Bernard Bailyn challenges card-carrying historians and interested citizens alike to embrace intellectual humility and amiability at a time when public discourse has taken a decisive turn away from such virtues. This challenge is evident in Bailyn’s final work, “Illuminating History.”

Bernard Bailyn

The American historian Bernard Bailyn, who died of heart failure at his home in Belmont, Massachusetts, this summer, was a giant of historical scholarship. After receiving his PhD from Harvard in 1953, Bailyn taught there for nearly a half century until 1991. Bailyn remained active well into retirement. His last book, Illuminating History: A Retrospective of Seven Decades, was published shortly before his death. Part memoir, part essay collection, Illuminating History is a historian’s meditation on the craft and occasional art of historical writing, the role of chance in the archive, and the crucial assistance of colleagues and academic communities in the pursuit of knowledge about the past.

During his seven decades in the profession, Bailyn wrote or edited more than twenty books and numerous articles on American and Atlantic history. His breakthrough came with The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (1967). The book became so famous that historians dedicated an entire conference to its fiftieth anniversary in 2017. In this watershed study, Bailyn challenged the then-prevailing view, promoted by Progressive Era historians like Charles Beard, that America’s Founders decided for independence to protect their economic well-being. Not so, Bailyn argued: America’s Founders were first and foremost animated by fear of British tyranny and a fervent belief in republicanism and liberty. Drawing on radical pamphlets from the revolutionary era, Bailyn’s research shifted academic understanding and engaged the public.

When considering the legacy of an intellectual giant, students are no less critical than is scholarship. Those who stand on Bailyn’s shoulders include eminent historians Gordon S. Wood, Mary Beth Norton, Pauline Maier, Jack N. Rakove, Richard D. Brown, and Richard L. Bushman. These famous students represent only a sliver of Bailyn’s contributions, though. As Bailyn’s colleague Emma Rothschild remarked, his career was enriched by a “limitlessly curious” disposition and abiding interest in people.

However, after Bailyn died, several conservative obituaries attempted to cast him in a different, dogmatic light. Rather than celebrating his life and character, they depicted his passing as a turning point in the history profession and the broader culture wars. The Wall Street Journal opened its obituary by mourning the “erosion of a unifying national narrative.” In The Spectator, Craig Bruce Smith called for a “Bailyn School” that would ward off “Activist history” and “neo-Marxist revisionism.” At the Cato Institute, David Boaz wrote that Bailyn’s Ideological Origins captured the Founders’ “deeply libertarian view of the world.”

But Bailyn’s legacy has little to do with the historical profession’s various theoretical “turns” in the late twentieth century or academic politics. Bailyn is relevant because he challenges card-carrying historians and interested citizens alike to embrace intellectual humility and amiability at a time when public discourse has taken a decisive turn away from such virtues. This challenge is evident in Bailyn’s final work.

Early Formation

Illuminating History traces Bailyn’s interest in the past to authors that loomed large in his youth. Early on, Bailyn developed an “addiction” to reading. He recalls the novels of Robert Louis Stevenson and Walter Scott, Charles Dickens, Jules Verne, and America’s own James Fenimore Cooper as stocking his childhood imagination. “Much of what I read I know was over my head,” Bailyn writes, “but I read on anyway.”

Teachers formed Bailyn as well as books. In his hometown of Hartford, Connecticut, Viennese émigré and local bookdealer Israel Witkower helped kindle his intellectual interests. So did his parents, who bought him a six-volume set of Rudyard Kipling for his thirteenth birthday. At Williams College, Bailyn studied literature, learning from tough medieval historian Richard Newhall and philosopher John William Miller. Miller, though brilliant, made Bailyn grapple with questions of evidence and truth: as Bailyn writes, “his kind of aphoristic, metaphysical talk, brilliant as it was, was beyond criticism and beyond validation; it seemed to me that you could say anything that came into your head.”

While still in Army uniform, Bailyn graduated with his BA and was awarded a two-year fellowship at Oxford. However, Robin McCoy, a friend from the Citadel who went to Harvard and then the University of Cambridge, left Bailyn with the impression that Cambridge, England, and its distinctive “style of life,” would be a better fit for him than that offered at Oxford. After Bailyn unsuccessfully lobbied his funders to send him to Cambridge instead, he stayed stateside and started the PhD in history at Harvard. There, he studied with Charles Taylor, Oscar Handlin, and Paul Buck, among others. As he read and wrote, he decided upon “three principles” that would guide his research for decades to come: first, to study early modern Western history to show “the connections between a distant past and an emerging future”; second, to explore “connections between ideas and ‘reality’”; and third, to emphasize the relationship between America and Europe.

These principles are visible in Bailyn’s work in general and several of Illuminating History’s essays in particular, inspired as they were by unexpected sources he happened upon in the archive. In Illuminating History, Bailyn grapples with odds and ends, including the hyper-specific will of a Boston merchant written in 1653 and a peculiar eighteenth-century German Pietist community in Pennsylvania. Such are the “anomalies”—one of Baylin’s favorite words—he encountered over the course of a long career.

Bailyn treats anomalies as invitations for inquiry. In the third chapter, Bailyn analyzes a Boston shopkeeper named Harbottle Dorr, whose written works Bailyn happened upon while researching “the mindset, the ideology of those who led the colonies into rebellion” for The Ideological Origins. During the Stamp Act controversy of 1765, Dorr started to set aside copies of Boston’s various newspapers and pamphlets, accumulating over several years hundreds of pages of newsprint. Eventually, he organized the printed material into books, annotating and indexing them, laborious tasks even in the age of computers—producing in just a few years four volumes adding up to 3,280 pages. Dorr’s volumes were a boon for Bailyn, who interpreted them as one of the countless efforts of “devoted patriots [ . . . ] hidden from view, until occasionally they appear, by chance, in strange and unexpected places.”

Bailyn himself found inspiration in unexpected places. The volume includes a twenty-six-page summary of Harvard’s “International Seminar on the History of the Atlantic World, 1500–1825” that could quickly put readers to sleep. In this section, however, Bailyn brings out the importance of academic community, describing in the utmost detail presentations from the seminar’s 366 participants, who wrote thirty individual volumes on Atlantic history between 1998 and 2013 and collaborated on twenty-nine edited volumes between 2002 and 2010—an astounding scholarly output by any measure. For Bailyn, this productivity had everything to do with collegiality: at the seminar, scholars “got to know each other and avoided confrontation in favor of queries and exploration of what was new to them.”

If seemingly anodyne affairs, academic conferences can be contentious. At this summer’s virtual meeting of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic, controversy erupted after historian Andrew Feller made an insensitive comment about Andrew Jackson’s slaughter of “redcoats and redskins.” Reading Bailyn’s last book is not a cure for caustic disagreement, nor was it written to be read as such. But his descriptions of an engaged and collaborative academic community ought to inspire us all to be more generous with colleagues and pursue a more capacious understanding of what it means to engage in conversations about history.

In 1998, Bailyn delivered the Jefferson Lecture at the National Endowment of the Humanities headquarters in Washington, D.C. His lecture, entitled “To Begin the World Anew,” dealt with the enigmatic nature of creative imagination. The most important creative works often seem to be expressions of one person’s brilliance. But an enduring product of human creativity is not merely one individual’s stroke of genius, Bailyn argued. He makes the same point in Illuminating History, writing that historians “can understand the subject best when one sees its elaborate involvements with the rest of society and notes its shifting functions and purposes.” Thought and scholarship, for Bailyn, are social enterprises, not merely solitary pursuits.

Illuminating The Historian’s Craft

Readers of Bailyn’s last book will glimpse his creative imagination at work, including its connections to influential scholars, colleagues, and academic communities. But to better understand what Bailyn means, Illuminating History can be brought into conversation with another monumental piece of writing about history: Marc Bloch’s The Historian’s Craft (1953).

A veteran of World War I, Bloch fought at the Marne in 1914 and the Somme in 1916. Afterward, he earned his doctorate in history. He founded, with his contemporary Lucien Febvre, the Annales School of history, an influential approach that emphasized change in society over longer periods than were then fashionable to deploy in historical scholarship. Fernand Braudel, perhaps the most famous French adherent to this school, quipped in The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II (1949) that “History can do more than study walled gardens.” In other words, historians cannot separate the people, places, and phenomena of the past from the wider world in which they existed—Bailyn’s exact point in the Jefferson Lecture.

Although they write history, historians themselves are no exception to that rule. Bloch himself demonstrated the inflexibility of this fact when he answered his country’s call for a third time, at the age of fifty-three. Stationed in Alsace as a fuel supply officer for the first months of World War II, Bloch was bored. While waiting for battle, Bloch started writing the Craft. He was demobilized when France fell in May 1940, but Bloch’s Jewish ancestry made a return to academia impossible. The “evils of destiny,” as Bloch described his unfortunate circumstances in the Craft, sorted things out differently. When the Germans violated the armistice and occupied Vichy France in November 1942, Bloch joined the Resistance. The Nazis captured him operating in Lyons on June 16, 1944, and shot him and twenty-six others in an open field.

Bloch’s tragic death meant he left the Craft unfinished, but the large fragment he did complete was published posthumously. As historian Joseph R. Strayer described it, the Craft represented “the fruit of the long years of peaceful study and reflection which made him a master of his trade,” a description one might also apply to Bailyn’s Illuminating History.

The truth of Bailyn’s point about creativity is clear in the opening pages of Bloch’s Craft. Indeed, the Craft opens with a dedication to Bloch’s friend Febvre, with whom he worked toward a “wider and more human history” and to whom he attributed much of its content. Of the book’s central ideas, Bloch wrote that “I cannot, in honesty, decide whether they are yours, mine, or both of ours.” In other words, Bloch described the kind of intellectual community Bailyn identified as central to the creative imagination.

Bloch’s book endures as the product of intellects in collaboration, in part, because it identifies the perennial challenge of historical interpretation. As Bloch wrote in the introduction, “whenever our exacting Western society, in the continuing crisis of growth, begins to doubt itself, it asks itself whether it has done well in trying to learn from the past, and whether it has learned rightly. Read what might be written before the war, or, for that matter, what might be written today. Among the confused murmurings of the present, you will almost certainly hear this complaint mingling its voice with the others.”

One may hope that the acerbic debates currently occupying this county’s headlines remain more manageable than those Bloch confronted. Still, the comparison does not diminish the fact that they are crises. Illuminating History, then, is not to be read passively, as if Bailyn were a grandfatherly figure stoking a pipe and inviting the innocent to gather round for a story. Illuminating History gives readers access to the hard-earned wisdom of a man who lived and worked as a historian through some of the most important events of the last century and multiple periods of change, conflict, and contingency no less significant than that which we occupy today. Even those who never met him are lucky to be his students.

Republished with gracious permission from Modern Age (December 2020).

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The featured image is a still taken from a video footage of the first lecture of the White House Millennium Lecture series, “The Living Past—Commitments for the Future” (1998), with guest speaker Professor Bernard Bailyn. It has been brightened for clarity and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikipedia.

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