Bernard Bailyn’s Last Act?: An Interview with the Harvard Historian on His New Book

Bernard Bailyn’s contribution to our understanding of early American history is so vast that it’s easy to forget he’s still publishing books. His writings on the American Revolution, begun in the 1960s, remain required reading for any doctoral student studying for orals. And even since retiring from Harvard a quarter century ago, he’s continued to influence the field, perhaps nowhere more than through his promotion of Atlantic history.

Yet even at 92, Bailyn isn’t finished. His new book, Sometimes An Art: Nine Essays on History (Knopf), can be read in a number of ways: as an introduction to his vast corpus of work; a chance to respond to his critics; a reflection on the meaning of history; and, perhaps, a summing up of sorts. “It reflects some of my own work over the years,” Bailyn told me during an interview from Boston. The essays he’s chosen to include, dating from 1954 to 2007, have only appeared in either obscure publications or dated back issues of prominent journals. But in one way or another, he said, they “concentrate on certain major themes” in all his work.

One recurrent theme is the need for historians to check their biases at the scholarly door. Bailyn isn’t arguing that a stark line can divide our personal views on the present from how we view the past. But he rejects the notion that history should serve as a tool for contemporary social critique. In an essay from The William and Mary Quarterly (2001) reflecting on the then new Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, Bailyn argues that historians must be careful not to let the emotional response slavery induces distort their scholarship. Instead, historians should let “the timeless memory of the slave trade that tears at our conscience and shocks our sense of decency” bring attention and urgency to their work.

In other essays, Bailyn expands on the need for scholars to see the past from all possible perspectives, to see it “whole,” as he writes. He insists that we must always be sympathetic to historical figures who today may seem morally repugnant. In other words, we must remain sensitive to the constraints they faced and the vast distance that separates their worldview from ours. The greatest historians of the twentieth century all had this capacity, he writes, a creative imagination that Bailyn sees as akin to a novelist’s.

The book’s title, he explained, “comes from [my] belief that history is sometimes an art, always a craft, and never a science, though science can deepen our understanding of the past.” He added, “We grope for the whole truth of what has happened, but can never fully reach it, and settle for the best approximation we can make.”

Many readers of The Junto may not need a summary of Bailyn work, but it’s useful insofar as it helps explain why he’s chosen the nine essays in the new book. All of the essays bear some relationship to what he’s written before, either revising, adding to, or synthesizing past arguments.

In what is arguable his most influential book, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (1967)—which won him a Brancroft and his first Pulitzer Prize—he argued against an older generation of historians who tended to dismiss the writings of the revolutionary pamphleteers as empty rhetoric. Instead, he took them at their word, suggesting that slogans like “taxation without representation” were not hollow grievances. The Patriots’ near-paranoiac fear of Parliament was in fact informed by a distinct strain of dissenting English writers who expressed similar anxieties in early eighteenth century England. Patriot writers read those works closely, he showed, and though they may have misread and exaggerated Parliament’s actions during the imperial crisis, what they wrote was no less genuine because of it.

The reach of Ideological Origins has been vast, not least because Bailyn’s graduate students—Gordon Wood, Pauline Maier, Jack Rakove, to name a few—have refined and expanded upon his core ideas, racking up similar prizes and prestigious tenured chairs along the way. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Bailyn’s interpretation has also encountered harsh criticism. Some have attacked him for too narrowly focusing on a select few revolutionary writers and their English predecessors. What about the more radical Enlightenment ideas—equal rights for men and women, rich and poor, black and white—that inspired an untold number of Patriot sympathizers but who rarely had the opportunity to publish their thoughts in full?

In the past few decades a new generation of scholars has since emerged and has shifted focus to Native Americans, the enslaved, women and the working poor. The overall picture of the American Revolution they have given us sits uneasily with what many see as Bailyn’s overly sanguine account. In their view, Bailyn conveniently ends his versions of the revolution at easy high points: the heady days surrounding the Treaty of Paris in 1783, or the Constitution Convention four years later. Overlooked is the pitiless story of unfilled promise that follows: Indian removal, the expansion of slavery, legally sanctioned white male citizenship.

These newer, darker interpretations have, one could plausibly argue, led Bailyn to tone down some of his more sanguine rhetoric. Indeed his last full-length book—The Barbarous Years (2012), a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize—offered a version of colonial America’s first century that was so dark, so violent that some argued he was overcompensating for his previous work.

But his reverence for what the revolutionary generation itself accomplished remains undiminished. If the revolution did not live up to its promise, he has written, it unleashed a “contagion of liberty” that later generations would work to fulfill. The new collection of essays makes clear that he retains his fidelity to certain themes in American history—the expansion of liberty, the rise of individualism, the decentralization of power—however many exceptions must be made.

Bailyn readily concedes that the newer scholarship has led him to modify his views. “We know much more now than when we did back in the 1960s,” when he wrote Ideological Origins, he said. Yet he defends his overarching interpretation, and says most other scholars appreciate what the Founders’ achieved as well. The more recent work has “created complications in how we talk about [the Founders’] lives, but we’re still aware of what they accomplished.”

Some may read the new collection of essays as an implicit reply to other critics. Shortly after publishing Ideological Origins, Bailyn wrote The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson (1974), which offered a highly sympathetic view of the last royal governor of Massachusetts. Though it won a National Book Award, some scholars argued that Bailyn’s sympathy for Hutchinson couched a veiled defense of President Nixon (and conservatives generally), who had little patience for that era’s acts of civil disobedience.

The essay revisiting Thomas Hutchinson quickly dismisses that critique, repeating what he made clear in the book’s original introduction: He found the Patriots’ vitriolic hatred for Hutchinson baffling, and thus worth exploring. In a broader, sense, Hutchinson also provided a case study to do what historians often extol in theory but neglect to do in practice: show the “losers’s” perspective. Then there was the problem of inevitability in telling the story of the revolution. Detailing Hutchison’s life could return some of the revolution’s unpredictability; it was an event, he writes, “that had no certain futures, a world like our own, alive with possibilities, none of which…could have been predicted to succeed.”

“I still like the book, which was written with some emotion,” Bailyn told me. He laughed when asked about the old political attacks on the book, and has said elsewhere that he isn’t even a very political person. Yet if he has one critique of the The Ordeal, it’s that he limited his focus to the thirteen colonies and England alone. Related upheavals against colonial rule had broken out, or would soon break out, across the Atlantic World, from the 1780 Tupac Amaru revolt against Spanish rule in Peru, to the revolt of Haitian slaves against French rule in the Caribbean. Despite the differences with the American Revolution, all these events were related. “The world was churning around [Hutchinson] in ways that he couldn’t understand,” Bailyn said.

Bailyn here was alluding to his latest contribution to American history. Since the 1990s (and arguably much earlier) he has championed Atlantic history, most notably by leading the recently defunct international Atlantic seminar at Harvard. Several essays in the new collection reflect his commitment to an Atlantic approach. Whether Bailyn is writing about the various utopian religious movements that settled in North America in the seventeenth century, or discussing the African slave trade, all are intended to place the American colonial experience in a much wider context.

The irony is that despite Atlantic history’s impact on the study of early American history, many of its practitioners today use it to challenge the exact themes that Bailyn has spent his life developing. They use an Atlantic framework to belie, not extol, ideas about America’s inception they see as hopelessly exceptional, the expansion of liberty chief among them. For instance, if the demographic data is taken at face value, nearly twice as many Africans as Europeans—1.7 million to 1 million—were forced to migrate to British North America between 1600 and 1776. Proportionally, then, the dominant theme of early American history should be the expansion of slavery, not freedom.

Bailyn’s new book suggests an awareness of this argument; the demographic numbers come from the book itself. Moreover, Bailyn’s most ambitious project, still unfinished, is in part intended to deal with these darker truths. The Barbarous Years covered the first years of British settlement between 1607 and 1675, and was just the second volume of a proposed trilogy. (The first, Voyagers to the West (1986), which won another Pulitzer Prize, focused on the English and Scots-Irish colonists who immigrated en masse on the eve of the American Revolution.) What remains is a volume on the years between 1675 and 1760, when the African slave trade to the British colonies was at its peak.

When asked when he might complete the volume, he conceded with a laugh: “I don’t know if I’m going to get around to it,” then added: “but it would very much be about slavery. It wouldn’t be all about slavery, but it would be a major theme.”

8 responses

  1. Every demographic study I have seen estimates the black/slave population of the colonies at the onset of the Revolution at 20%. How is this possible if 1.7 million Africans were brought to British North America (the formulation seems to exclude the Caribbean) as opposed to one million Europeans?

  2. I suspect the 1.7 million figure is for British America, including the Caribbean (Jamaica, Barbados, and the Leeward Islands). Unless I miss my guess, the estimate of 1 million European migrants to British America also includes white migrants to the Caribbean, who in the 17th century outnumbered English migrants to the North American mainland.

  3. That makes sense. However, the article states 1.7 African slaves were “forced to migrate to British North America between 1600 and 1776.” I don’t think the Caribbean can be included in North America.

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  7. The oddity that a secret cabal of “exceptionalists” would determine America’s fate as tied to one of Law and not Men is an oddity indeed. What is remarkable is the coherency of this “Basic” or “Constitutional” Law…one which I think the entire human race agrees with now not as an aspirational goal but as needed. How ironic that such a religious people as the Puritans came around to the idea of a document that even defined belief itself as not above the Law!

    Talk about “the gift that keeps giving.” There really is one and only one Constitution to the United States and I don’t think there could ever be another like it…though many do indeed try.

    Americans are not an exceptional people…but I really fail to see how anyone cannot help but see the Constitution that United These States as one of the most exceptional expressions of “ideal-ty” in any if not every time.

    Sitting down by the fireplace and reading Marbury versus Madison while the Tyrant Jefferson rails against this “ferocious and dangerous Court” really never gets old…and I think makes for Great History…at least it did for me.

    And indeed I soon discovered…there is a lot of History out there…and many more who want to become a part of it. The demands on an aspirational “Historicus Americanus” however are truly “projectio ad absurdum” impossibly and I think hilariously high. Mark Twain was perhaps the only living being to point this out…and indeed editing US Grant’s Autobiography while simple in practice because of its lucidity became impossible once comparing him to “The Founders” let alone “A Lincoln.” And of course maybe that is the true “American Secret”…that what we want to live up to is in fact the greatest hypocrisy ever told. Yet live up to it…to be seen as mighty in the form of Lawgiver overhelms the near totality of the American Idiom.

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