Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,182

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,182


This is the grave of Bernard Bailyn.

Born in 1922 in Hartford, Bailyn grew up in a wealthy Jewish family. He got into Williams, not so easy for Jews at that time. He graduated in 1945 rather than joining the military. He then went to Harvard to get a PhD in History, which he completed in 1953. He soon became an institution at Harvard, who hired him immediately and where he stayed his entire very long career. It wasn’t always easy. He was Jewish after all and some of the leading professors of history at Harvard, Samuel Eliot Morrison quite notably among them, just ignored the class Jew.

Bailyn’s immediate interests were in early America at a time when colonial history was not something respected historians wrote about much (time periods go in and out of fashion among historians as much as anything else; a mere fifteen years the Gilded Age was out of fashion and now look where we are). He wrote a dissertation on the Boston shipping industry which became Massachusetts Shipping, 1697-1714: A Statistical Study, published in 1959. This was one of the first quantitative histories, which would become increasingly dominant in the profession over the next two decades before disappearing completely today.

Bailyn’s most important book was The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, from 1967. This book took the rhetoric of the Founders seriously. The long-time belief among historians, going back to Charles Beard in the 1910s, was that the rhetoric of the Revolution was a mask for the economic interests of the elite. I think there’s a lot to that and there’s been a new generation of historians who have critiqued these people from the perspective of their slave ownership. But Bailyn, who like his famed but problematic student Gordon Wood, was in many ways a cheerleader for the Founders and his book, which won the Pulitzer and the Bancroft, noted the deeply held beliefs they had within the British political and economic system. This spawned a new generation of studies of these issues through the 1830s.

He moved later back to his more quantitative roots and embraced the more numerical oriented studies of the 1970s and 1980s. Much of his work at this time was on immigration, which lends themselves to that type of analysis. Later, he went into the idea of the Atlantic World, building on transnational scholarship to understand early America in a more holistic way. His 1986 book Voyagers to the West: A Passage in the Peopling of America on the Eve of the Revolution, a study of British farmers who moved to the Americas, won the Pulitzer Prize. He also won the National Book Award for his 1974 book The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson. He had a popular textbook that first came out in 1977 called The Great Republic: A History of the American People. He made a lot of money on that. In 1986, he published The Peopling of British North America: An Introduction.

Bailyn was one of the older generation of consensus historians who did not deal well with the changes in the academy to promote non-white male voices and open new lines of inquiry. He hated the idea of “presentism,” which is always used by conservative historians (not necessarily political conservatives) to attack work that engages too heavily with contemporary problems or is intended to move the debates on current issues. Of course, I have no tolerance for this at all. Like a lot of historians these days, I am in this field to help figure out what the heck happened to this nation and how to fix it. One example of how Bailyn thought about these things was reprinted in his Times obituary:

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

The problem with this construction is that one cannot actually reach that position. I agree that myths are bad. Partisan delusions maybe don’t lead to perfect history. But the kind of conservative moderation that Bailyn wanted is also a tacit acceptance of the system. It’s the belief that things ultimately are OK and don’t need the kind of questions that those who are deeply critical of society point at the past. And that’s just as much of a partisan position as anything on the left, which was Bailyn’s real target here. The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson was seen as a defense of an establishment that in the present had led to Richard Nixon, so once again, he could claim that he was above the fray, but he wasn’t because he lived in society and thus could not be above the fray.

One problem for Bailyn is that he really did believe in American exceptionalism, even if that’s not a word he liked to use. This almost always leads to an intellectual dead end because it means you push back against not only the kind of comparative approach that can say so much about your own country (especially in colonial America, I mean c’mon, though of course there was the Atlantic World stuff so it’s not as if he was completely nationalistic) but also because it leads you to often wanting to defend your nation’s institutions out of instinct rather than out of a consideration of them.

But Bailyn was long idolized by conservatives and praised in the National Review for his belief in exceptionalism and his rejection of open support for progressive causes in the academy. He was criticized by leftist historians for the same thing, with Jesse Lemisch notably going after him in 1977 for lionizing the idea of staying in the ivory tower and not engaging with the world and his beloved belief in “neutrality,” as if such things are even possible. He was a pretty controversial guy for someone who was the academic’s academic. In part this is because his work was so important, but also he seemed kind of clueless on how his words and writings would be interpreted in the culture war. Even Gordon Wood has held him up as what historians should be, while at the same time ignoring that Bailyn was not what Wood has expounded as the ideal.

About the students Bailyn trained at Harvard, well, it’s basically the next generation of scholars on early America–Peter Wood, Stanley Katz, Jack Rakove, Gordon Wood, Mary Beth Norton, etc. In 2011, President Obama gave Bailyn the National Humanities Medal.

Bailyn’s wife Lotte still lives, or at least did when I took this picture. She deserves a mention. She was born in 1930 in Vienna to a Jewish family that fled to the U.S. in 1937 to escape the Nazis. She became a social psychologist but couldn’t get a job in the academy because she was a woman. She married Bailyn, which certainly meant financial comfort but not professional satisfaction. She raised their two children (both prominent academics of course), but could not get a permanent position until MIT hired her in 1969. She taught in the Sloan School from 1980, the first female faculty member there, until her retirement and she became a leader in the study of balancing work and family. Earlier in her career, her main job was typing up Bernard’s manuscripts.

Bailyn died of heart failure in 2020, at the age of 97.

Bernard Bailyn is buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Bailyn was the 1981 president of the American Historical Association. If you would like this series to visit other AHA presidents, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. David Pinkney, the historian of France who was president in 1980, is in Seattle and Arthur Link, the biographer of Wilson who was the president in 1984, is in Lewisville, North Carolina. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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