Eminent Scholar of Early U.S., Bernard Bailyn, Dies at 97

Historians in the News
tags: obituaries, American Revolution, early American history

Bernard Bailyn, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and educator of lasting influence whose “The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution” transformed how many thought about the country’s formation, has died at 97.

Bailyn's wife, Lotte, told The Associated Press that the author died early Friday at their home in Belmont, Massachusetts. He had been in failing health, she said.

Bernard Bailyn had an enduring and prolific career even though he was never as widely known as Gordon Wood and other historians of the early U.S. A longtime professor at Harvard who mentored numerous young historians, Bailyn probed everything from education to immigration in early American life and was widely credited with setting more rigorous standards of research. He documented the effects of British and European culture on Americans, the role of pamphlets in revolutionary thinking and the rise of merchant and planter classes.

His most prominent legacy was in forming a new narrative of the revolution itself. Along with Yale University historian Edmund S. Morgan and other contemporaries, he challenged the theory of Charles A. Beard that the founders were wealthy opportunists less interested in ideas than in power, using revolutionary rhetoric to arrange a society that primarily benefited themselves. Through a close reading of political pamphlets, Bailyn believed that the founders held sincere and reasoned ideas about democracy and profoundly objected to British claims of ultimate power to enact laws for the colonies.

He also downplayed the influence of Enlightenment philosophy, writing that the founders drew upon theories of liberty and government well developed by British opponents of monarchy.

This “logic of rebellion” led the founders not only to defy their colonial rulers, but to envision “America’s destiny in the context of world history,” Bailyn wrote.

An acknowledged landmark in scholarship, “The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution” won the Pulitzer Prize and Bancroft Prize in 1968. Morgan, who died in 2013, once praised “Ideological Origins” as the “book that has done the most to shape modern understanding of the causes of the Revolution.”

Read entire article at New York Times