A Master Historian at Work

For more than half a century the historian Bernard Bailyn has stood at the pinnacle of his profession. Widely acclaimed for his scholarship and pathbreaking reinterpretations of the American Revolution and early American history, he has been honored with two Pulitzer Prizes, a National Book Award, a Bancroft Prize, a National Humanities Medal, and numerous other tokens of high esteem.

Among historians and intellectually oriented general readers, Bailyn is best known for three prize-winning books: The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (1967), immediately recognized as a classic; The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson (1974), a brilliant and poignant biography of the last royal governor of Massachusetts—a high-minded, New England Tory who resisted the revolutionary ferment and died in lonely exile; and Voyagers to the West: A Passage in the Peopling of America on the Eve of the Revolution (1986), a stunningly meticulous and panoramic work of social history.

These are only three of Bailyn’s influential writings since his debut in print. Henry David Thoreau once remarked: “In the long run men hit only what they aim at.” Since the 1950s, Bailyn has repeatedly aimed high and is now widely regarded as the foremost living interpreter of American history before 1787.

A Giant in the Field

When one reflects upon Bailyn’s formidable oeuvre, three features immediately stand out. The first is the sheer breadth of his engagement with his field. He has published not only works of intellectual and political history but also of economic and social history, utilizing census data and statistical analysis. His varied subjects have included highly articulate political elites on the eve of the American Revolution, mercantile networks in Boston and elsewhere in the 17th and 18th centuries, and thousands of “common folk” who left the British Isles and settled in the New World in the years just prior to the Revolution.

Along the way, he has also found time to edit three volumes of primary source documents, co-edit a scholarly journal for several years, and direct the dissertations of several dozen graduate students (many of whom have become prominent in the profession). Between 1995 and 2013, he organized and presided over the annual International Seminar on the History of the Atlantic World, 1500-1825, during the course of which 366 younger scholars from approximately 20 nations presented papers on topics that touched upon the history of four continents.

Historians, Bailyn insists, must be wary of the blinders of presentism and strive instead for deep contextualization of the past. Yet simultaneously they must be “storytellers” and framers of narratives.

Second, one cannot help but be astonished by the duration and pertinacity of Bailyn’s career. His first published scholarly article that I know of appeared in 1950; his first book, in 1955. Eight years ago, shortly after reaching the age of 90, he published his twelfth book (not counting co-authored and co-edited works): a 640-page tome entitled The Barbarous Years: The Peopling of British North America: The Conflict of Civilizations, 1600-1675. It was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Three years later, in 2015, came still another volume, Sometimes An Art: Nine Essays on History.

The third noteworthy feature of Bailyn’s scholarship is its relentlessly rigorous professionalism. No pertinent primary source, however obscure, no salient aspect of early American history, however hidden, seems to have escaped his notice. And no relevant secondary source seems to have eluded him either. Bailyn believes that history as a mode of inquiry is “never a science, sometimes an art,” and always “essentially a craft.” He contends that “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.”

Achieving this depth of comprehension, he has made clear, takes unremitting effort and a commitment to excellence. For the past, he reminds us, “is a different world,” and historians must attempt to understand it “as it actually was,” even though they can never attain perfect knowledge. Historians, he insists, must be wary of the blinders of presentism and strive instead for deep contextualization of the past. Yet simultaneously they must be “storytellers” and framers of narratives, for “change, growth, decline—evanescence—is what history is all about.”

Bailyn—who has described himself as not “a particularly political person”—has long been aware of the political and ideological commitments and “moral concerns” that now shape so much writing on American history. While recognizing that such perspectives can be stimulating and even enriching, he nonetheless worries that moralistic present-mindedness poses great risks. As he told an interviewer in 1991:

Without presenting the past in the correct context of its own time, and somehow disengaging it from one’s present—without grasping the past as the present it once was—one can never understand what really happened or how that distant past changed into a later present and, eventually, into the present that we are ourselves are experiencing.

Bailyn has written frequently about these and other challenges that historians like himself confront. His book On the Teaching and Writing of History (1994) should be read by anyone who aspires to enter the historical profession.

Charting his Course

This brings us to the volume at hand. It will surprise no one acquainted with Professor Bailyn to learn that the master craftsman is still at work. In 2020, at the age of 97, he has brought forth another book, different from any he has published before. Illuminating History: A Retrospective of Seven Decades is aptly titled. Here, for the first time, he gives his readers an account—“a retrospective of sorts”—of his life as a working historian. It has been a life supremely focused on what he calls “understanding the origins of the world we know.”

In a brief but incisive Introduction, Bailyn traces the path that led him to his vocation. Born in 1922 in Hartford, Connecticut, he early acquired what he calls an “addiction” to reading. By high school, he was a “compulsive reader”—an “affliction” of which he has “never been cured.” As a student at Williams College in the early 1940s, he majored in literature and decided to write a thesis on the Anglo-Irish novelist Laurence Sterne, only to discover that what most interested him was not Sterne’s literary texts but their contexts: the world in which their author lived.

Bailyn was also fascinated by—and repelled by—a Hegelian philosophy professor at Williams whose lectures were dazzling but whose “aphoristic, metaphysical talk” seemed to be “beyond criticism and beyond validation.” Reacting against this and against the “philosophical chatter” of some of this professor’s student acolytes, Bailyn was drawn to a “tough-minded” professor of history at Williams whose skepticism and “devotion to the facts” Bailyn found “entirely congenial.” The doorway to his becoming a historian had begun to open.

After just two and a half years at Williams College, Bailyn was drawn into the U.S. Army in 1943, in the midst of World War II. During his service in uniform, he was eventually placed in a German language-and-culture immersion program as preparation for possible duty in Occupied Germany after the war. He learned German and became “extremely interested” in German history. Bailyn never returned to Williams, which awarded him his BA in 1945 while he was still in the Army. After his discharge in 1946, he entered Harvard University as a graduate student in history.

During the chaotic opening weeks of the Fall 1946 semester, on a campus overflowing with war veterans and other students, Bailyn struggled to find his bearings. Which specific subjects and problems did he wish to study? He did not yet know. But he did have an idea of the “general principles” and “connections” that interested him, and one day he wrote these down on a page detached from a calendar. First, he would like to study “the early modern period of Western history” and “the connections between a distant past and an emerging modernity.” Second, he wished to examine the “connections” between ideas and “reality.” Third, he wanted to investigate “the connections between America and Europe, in whatever sphere.” He could not know it, but he had just sketched the contours of his entire career. “In retrospect,” he now writes, “everything I have done in history can be seen as following the principles of my main interests as I had defined them in 1946.”

In his research, Bailyn has always been grateful to discover a window into an earlier mental world

In addressing these themes, Bailyn has concentrated primarily on two capacious subjects: the American Revolution (“the pivot on which the whole of American history and much of Western civilization turned”) and the 17th- and 18th-century “peopling” of British North America, leading to the emergence of a distinctly American civilization. In his research and writing projects, he tells us, he has first written a “main publication,” followed by “lesser publications” that explore “the margins and implications” of the subject. Again and again, as he has proceeded, he has discovered and been intrigued by “one or more obscure documents or individuals” that “in some peculiar way, illuminated the greater picture.” In the five essays that follow the Introduction to Illuminating History, Bailyn examines these small but “vital encapsulations” of “major developments in the emergence of modernity.” In the process, he reveals much about the trajectory of his career.

The Historian at Work

In chapter one, he addresses the huge question of the relationship between Puritanism and the rise of capitalism through the unlikely prism of a combative and guilt-ridden, 48,000-word last will and testament of a prosperous, 17th-century Boston merchant named Robert Keayne. To Bailyn, Keaynes’s tortured apologia pro vita sua provides exceptional insight into “the personal costs of Puritanism’s zeal.”

In chapter three, Bailyn takes note of critics of The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution who have questioned whether the revolutionary leaders’ “mindset” that he discerned in their anti-British pamphleteering was truly representative of the attitudes of the general population. To this challenge, Bailyn has responded, not by indulging in polemics (which he has elsewhere called “a waste of time”), but by publishing additional scholarship (some of it reprinted, with fresh commentary, in his new volume) demonstrating that the worldview of the elites who championed American independence did indeed penetrate deeply into the colonial grassroots.

He has done this by highlighting “obscure local documents” and minor political actors such as a fiercely patriotic Boston shopkeeper named Harbottle Dorr. Between 1765 and 1776, Dorr—who passionately loathed the Loyalist governor, Thomas Hutchinson—collected, indexed, and annotated with marginal fulminations 3,280 pages of contemporary Boston newspapers. It is a marvelous example of what Bailyn has always been grateful to discover in his research: a window into an earlier mental world—in this case, the “inner life of the true believers” in the American Revolution.

And so it goes throughout this fascinating book. In chapter four, Bailyn recounts how his deepening interest in German emigration to colonial America led him to the discovery of the remarkable German Pietist refugee Johann Conrad Beissel, who established the monastic Ephrata Community in eastern Pennsylvania in the 1730s. In his eventual essay on Beissel (included in this volume) Bailyn sees, in miniature, the working of “a powerful theme in American history.”

In chapters two and five, he is more overtly autobiographical as he explains his early adventures studying the history of American family structure and his later creation of the International Seminar on the History of the Atlantic World. In his Epilogue, he assembles key passages from his previous writings about the theory and practice of writing history: not a “philosophy” of history, he stresses (he recoils at that term), but “just cautionary notes by a practitioner.” Finally, in the Appendix, Bailyn includes a pair of beautifully written and moving memorial essays that he prepared for the Harvard faculty about two historians who were first his mentors and then his colleagues: Samuel Eliot Morison and Oscar Handlin.

What should we take away from this volume? It is possible to read each essay in Illuminating History separately for its historical content and to do so with pleasure and profit. But Professor Bailyn clearly intends something more. In his Introduction, he describes the chapters to come as “successive expressions of my search for understanding something of the origins of the world we know.” This formulation is characteristically concise and, I think, precisely correct. Illuminating History is not, nor is it meant to be, a conventional memoir. It says very little about Bailyn’s private life, his travels, or the changing intellectual milieu of Harvard University, with which he has been affiliated now for nearly three-quarters of a century. Nor does the book directly address current historiographical controversies. Instead, Bailyn has given readers something of more lasting value: a lens through which to observe a master historian at work. His is a constantly probing and inquisitive mind, striving to resolve puzzles and discern patterns in its quest for what he has called “wholeness” of understanding of the American past. Using the chapters in this book as lamps and signposts, he has created an elegant roadmap of the intellectual journey he has taken and continues to take.

Bailyn’s book also demonstrates his mastery of the essay form. Readers who enjoy Illuminating History will want to consult three other volumes of his essays: Faces of Revolution (1990), To Begin the World Anew (2003), and Sometimes an Art. An intellectual feast awaits.

Might this tireless historian, even now, be planning further forays into America’s past? It would not be surprising if he were. Be that as it may, in 2020 Professor Bailyn has again given his former students, and countless others, reason to celebrate. For his scholarship, his mentoring, and his exemplary devotion to his calling, he remains an inspiration to us all.