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The Paths of the Historian

The recent publication of Sometimes an Art: Nine Essays on History by Harvard Emeritus Professor Bernard Bailyn provides a welcome opportunity to reflect on Bailyn the historian and his contribution to the understanding of the 17th and 18th centuries. One cannot always trust the blurbs on the back covers of books, but in this case Jonathan Yardley’s judgment is no mere piece of puffery: “For approximately half a century, Bailyn has been the country’s most distinguished and influential scholar of the Revolution.”

The one place where Yardley goes wrong is in limiting Bailyn’s portfolio to the American Revolution. It’s true that his best known book is The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (1967), but he also authored a series of very important studies on “The Peopling of British North America,” a cluster of works on patterns of immigration to the New World, as well as other books on yet other topics. Bailyn’s distinction as a historian is attested to by his many prizes and honors—twice a Pulitzer winner, recipient of the Bancroft Prize, a National Book Award, and the coveted Jefferson Lectureship, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Sometimes an Art is not, as its title might suggest, a sustained discussion of whether the practice of history is an art or a science, though Bailyn does in fact adhere to the art rather than science view. The book is a collection of essays, some previously published, usually in obscure or somewhat inaccessible places, and some are records of heretofore unpublished lectures. Many deal with historiographical issues, and few present the actual history that one finds in Bailyn’s substantive books.

The earliest of the essays dates from 1954, but that is atypical in being so old. Seven of the nine are from the 1980s forward, with three from the 2000s. The most interesting and, I believe, the most valuable of the essays are those that present Bailyn’s thoughts on how history ought to be done, and thus that reflect back, sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly, on how he did it. Sometimes an Art makes a fine occasion for considering Bailyn’s career as a historian.

Taking Sometimes an Art as a spring board for such reflections, we might divide our topic into two sub-topics: Bailyn’s substantive contribution to the history of liberty; and his views on the nature of history and historical explanation, views that underlay his approach to writing history.

Bailyn did not write a history of liberty per se, but Ideological Origins is an important contribution to that topic. Its chief argument was that the American Revolution’s ideological origins lay in a hitherto little-known libertarian intellectual tradition, and it transformed the study of the Revolution, setting scholarship on the Founding off in directions that are still being pursued by many scholars in the field. Ideological Origins directed attention away from the influential approach of Charles Beard, which emphasized material conditions and economic causes of the Revolution, and back toward what the colonists were saying were their grievances against Great Britain. (Edmund Morgan was a pioneer on this path but Bailyn broadened and developed it.)

However, he did not merely restore an older perspective that had focused either on the constitutional conflict between the British and the colonists, as in C.H. McIlwain’s The American Revolution (1923), or on the more philosophic dimensions of their thought, as in Carl Becker’s The Declaration of Independence (1922). Bailyn noted the constitutional and the philosophic aspects of the dispute, but he argued that both were subordinate to another strand: 18th century Whig opposition thought, early thinkers like the English Cato or later ones like James Burgh. This Whig thought was neither so technical as the constitutional argumentation nor so “high falutin’” as the philosophical. The Whig thinkers picked up themes of the philosophic and constitutional sort, but joined them to a popularly compelling story of the dynamics of political life as a contest between power and liberty, oppression and freedom.

The opposition writers emphasized the inherent tendency of power to corrupt and oppress, and this was the template through which Americans processed their understanding of the events of the 1760s and 1770s. This template accounts for their suspecting the worst from British policy—and for actions they took that, ironically enough, produced the evils they feared. The opposition ideology gave the Americans an extreme sensitivity to British policy (almost a paranoid reaction, Bailyn suggested), which led the populace at large to mobilize against British rule. The opposition tradition had a clear and easily graspable story, readily transferred from one set of historical events to another, and it had the simplicity, along with the appeal to the passions, especially anger, that could move masses.

But the Americans did not merely apply the Whig thought they imbibed; they exercised a remarkable “creative imagination” in their politics, as Bailyn put it in an essay from his 2003 collection To Begin the World Anew: The Genius and Ambiguities of the American Founders. The basic explanatory scheme Bailyn deploys in that essay is laid out in the oldest piece to be found in Sometimes an Art, an essay he coauthored with John Clive. The Bailyn/Clive study compares intellectual developments in 18th century America and Scotland, focusing particularly on the differences between each country’s provincials and its metropolitans. The metropolitans set the standard and establish the orthodoxies that dominate the minds and taste of the well-informed. The provincials, on the periphery of things, not so well-trained, usually unable to reach the heights of the metropolitans, are also less constrained by metropolitan orthodoxies, and become the seat and source of new creative energies and breakthroughs.

Bailyn and Clive argue that this pattern explains the remarkable “creative imagination” that 18th century Americans and Scotsmen brought to thinking about politics. They were able to question the truisms that dominated British political thought, and thus set out in astonishingly new directions. As Bailyn develops the idea in To Begin the World Anew, he shows that they broke with the old shibboleth that sovereignty cannot be divided and thus that there must be some supremely sovereign legislative body in every independent political unit. That precept had served as the unshakeable axiom of parliamentary policy prior to the Revolution, but the Americans challenged it and later overcame it with their adoption, or rather invention, of a new kind of federalism (an impossible system under the old theory) and new forms of separation of powers and guarantees for individual rights.

These innovations of the Americans were in the service of, or congruent with, the narrative that the Americans took over from their Opposition Whig mentors: they are devices to restrain power, and to enhance and preserve liberty. Bailyn thus can claim to identify the deep grounding of the oppositionist style in American politics, evident to this day in the Tea Party and those parts of the Republican Party who see government as almost nothing but a potential enemy of liberty. While Bailyn sets himself largely against the kind of history that consciously sets out to speak to our current concerns, nonetheless he has produced a history of the American Founding period that can certainly do so.

When Bailyn’s Ideological Origins appeared in 1967, it had an immediate impact in shifting attention toward the political thinking of the Americans (rather than their bank accounts). Then two years later, a very large book by his student, Gordon Wood, appeared that had an effect on the way Bailyn’s findings were understood. Bailyn’s work and Wood’s Creation of the American Republic (1969) were largely responsible for the advent of the so-called “republican synthesis.”

Wood agreed with Bailyn in seeing Revolutionary-era Americans as heirs to the Opposition Whigs, but he interpreted the latter differently. Whereas Bailyn saw them as part of a libertarian tradition, Wood tied them to a republican tradition that valorized commitment to the common good and virtue over motivations such as self-interest and concern with rights. Even though he did not speak of a republican synthesis, Bailyn’s account was largely assimilated to Wood’s, to which was added John Pocock’s The Machiavellian Moment (1975), a massive and massively learned tome that purported to provide the deep background of this “republican tradition” in Machiavelli and, behind him, in Aristotle. With the addition of Pocock’s findings, the republican synthesis attained its mature form, and in fact it overshadowed Bailyn’s particular focus on liberty, diminishing the impact of his book’s actual argument.

The republican synthesis became the center of most scholarship on the Founding era, at first attracting to its terms much of the new work being done in the historical realm, and soon spreading to other disciplines such as law and political science. But in the 1980s a counter-movement arose, prompting the famed republicanism-versus-liberalism battles of those days. The liberals in that battle, scholars like Joyce Appleby, defended the thesis that Founding-era leaders were more interested in liberty understood in a liberal way—as “freedom from”—rather than understanding it as freedom for political participation a la the republican synthesis.

The reassertion of the liberal alternative paved the way for the disaggregation of the republican synthesis in the 1990s, the effect of which was to free Bailyn’s Ideological Origins from its orbit around the sun of republicanism. This liberation allowed its particular kind of concern with liberty to reemerge. Although it now seems clear that Bailyn has not captured the whole history of liberty in the Revolutionary era, nonetheless it is also clear that, in uncovering the frame of mind of Opposition Whiggery, he has made a lasting and even indispensable contribution.

The most valuable essays in Sometimes an Art make a contribution to our second topic, Bailyn’s understanding of the correct way to “do history.” These are not merely abstract statements on history but provide retrospection by Bailyn on his own historical practice. He describes his kind of history as “contextual history.” His most succinct expression of what “contextualists” do is the following: They are historians who “sought to understand the past in its own terms: to relocate events, the meaning of documents, the motivations of historical actors in their original historical settings; their greatest suspicions and vigilance were directed at anachronisms.”

As this passage implies, Bailyn’s favored conception of history posits a proper end for history as a discipline—“to understand the past in its own terms,” or, as he says elsewhere, to get as accurate a depiction of “what actually happened” as is possible. The proper way to achieve such a depiction is the aforementioned “contextualism.”

Bailyn understands the aims—and the problem—of history very much in the Rankean manner. As Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886), the so-called “father of modern history,” put it:

To history has been assigned the office of judging the past, of instructing the present for the benefit of future ages. To such high offices this work does not aspire: it wants only to show what actually happened (wie es eigentlich gewesen). [Emphasis in original]

History’s job, according to both Bailyn and Ranke, is not to judge the past in the sense of pronouncing judgment on it for its moral merits or failings—is not to task history with being our guide in the present—but only to understand the past as it was. Bailyn takes special note of what is lost when history is done as he would have it done: Explaining history as it was “is, implicitly at least, to excuse.” It robs the historian of the possibility of praising or blaming the actors of the past, even though this is precisely “what historians should be doing, according to some” (especially according to historians a generation or three younger than Bailyn). To some, then, the Rankean approach to history appears to miss the point and to suffer from—and perhaps contribute to—a sort of moral obtuseness. Bailyn’s Rankeanism is thus not uncontroversial.

Bailyn never refers to Ranke in Sometimes an Art. Instead he frequently discusses Herbert Butterfield, the author of The Whig Interpretation of History (1931). This book was apparently of great importance to Bailyn for it was from it that he seems to have gleaned his chief lessons on the aims and pitfalls of the historian’s calling. Butterfield’s Rankean aim was “simply to show the inevitable falsification of history—what he calls the ‘gigantic optical illusion’—that results from studying the past with reference to the present.” That is, present-mindedness cannot give us the past “as it actually was.” Butterfield is of course well known for his critique of the Whig historians, who not only looked to the past with the present chiefly in mind, but saw it as the progressive working-out of ameliorative forces that produced the present.

The Rankean/Butterfieldian imperative to understand the past “as it was” means, for Bailyn, understanding it “in its own terms.” In practice this means recapturing the meaning of events and the motivations of historical actors “in their historical settings”—that is, contextually. Thus Bailyn pronounces “all knowledge of the past” to be “interpretative knowledge.” Bailyn makes “the hermeneutic turn” along with many other 20th century historians and philosophers. He understands the interpretive character of history in a sophisticated way, for, as he sees it, context impinges on both the object of inquiry (the historical actors) and on the inquiring subject (the historian). As he says of the latter, few if any contemporary historians “believe naively that historians can attain perfect objectivity.” The historian does not occupy “some immaculate cosmic perch, free from prejudices, assumptions, and biases of one’s own time, place, and personality.” As one member of the profession inelegantly put it in my presence: “We historians are not detached cosmic eyeballs.”

Furthermore, if understanding history “as it actually was” means understanding it “in its own terms,” that means, concludes Bailyn, understanding the actors and actions in terms of the meaning and understanding they possessed, understanding them in the context of their own mental furniture. The indispensable beginning point for the historian is the realization that “the past is a different world.” Different as it is, shaped as it was by “the unspoken assumptions, the perceptual universes of the participants which shape the meaning of events for those who experience them,” it follows that “getting to the past is doubly difficult, for not only is it foreign but our own ‘assumptions’ and ‘perceptual universes’ ” stand as an inevitable screen between us and the past. The result: “We cannot experience what they experienced in the way they experienced it.”

To this point the argument is quite familiar, but Bailyn adds a consideration that appears to be a generalization from Butterfield’s anti-presentist strictures. There is, Bailyn tells us, “another obvious difficulty,” namely “the inescapable fact . . . that we know how it all came out, and they did not.” However much emphatic identification with the assumptions and perceptual universes of historical figures may allow us to reconstruct their mental furniture, we are simply unable to overcome or evade this deeply significant difference between them and us, the studied and the studiers.

This disparity between subject and object has unsettling consequences. The historical actors were ignorant of the future, uncertain of what would happen; they were oriented toward their past and toward present projects, the outcomes of which were profoundly uncertain for them. What was significant for them was precisely a context very indeterminate and uncertain.

But the historian is in a very different situation:

Knowing the outcome, we feel it to be our obligation to show the process by which the known eventuality came about. So we try to describe the path from then to now, and in doing so select for our accounts the elements in a once indeterminate situation that appear to have led to the future outcome.

Knowledge of the outcome supplies the historian with a thread allowing a certain way of navigating through that hugely indeterminate setting that was the past and thereby inevitably closing the historian off from the possibility of “experiencing what they experience in the way they experienced it.” That is to say, inevitably falsifying the past.

One can see this difficulty even in Bailyn’s own work, self-consciously conducted though it was to try to overcome the difficulty as much as possible. The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution is a study undertaken in the knowledge of the fact of the coming of the Revolution and with the aim of explaining or accounting for that event. That knowledge and that aim supplied the thread through that maze.

Given the problem of the inevitable disparity between historian and historical subject, one might expect Bailyn to give up on the Rankean aspiration to understand the past as it actually was and in its own terms. But that is not what he does. Instead, he appeals to contextualism as an at least partial solution to the problem. He writes that these various difficulties

can to some extent . . . be overcome—by the amassment of detailed knowledge of the past; by the skill that can be developed in piecing documentary fragments together into strange but meaningful mosaics; by close attention to the losers [as in Bailyn’s study of colonial Massachusetts Governor Thomas Hutchinson] . . . and by the constant effort to imagine the distinctiveness of distant worlds.

Following this approach has produced some “notable successes in recovering at least some of the subtlest, most interior experiences of people in the past, experiences that are strikingly different from our own.” However successful these efforts may have been, Bailyn’s qualifications and hedges make it clear that he does not believe that his thick contextualism has achieved—or perhaps ever could achieve—the Rankean end. An analysis of the powerful considerations Bailyn brings to bear on the problem of historical knowledge would show, I think, that even thick contextualism does not in principle solve the problem I have noted above concerning the composition of Ideological Origins itself.

At the end of the day I think we see that Bailyn the diagnostician is superior to Bailyn the healer. Where does this leave him, and where does it leave us who wish to learn from him? The alternatives seem to be these:

One could follow the yet more radical historical thinkers like Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, and Hans-Georg Gadamer in concluding that the Rankean agenda is unfulfillable—that is, in conceding the impossibility of understanding the past as it actually was.

Or one could take the premise that Bailyn so emphatically affirms—that the object of historical inquiry and the inquiring historian are divided by a chasm of history’s making—and reexamine it in light of Bailyn’s goal, which is finding a way to bridge that chasm. What emerges is incommensurability. The Rankean path leads away from the goal. In my present opinion: Tertium non datur.

Reader Discussion

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on February 09, 2016 at 20:02:56 pm

Very nicely done. But to push it a bit further, can Bailyn truly understand the American Revolutionaries on their own terms when he rejects their belief that there are timeless humane truths?

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Richard S
on May 02, 2016 at 16:09:00 pm

The Weekly Review Moonee Valley by The Weekly …

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