Posted: June 8, 2005
Books by Bernard Bailyn:
he 19th-century hope of "scientific history" encouraged scholars to assume the imminence of a unified historical narrative. It was not to be. While the methods of data collection and our knowledge of man's physical and environmental condition have grown exponentially, the picture of the past has become more complicated and less amenable to synthesis, which has produced not a single unified discipline but a variety of social, economic, cultural, political, and intellectual histories.
Amid this jumble, histories that are too neat and clean, where variables are few and outcomes overdetermined, are patently suspect. We recoil at explanations that present the unflattering picture of human beings as puppets moved by systemic imperatives. Choices exist within, and among, systems. The best histories recognize this complexity, and attempt to proportion their explanations accordingly. Historian of finance Fritz Redlich once observed that mankind possesses free will within a determined universe. From this, he could never accept that "there is a difference between the description of a life and that of a historical process." In other words, to understand how change and continuity operate, we need to understand how historical individuals make choices.
Over the long course of his professional career, Bernard Bailyn has set himself the difficult task of explaining the relation of individual choices to the social, physical, and political environment of colonial and revolutionary America. His career has produced wonderful narratives, powerful descriptions, convincing interpretations. Always daring, he has not always succeeded. Attempting to combine biography and structural analysis takes him to the limits of historical explanation.
Bailyn has spent his career at Harvard University, where he earned his Ph.D. in 1953. He served as Winthrop Professor of History from 1966 until 1981, when he was appointed Adams University Professor. His works range from the history of education to historical methodology, but his most noted projects are in the field of early American intellectual and cultural history. His Ideological Origins of the American Revolution won both the Pulitzer and Bancroft prizes in 1968. In 1975, The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson received a National Book Award, and in 1987 Bailyn attained his second Pulitzer for Voyagers to the West. Now a professor emeritus, he continues actively to pursue his interests in American history, and in 2001 was awarded the Bruce Catton Prize (for his lifetime achievement) by the Society of American Historians. By recalling the most significant productions of this prolific scholar, we can begin to see the main trajectory of his professional life.
Most current historiography focuses on Bailyn's early work, recognizing his critical contribution to the rejuvenation of American intellectual and cultural history. His work on the American Revolution showed that political ideas played a crucial role in bringing it about. For this reason, he is rightly credited with helping to father the "republican synthesis" of the '70s and early '80s, which emphasized the role of classical republicanism and Old Whig doctrines in sparking the 1776 revolution.
Experience and Ideas
Unfortunately, this fact has often obscured Bailyn's more profound contribution to the history of ideas and political culture. Commentators list him among the architects of the republican interpretation but frequently overlook the dynamism and heterogeneity of culture and ideas evident from his earliest work. He is associated with what quickly became a rigid and static view of the republican paradigm: a view that came to stress its ancient lineage and backward-looking conservatism, and that is, thankfully, no longer the dominant interpretation of the revolution and founding.
Most scholars no longer insist on forcing a choice between classical republicanism and Lockean liberalism. Bailyn was there long before them. It is high time to see his work in the context of his growing appreciation for the complexity of thought in human life, rather than as an autopsy of a particular configuration of ideas. Understanding how historical change arises from the intersection of lived experience and individuals' ideas is Bailyn's core contribution, and it begins in the late 1950s with his path-breaking examination of colonial Virginia.
In his seminal essay "Politics and Social Structure in Virginia," published as part of a collection on 17th-century America by the Institute of Early American History and Culture in 1959, Bailyn tackled a difficult problem bisecting social and intellectual history: If social structure is so central to ideas, why did the "class consciousness" of America's first transplanted elites not persist? Why did the evolving indigenous elites not assume the same ideological orientation as their English predecessors? The essay made a profound impact on the way the history of culture and of ideas was to develop.
Bailyn argued that the conditions and opportunities of the New World were as important as social position in influencing the choices Virginia's elite made in politics. It was not simply their standing within society, but their lived experience, that made certain notions of republican government more appealing than the political assumptions of the traditional English aristocracy. It was not so much that real blue-blooded aristocrats were not present in Virginia. They were, but the sort who came and stayed were of a kind who could readily adapt to the hurly-burly of colonial life. They were men on the move, interested in land and capital, and had little time for pretensions to "public service" and noblesse oblige. Politics was business, and they assumed the self-interestedness of everyone involved in it.
As a consequence, the Virginia elite were well prepared to assume the worst of royal governors appointed by the crown and taxes imposed by Parliament. Regardless of royal insistence that new measures were necessary to defray the costs of colonial defense and in the interests of better administration, the Virginia gentry saw corruption. They assumed the worst because they themselves were well versed in the motives of men on the make. Not trusting each other, they searched for ways to express their anxieties and found it in old Whig republicanism. It described nicely the frailty of men tempted by power and lucre, and it provided a handy constitutional critique that both described what was going on in Parliament and suggested the proper remedy.
But the main point was the conscious intellectual selectivity of the Virginia elite. They were not passive receptacles of elite English opinion. Virginia's leaders articulated, or reworked, a cultural variant within English political thought because it resonated with their own experiences. Their choices were perhaps limited to the range of options presented by English and European ideas, but the selection was theirs. Individual writers, such as Richard Bland and Thomas Jefferson, made conscious selections from Whig opposition thought. It is here that we see the dynamic interplay of environment, culture, and politics in the active intellects of real historical persons. Bailyn made the same case again in a 1962 American Historical Review article, "Political Experience and Enlightenment Ideas in Eighteenth-Century America." Here he sifted through the "the undeniable evidence of the seriousness with which colonial and revolutionary leaders took ideas, and the deliberateness of their efforts during the Revolution to reshape institutions in their pattern."
Birth of a Paradigm
In his Origins of American Politics (1965), Bailyn described artfully the con- flicts between colonial elites and royal officials. This was followed and perhaps eclipsed by his specific treatment of ideas in The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (1967). Ideological Origins took up the fate, in America, of the Old Whig or English commonwealth ideas of the early 18th century. Here, again, it was the peculiar relevance of these ideas, and the conscious choosing among them and adding to them that was at the core of Bailyn's history. The critique of power's corrupting influence, what might be called the "anti-power" ethic, resonated with American experience. But the independent contribution of the American experience was not fully appreciated by the profession at large. Inured to explanations from necessity—to structures of social causation such as class—both his critics and his proponents took Bailyn's insights in directions very different from his own.
Some detractors questioned the relevance of republicanism. If it was so important, it should have been more consistent with American experience than it was, asserted one reviewer in 1968 in the William and Mary Quarterly. Colonial governors were not so powerful as their English counterparts—their powers were puny—so why the attraction to an ideology obsessed with executive corruption? He suggested that deeper psychological imperatives were at work. Still others contended that more study was needed of the harder realities of power embedded in the social structures of race, class, and gender.
Those who warmed to the republican theme—drawn to something different from Louis Hartz's old consensus history, obsessed with Lockean liberalism—offered a response that proved to be more consequential. Delving deeper into republican ideas, they discovered a whole wealth of assumptions and beliefs that appeared to contradict the Lockean thesis. Tracing lines of thought going back to early modern Italy, to Machiavelli, and ultimately to ancient classical sources, they constructed a whole new paradigm. Scholars like Gordon Wood, Isaac Kramnick, Drew McCoy, Lance Banning, and J.G.A. Pocock unearthed a wealth of republican thought in America and Europe far richer than anyone had imagined, and in certain particulars, very un-liberal and non-Lockean indeed. In place of the individual seeking security for private rights of property and liberty, republicanism gave us a more politically concerned citizen laboring for the commonwealth by carefully preserving the constitutional balance of the one, the few, and the many. It was virtue, not interest, that motivated the American Revolution; self-seeking commercialism was more akin to corruption in the body politic than to the public good, according to the new republican consensus. Bailyn's insight had given birth to a paradigm.
A Comprehensive Theory of Politics
But there was a problem with the new outlook. As the leading critic of the republican thesis, Joyce Appleby, noted, it gave us a past that fit poorly with what we knew about America's future. From very early on, Americans were involved in the North Atlantic economy, had a reputation for their attention to the main chance, and were known to have celebrated, rather than lamented, the moral and material rewards of commerce. How could this be?
By the mid-1990s the republican interpretation was being displaced by a more complicated picture of American revolutionary ideas. Lance Banning would come to argue for "liberal republicanism" to signify a blending of Lockean individualism with republican politics. But a rereading of Bailyn shows that the lineaments of that larger synthesis were there from the beginning. Again, this has much to do with Bailyn's underappreciated view of historical transformation.
Never did Bailyn write Locke out of the American pantheon of intellectual sources; he set him alongside the other strands of revolutionary thought. This came directly out of his extensive work in the pamphlet sources—work that resulted in his editing of the still un- finished collection, Pamphlets of the American Revolution (1965). These sources revealed a heavy reliance on earlier British essays such as Cato's Letters and a rich tradition of Whig opposition thought, drawing from both ancient and modern sources. Somehow the Americans combined the belief in the corrupting nature of political power, borrowed from early republicanism, with the more modern celebration of individual rights in a commercial economy.
There is a dynamic quality to ideas in Ideological Origins that shows Americans actively selecting among a variety of viewpoints to understand their place within the empire. Thus Bailyn argued:
Within the framework of these ideas, Enlightenment abstractions and common law precedents, covenant theology and classical analogy—Locke and Abraham, Brutus and Coke—could all be brought together into a comprehensive theory of politics.
This was no unchanging paradigm, but the vibrant and shifting undercurrents of English opposition thought, "stirred by doctrinaire libertarians, disaffected politicians, and religious dissenters." It is this dynamic stirring that was and is the focus of Bailyn's interpretation.
Where are the choices being made? Where is the influence of time and place being worked out? Within the individual actors themselves. But a discussion of ideas and modes of thought, of political tensions and social conflict, cannot by itself reach the heart of historical transformation. And perhaps that is why the dynamism Bailyn had hoped to convey in these earlier works was not so apparent. In light of his later attempts to blend the intellectual and the social realms with the biographical and personal, we see more clearly the implications of his early endeavors.
Bailyn's early work in the history of ideas would have been sufficient to earn him a distinguished place in the profession, but his next major undertaking revealed him to be a biographer of extraordinary elegance and sensitivity. The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson (1974) examined the life of the last loyalist governor of Massachusetts. Hutchinson was reviled by American patriots, but through careful study of his extensive personal records Bailyn was able to show a proud man caught in the revolutionary maelstrom, whose personal moral character and comportment were anything but corrupt by the standards of his day, but whose capacity for dealing with the political situation at hand was woefully inadequate. Why the inadequacy, in light of such learning and intelligence? Why did Hutchinson make choices that in retrospect appear inflammatory and even reckless?
Bailyn's narrative illustrates how an individual's political decisions are informed by experience. Hutchinson was no less intelligent than Franklin. He was well acquainted with colonial concerns and shared his countrymen's most basic hopes for Parliamentary restraint and no taxation. But in the end, he was unable to accept the revolutionaries' deep moral commitments as anything other than political irrationality. Hutchinson was committed by long cultivation and experience to the Anglo political world of elite influence, where change comes incrementally, and "rationally," and not by popular discord and threats of resistance. In the end, he simply could not accept what a Franklin or an Adams could accept, and that led to choices that now appear deeply inadequate and even incendiary. Through his life, we see the intersection of position, ideas, and political interest.
Rather than writing pure biography or intellectual history, Bailyn was seeking to meld the two. Such heterogeneity promised attention to social forces, but within the context of comprehensible narratives of individual lives. That there were "deep forces at work," was undeniable, but
the fact that the break [with Britain] was violent and revolutionary meant that in important ways it was the product of human decision and of the impact of personalities and ideas upon the events of the timeâ€¦. [I]t therefore mattered who was in charge, who led the struggle, and who led the opposition to it; it mattered what kinds of people they were, what patterns of personal responses they brought to the public life of their time. Above all, it mattered what they believed, what motivated them, how they perceived the world and the events in which they participated.
Over the next two decades, Bailyn would work in sources close to the lives of these personalities, producing numerous monographs, articles, and presentations, some of which would be collected in edited volumes, while others would form the basis of his most ambitious project to date.
Launching this project in The Peopling of British North America: An Introduction (1986), Bailyn set out to bring "together the major aspects of life in the American colonies—social structure and settlement patterns, demography and politics, agriculture and religion, mobility, family organization, and ethnic relations." Yet he was quick to note, while "'Peopling' means motion, process, evolution in timeâ€¦it is not abstract: it concentrates on individuals and their fortunes." Not until the next volume in the series, Voyagers to the West: A Passage in the Peopling of America on the Eve of the American Revolution (1987), would we see the fruition of Bailyn's methodological and theoretical interests.
Voyagers to the West is what Bailyn promised and more: the enfolding of structural analysis and biography, of social systems and individual narratives of 18th-century America. One might suspect, given the ambitious nature of the undertaking, that the reader would face a daunting array of data. In fact, the work is unified around the narrative of the voyage, what it meant to those who undertook it, and the social necessities that encouraged it—all rendered in prose that is engaging and compelling.
Connecting the Strands
In a 1994 interview, Bailyn noted that his writing frequently takes unexpected turns as he follows the evidence. Because of his conception of historical change, he lets the material shape the narrative, and while this produces considerable short-run messiness, over time, as the information steeps, a picture comes into focus: "There simply comes a time when the story begins to make sense, and one feels one can communicate it coherently."
Readers can see the beginnings of that process in Bailyn's work in the early 1970s. Many of these strands were brought together in Faces of Revolution: Personalities and Themes in the Struggle for American Independence (1990). Originally, Bailyn hoped that all these pieces would "form in the reader's mind an integrated and rounded picture," but despairing of that, he settled on providing "some pleasure and information to readers interested in our origins as a nation." There is in fact an unfinished quality to this collection, though in retrospect we can see the direction of his efforts. We perceive Bailyn's immersion in the data, and his playful conjoining of fact and interpretation. And most especially, we see an awareness of a larger picture coming into focus—not perfectly delineated—but there in the grand movements of the "peopling of half a continent," and in the contours of an Atlantic world.
Perhaps the most impressive chapter in Faces of Revolution is "1776 in Britain and America: A Year of Challenge—A World Transformed." The piece starts with the dramatic shift of ideas that sweeps across the English-speaking world of the late 18th century—highlighting Paine, Smith, Gibbon, Price, and the various declarations of the American colonies—and wonders: Whence this great torrent of radicalism? Bailyn considers the massive growth in populations and commerce and concludes that our field of vision must expand:
It must embrace parts of three continents and be detailed down to individual villages and land units of a few square miles. It must center on the British Isles, but focus not on London or the home counties but somewhere in the Irish Sea, with as much detail on northern Ireland and the Scottish Highlands as on southeastern England or the midlands. It must extend to the Western Hemisphere and include the North American continent west to the Mississippi. It must reach selectively into the continent of Europe, especially along the Rhine Valley and into northern Switzerland; and it must reach too, into several deep enclaves on the west coast of Africa.
Most arresting, however, is his linkage of great shifts in populations with the radical and conservative reactions of the times. Lord Hillsborough and other great English magnates were terrified by the prospect of depopulated villages throughout their English and Irish holdings. Confronted with the irresistible allure of the American frontier, they frantically sought ways to restrict emigration. But radicals such as Paine celebrated the freedom of the new evolving order, the rise of a new continental Atlantic power, and the undermining of aristocratic controls. Franklin is seen wrestling with his love of England and his loyalty to America. Out of his personal and political contest with Hillsborough, we see the shifting trajectory of his thoughts from reconciliation to independence. From ideas, to great social movements, to particular personalities, the piece illustrates beautifully how history can convey the fluidity of a moment in time. There were irresistible forces, but there were also multiple personal responses to them. A certain poetic quality in Bailyn's writing serves a powerful function. His history can touch the felt sense of every reader, that human beings are not merely acted upon, but are actors in their own times.
Bailyn's more recent collection, To Begin the World Anew (2003), is similar. Once more he has attempted to ferret out the various dimensions of this new world, asking how Americans viewed themselves and how they were viewed on the other side of the Atlantic. As he has frequently observed, they were provincial, but not outside the main currents of European civilization; they were intimately connected to the great shifts in population and of ideas taking place throughout the West. Bailyn moves from a series of biographical pieces (including further reflections on Franklin's personae and Jefferson's contradictions) into the political realm of The Federalist Papers, exploring the issues that make them both a product of their times and enduring explorations of essential questions—e.g., why is the question of controlling power still our question today? Although the book has a distinctly unfinished quality, Bailyn clearly wants his readers to draw connections within the vast array of cultural and political factors that he presents.
The Atlantic World
Clearly these pieces build on work that produced Voyagers to the West, but that work is itself part of a still larger, unfinished formulation, and so we must steal a glimpse into Bailyn's new Atlantic History: Concept and Contours (2005). Here is a subject of staggering proportions and immense implications for the history not only of America but of the Western Hemisphere. It is history writ large, promising to take its place along such other conceptual behemoths as Western civilization, the Ancient Mediterranean world, or the history of Rome. Indeed, the parallels are not accidental.
In this short but concise essay, Bailyn attacks his subject in two parts. The first is a straightforward historiography of how the idea of an "Atlantic world" developed from early conceptual roots in international relations and political theory. Ties between the U.S. and Britain, and their alliances in the two world wars, drew scholars into seeing the larger Atlantic world as forming a new sort of society. Many explicitly related the Atlantic world to the growth of the classical and Roman world around the Mediterranean sea. Here, however, was a civilization that embraced not two, but four continents: Europe, Africa, and North and South America. Initially, the object of this vision was to explain the growing political and military ties of the post-World War II world, but in the second half of his essay Bailyn takes a broader view. The Atlantic world, as he understands it, may in fact be breaking apart. Europe may at last be going its separate way from North and South America, or alternatively, all may be joining into a larger global order, but for him the 17th and 18th centuries are the very apogee of Atlantic civilization.
So he casts an even wider net than "the peopling of North America." With broad strokes Bailyn describes the connections among mercantile Spain, Holland, France, and England; the developing reliance on the slave trade; the growth of illicit and clandestine commerce outside of officially regulated markets; and the evolution of national identities in the new world. He then boldly describes the dynamic growth of reform ideas, drawing together not just England and America but much of the European continent, South America, and Africa. His point here is to extol the great movement of peoples that eventually undermined the moral foundations of the old power structures, encouraged trade in radical ideas, and produced an Age of Revolution (as R.R. Palmer first argued).
Is this to be another project distinct from his Peopling project, or is he simply elucidating a new and exciting field to which that project is one contribution? The work has the feel of his introductory volume, The Peopling of North America, but it does not explicitly announce itself as anything other than an exposition of "a very large subject now coming into focus." That said, it is easy to see how the new focus builds on everything Bailyn has done before. It will provoke and inspire future work in the field because it poses all the right questions: What is a civilization? What are the phenomena that tie it together? How do the participants in its making perceive it?
Bailyn writes, "History is what has happened, in act and thought; it is also what historians make of it." If he continues the project of "peopling," as I hope he does, he will have to continue to trace the sort of commercial, informal networks that arise from the activities of individuals throughout this Atlantic world. These associations, far more than the official alliances of states and governments, drew the Atlantic together in the first place, and continue to draw the world closer today. But Bailyn will have challenges to confront, and this is clear even in the choice of terms he employs in Atlantic History.
Bailyn writes of the illicit trades with Spanish colonies by Dutch and English traders as "the plundering of one nation's commerce by aggressive competitors," and of markets as "cunningly contrived." In fact, it was the official mercantilist regulatory institutions of all the empires that were contrived and parasitic, and that the merchants of every country sought to circumvent. The Atlantic merchants developed trade routes and practices quite independent of any grand contrivances. They were Bailyn's individual historical actors, ready to take risks based on imperfect but adequate knowledge that they were in the best position to assess. A more careful consideration of what a market is—an economic exchange in which both parties benefit—needs to inform his discussion of commercial relations, especially if he wishes to understand the individual actors as they understood themselves.
Perhaps the largest theme of Atlantic History is the story of how this boisterous economy stimulated thinking along liberal conceptions of individual rights and the abolition of human bondage. As Bailyn observes, this civilization
formed a distinctive regional entity, bearing the indelible imprints of both the settlement era—violent instability, cultural alienation, racism, and brutal economic dynamism—and the ideal of the latter years—self-government, freedom from arbitrary power, and a sense that the world lies open for the most exalted aspirations.
Here he returns to the motif of his first essays explaining the Americans' resistance to English governors: how economic growth and demographic forces can help to make a place for enlightened, reformist ideas—ideas chosen by men and women seeking to make sense of the world around them. That is the story Bailyn has been telling all along.