people.

Bailyn pressed on. In 1995, four years after officially retiring, he established the International Seminar on the History of the Atlantic World, an annual Harvard gathering of young scholars from around the world that is credited with helping to pioneer the now-vast field of Atlantic history.

In addition to his wife, Bailyn is survived by two sons, Charles, an astronomy professor at Yale University, and John, a linguistics professor at Stony Brook University on Long Island; and two granddaughters.

For all the grand sweep of his interpretations, Bailyn could seem at his most exuberant when digging into the fine-grained particularities of sources, puzzling over the historical “anomalies” — a favorite Bailyn word — that they reveal.

In 2020, he published “Illuminating History: A Retrospective of Seven Decades,” an intellectual self-portrait that eschews conventional memoir in favor of a series of essays exploring some “small, strange, obscure documents and individuals” that had captured his imagination.

In an epilogue, he cautioned, as he often did, against imposing our own sense of certainty on the confusion of the past as it was actually experienced by those who lived it.

“The fact — the inescapable fact — is that we know how it all came out,” he wrote, “and they did not.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company










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