In Memoriam: Pauline Maier, 1938-2013

Yesterday morning, the early American (and broader) history community was deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Pauline Maier. The Junto extends our condolences to her family, friends, and colleagues.

Pauline (Rubbelke) Maier was born in 1938 in St. Paul, Minnesota. She did her undergraduate work at Radcliffe, where her interest in journalism and contemporary events led her to become a writer for The Harvard Crimson. It was there that she first met her eventual husband, Charles Maier. After graduating in 1960, she was named a Fulbright Scholar and studied at the London School of Economics, while Charles won a Henry Fellowship to Oxford. Upon completion of their fellowships, the two were married at Oxford.

Following an extended honeymoon touring Europe, Pauline and Charles returned to Harvard to pursue doctoral degrees. He chose European history. She initially expected to pursue twentieth-century history but switched to early America after taking a seminar with Bernard Bailyn. At the time, Bailyn was working on the volume and essay that would become Pamphlets of the American Revolution and The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. Maier, too, became interested in ideology and the coming of the American Revolution. She received her PhD in 1968 and her dissertation led first to a groundbreaking article in the William and Mary Quarterly, Popular Uprisings and Civil Authority in Eighteenth-Century America,” in 1970 and then her first book, From Resistance to Revolution: Colonial Radicals and the Development of American Opposition to Britain, 1765-1776 (1972). In 1993, the former was voted one of the eleven-most important articles published in the WMQ since the Third Series began in 1943 by readers of the journal.  

During this time, she was teaching at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, where she stayed for nine years. Following a one-year stint at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Maier became the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of American History at MIT in 1978. Her next work, Old Revolutionaries: Political Lives in the Age of Samuel Adams (1980), emerged out of the Anson G. Phelps Lectures she was invited to give at New York University in 1976.

In 1997, she published what is arguably her most important work, American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence. Following its publication, she began working on her final book, Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788, which took longer than expected. It was finally published in 2010 and won the George Washington Book Prize.

Maier spent much of her long career involved in reaching general audiences. She regularly gave public lectures, many of which are available on YouTube. She also contributed to numerous television documentaries on the American Revolution and did a number of television interviews. She was always enthusiastic and light-hearted in these kinds of public appearances, which made her an excellent ambassador to the general public for the academic early American history profession.

Maier came of age as an historian at a time when it seemed like the study of early American history was exploding. Her advisor, Bernard Bailyn, was the new leading figure in the study of the Revolution. While much of Maier’s work could be classified as intellectual history, hers was not the same kind of intellectual history as that of her mentor or one of his other students at that time, Gordon S. Wood, who called Maier “one of the most distinguished historians of American history.” Rather, from radical whiggism in the imperial crisis to the popular ideas of independence and revolutionary constitutionalism of the 1780s, Maier’s primary concern was how ideas played out on the ground rather than on paper.


Unfortunately, my own personal experiences with Pauline were relatively limited. In the spring of 2012, I took a six-week seminar on constitutionalism at the New York Historical Society, which she co-taught with Richard Bernstein for the Institute for Constitutional History. While reading Ratification, I happened to notice a very obscure factual error, which I subsequently pointed out to her one day in the elevator. At the end of the seminar, she laughed as she signed my copy of Ratification: “For Michael, who will appreciate the details.” Following the seminar, I did some research for her on what she thought might be her next project and thereby helped introduce her to Google’s N-gram viewer. Needless to say, I consider myself extremely fortunate for having made her acquaintance.


Interview, CommonWealth (1998)

Interview, Booknotes, C-SPAN (1997)

Interview, In Depth, C-SPAN (2011)

“Charles S. and Pauline R. Maier,” The Harvard Crimson (2010)

Memoriam, History News Network (2013)

Memoriam by R. B. Bernstein, H-LAW (2013)

7 responses

  1. A grand tribute, Michael. Bravissimo.

    My one minor quibble is that I think that RATIFICATION, not AMERICAN SCRIPTURE, is her most important book — because it is truly the first comprehensive narrative history of ratification, and because all future students of the ratification controversy will have to contend with it. This is not to denigrate AMERICAN SCRIPTURE, which I think is a superb book; it’s just to note that RATIFICATION is in some ways even more creative and challenging than AMERICAN SCRIPTURE was.

    • Thank you, Richard. You’re very gracious, as always. As a I hinted above, I think American Scripture and Ratification are two parts of the larger story she was telling throughout her career about ideas and popular participation in the American Revolution and subsequent founding of the United States. I’m not sure which I think is more “important.” That is why I preceded it with the qualifier “arguably.” But I think you’re right about the creative challenge that the writing of Ratification posed. Perhaps in some sense, Ratification is an “achievement” in ways that American Scripture is not.

  2. I just loved how she wrote. I found Ratification to be a page turner and that is very, very rare for academic history. I also think that her work is going to be part of the emerging examination of how the Revolution affected the people and not just the Founders. You could say she served as sort of a bridge between ideology and the bottom up view of the period.

  3. I met Pauline on four or five occasions, once working with her for a spell as a consultant on the John Adams Library exhibit at the Boston Public Library. I always found her to be gracious and friendly. I “knew” her best through her publications, each of which was an important contribution. For what it is worth, I thought From Resistance to Revolution was her most innovative work (and for me her most influential publication) while her essay on Samuel Adams was her most provocative.

    • Thank you for reading and commenting, John. I agree that both in the long-term From Resistance to Revolution has been her most influential work, though perhaps an argument could be made that her WMQ article “Popular Uprisings and Civil Authority in Eighteenth-Century America” was more influential than the book. Apparently, the New York Times thought that her most provocative work was her contribution to American Heritage Magazine‘s “Overrated/Underrated” feature back in the late 1980s.

  4. Pingback: Roundtable: The Legacy of Pauline Maier « The Junto


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