The ratification of the Federal Constitution is a notoriously difficult historical event to categorize. On the one hand, it is a watershed moment; the creation of a consolidated federal government with extensive power is a clear break with the immediate post-Independence traditions of American governance. Yet at the same time, it is traditionally seen as the final achievement of a revolutionary generation—the fulfillment of the ideals of the Revolution. Continue reading
There is a breed of historians known, colloquially, as “cold water” historians for their drive to pour analytic “cold water” on the politically or historiographical fashionable arguments. Pauline Maier most certainly belongs to this historiographical polar bear club. As anyone who read her New York Times obituary (or any other, really) knows, Maier is famous for describing Thomas Jefferson as “overrated.” Her wonderful American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence brings the most powerful weapons of the skeptical historians— context and contingency—to bear on that central document of American political and national identity. Continue reading
It’s often said that we tell old stories to get new ones, a truth self-evident in my favorite of Pauline Maier’s many works, The Old Revolutionaries: Political Lives in the Age of Samuel Adams (1980). And everything I admire about her as a scholar rolls in with the first lines of that barefaced preface: “Let me confess at the outset that this book, though it answers some questions of the sort historians are trained to ask, has also been—and was meant from the outset to be—a personal adventure. I wanted to know better what it was to be an American of the late eighteenth century and to live through the American Revolution” (xiii). Maier’s prosopography of five men and their “worlds,” accentuated by a thoughtful “interlude” on the rigors of political life in the colonies, marked a change in how historians used individual biographies to retell the Revolution to post-bicentennial Americans. First given as a series of lectures at New York University in 1976, the essays gather a fairly random matrix of people for a group shot of colonial life: Samuel Adams, Isaac Sears, Dr. Thomas Young, Richard Henry Lee, and Charles Carroll. Few had appeared in solo biographies, and if they did, it was often in fairly dim light. In fewer than 300 pages, Maier promised to deliver the story of “not just why Americans made the Revolution, but what the Revolution did to them.” How to get at it? Continue reading
One of the things that set Pauline Maier apart was the exuberance she brought to the work of history. That joyful zeal is charmingly expressed in the metaphor she used to evoke the intellectual atmosphere in which she wrote her dissertation and first book, From Resistance to Revolution (1972). “In the heady days of the 1960s,” she recalled in 1991, a group of Bernard Bailyn’s graduate students shared the exciting “conviction” that “a great historical paradigm, an interpretation of the Revolution that had stood for most of the century, was collapsing like some great empire, and that another, equally powerful, was already coming into view” (v-vi). It was, indeed, a “‘revolution’ in historical understanding” (ix). Continue reading
As promised back in August upon her untimely passing, this week The Junto will be dedicated to exploring the works and legacy of Pauline Maier. I will forego providing any biographical details since they can be found in The Junto‘s memoriam for Maier here.
Pauline Maier spent her entire career working on the American Revolution, literally starting her career with the imperial crisis and ending it with the ratification of the Constitution. At each step along the way, she made significant and genuine contributions to our understanding of the Revolution. Whether it was drawing out the transatlantic aspects of the resistance to imperial reform, providing the most readable explication of the radical Whig ideological interpretation, or telling new stories about the ways in which colonists declared independence or citizens debated the Constitution, Maier found an often elusive sweet spot between intellectual history and social history. She took ideas seriously and showed how those ideas played out “on the ground,” beyond just the elites. From that mix, she developed a brand of political history in which popular participation was not just incorporated into the narrative; it was central. Indeed, that popular participation defines the Revolution in the canon that is Maier’s work. And so while Bernard Bailyn and Gordon Wood may have had higher academic profiles, it was Maier who best fulfilled the potential of the “Harvard interpretation,” thereby making her work more relevant to new generations of historians than that of either Bailyn or Wood. And, to me, that continuing relevance is the core of the legacy of Pauline Maier. Continue reading