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History Doyen: Bernard Bailyn

Bernard Bailyn is the Adams University Professor and James Duncan Phillips Professor of Early American History Emeritus at Harvard, where he has taught since 1949. He is the author of The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (1967), for which he received the Pulitzer and Bancroft prizes in 1968; The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson(1974), winner of the National Book Award in History in 1975; Voyagers to the West (1986), which won the Pulitzer Prize in History. Bailyn has been described in the Washington Post Book World as “arguably the pre-eminent historian of the thirteen colonies’ break with Britain.” Robert V. Remini has labeled Bailyn “the foremost historian of the American Revolution,” while Stephen Presser, of the Chicago Tribune Books, identified him as the “dean of American colonial historians.” Another Washington Post Book World critic remarked that “any book by Bailyn… is an event.”

Bailyn earned his A.B. from Williams College in 1945 and his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1953. Bailyn is a member of numerous organizations in the United States and abroad including the American Historical Association (president, 1981) and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is the recipient of many awards, including more than 15 honorary degrees. In February 1998, Bailyn inaugurated the Millennium Evening Lecture Series at the White House, and in March of that year, he was awarded the Jefferson Medal of the National Endowment for the Humanities. He sees the influence of the American Revolution extending beyond the political realm of its time, into the present. “Whether we recognize it or not, the sense we make of the history of our national origins helps to define for us…the values, purposes,and acceptable characteristics of our public insititutions.”

Personal Anecdote

I was lucky, being at Harvard, to have some great historians as instructors, but when I think back to what direct guidance they gave me I don’t come up with much. Samuel Eliot Morison advised young historians to go sailing in the summers, which was advice wasted on me since the only vessel I had been on was a troop ship and I was seasick most of the time. Paul Buck, whose fine book The Road to Reunion impressed us all, advised us that when we come to lecture we should tell a joke at about 40 minutes into the hour. That didn’t help much, a) because I didn’t know that many jokes, and b) because his own jokes were so bad. And Oscar Handlin, when I came to him with a complex theoretical problem about Max Weber, Ernst Troeltsch, and R.H.Tawney, when I was writing about Puritanism and economic growth, muttered something like “umm.”

But the truth is that I learned an enormous amount from all three of them – not from what they said but from what they did, as teachers and writers. From Morison, especially from his vast 15-volume history of the US Navy in WW II, and also from his multi-volume history of Harvard, I learned that it is possible to write a complex story crowded with detailed incidents and conflicting personalities in clear, simple narrative form. From Buck I learned that one can best motivate students by getting them to elicit what truly interested them, to get them to recognize what – for whatever reason – caught their imagination, and encourage them to work out from there. And from Handlin I learned the most important thing of all, that history is a form of intellection, a way of thinking and understanding, not a compilation of facts, no matter how cleverly you organize them.

So I was lucky, not in having wonderful advice given to me but in witnessing up close some master historians at work. It’s what they did that mattered, not what they said.


By Bernard Bailyn

  • Joann Conrad Beissel, an ignorant, mystical, tormented baker’s boy from the German Palatinate, after flirting with several radical sects that struggled for existence in the spiritually burnt-over districts of the Rhineland, had joined the exodus of Pennsylvania; concocted, in a hermit’s cabin near Germantown, his own brand of sabbatarian Dunkerism; gathered a band of followers at Conestoga; and founded the Ephrata Cloister, whose monks and nuns ruled despotically, neurotically, and cruelly. God-possessed, immersed in the writings of the mystics, entranced by the secret rites of the Rosicrucians, he was a cyclone of energy, and he pursued his dream of a pure religion, unimpeded by state, society, or church. He was bizarre but unconfined, and the fame of his strange sect of emaciated celibates spread throughout the English as well as the German population of Pennsylvania and ultimately throughout the Rhineland and in France, through Voltaire, as well. Beissel preached with his eyes shut tight, passionately, ungrammatically, in incoherent torrents. If by chance his bowed congregation indicated understanding in quiet murmurs of assent, he reversed his chaotic argument to demonstrate the incomprehensibility of God’s truth. And he imposed on his half starved followers-clothed in rough, Capuchin-like habits designed to hide all signs of human shape-a rule of such severe self-motification that some went mad, while the elite enacted the secret rites of the Rosicrucians, to which neophytes sought admission by bodily ordeals that lasted forty days and forty nights. Yet and yet the art of book illumination was reinvented in Beissel’s Ephrata, and from some spark of hidden genius the Vorsteher himself devised a form of polyphonic choral music, complete with own system of notation, which, when sung in falsetto by his followers straining to reach ever higher, more “divine” notes, created an unearthly effect that enthralled everyone who ever heard it-and which caught the imagination, two centuries later, of another German immigrant in America, Thomas Mann, who, brooding on art and the German soul, immortalized Beissel in Doctor Faustus. — Bernard Bailyn in “The Peopling of British North America : An Introduction”
  • Failure to respond to the moral indignation and the meliorist aspirations that lay behind the protests of the Revolutionary leaders, Hutchinson could find only persistent irrationality in their arguments, and he wrote off their agitations as politically pathological. And in a limited, logical sense he was right. The Revolutionary leaders were not striving to act reasonably or logically. Demanding a responsiveness in government that exceeded the traditional expectations of the time, groping toward goals and impelled by aspirations that were no recognized part of the world as it was, they drew on convictions more powerful than logic and mobilized sources of political and social energy that burst the boundaries of received political wisdom.  Hutchinson could not govern an aroused populace led by politicians manipulating deep-felt ideological symbols. He could not assimilate these new forces into the old world he knew so well, and, attempting uncomprehendingly to do so, lost the advantage of his greatest assets: a deserved reputation for candor, honesty, and a tireless and impartial devotion to the general good. Failing to carry the new politics with him by arguments that were accredited and tactics that were familiar he was obliged to become devious; inevitably he appeared hypocritical, ultimately conspiratorial, though in fact he was neither. As the pressure mounted, his responses narrowed, his ideas became progressively more rigid, his imagination more limited, until in the end he could only plead for civil order as an absolute end in itself, which not only ignored the explosive issues but appeared, unavoidably, to be self-serving. — Bernard Bailyn in “The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson”
  • When Jefferson and Adams died, both on the 4th of July fifty years after Independence, none of the goals of the American Enlightenment, of the Revolution’s transforming radicalism, had been reached. But a basic force had been created in American life: the propulsion within a pluralistic, tumultuous, abrasive, and ruthlessly ambitious society to approach the fulfillment of historic ideals.The gap between the real and the ideal remains, far narrower than in Adams’ and Jefferson’s time, but still achingly wide. We are still a multi-ethnic, materialistic, ambitious, impatient, and volatile people, but in our finest moments we are also, I believe, the most idealistic nation on earth. We are riven by differences, discrimination, and animosities, but, instinctively responding to ideals set out in our deeper past, we reach for reconciliation.A spark was struck two centuries ago which lights the way for us still. — Remarks by Dr. Bernard Bailyn, Millennium Evening Lecture, White House, 1998 About Bernard Bailyn
  • If the storms of fashion that have pounded the humanities during the last 30 years have spared the study of early American history, one of the scholars we have most to thank is Bernard Bailyn. Bailyn’s 1967 classic, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, kept the eyes of a generation of historians on the subjects that early Americans themselves eyed so obsessively: the ideas and the politics of a highly intellectual and political time. There were battles to be fought and money to be made during the American Revolution, and without victory in the first, or the lure of the second, the Revolution would never have been won. But the thoughts of even soldiers and speculators kept returning to politics, and to the ideals that they believed politicians lived to defend, or to threaten. Bailyn made the founders comprehensible, and lively — for their ideas still march through our minds. — Richard Brookhiser in the NYT on the impact of “The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution”
  • “Mr. Bailyn brings a new vividness, authenticity and excitement to the story of the settlement of North America….He sees the past in a more lively and human fashion, and in sharper detail, than have most previous historians….This is a rich canvas of a great folk-wandering over two centuries …. If the Introduction is any guide to what is to follow, the volumes to come will be treasure houses indeed.” — Esmond Wright, The New York Times Book Review reviewing “The Peopling of British North America : An Introduction”
  • “With a spare and delicate genius, [Bailyn] sketch[es] out the fiendishly complex essentials of a world where ‘everything seems strange close up.’… Bernard Bailyn’s work has the grandeur of a Braudel and the humanity of a Michelet. And he’s got to the roots.” — Gwyn A. Williams, The Guardian reviewing “The Peopling of British North America : An Introduction”
  • “In the concluding pages of [the book] Bailyn points out that Hutchinson never understood the forces that destroyed him…. And in the opening pages he tells us that his own instinctive sympathies remain with the revolutionists, that he is simply showing us how it was possible for a good man to take the other side. But in between the opening and closing pages he succeeds so well that he leaves the American Revolution looking a pretty shabby affair.” — Edmund S. Morgan in the New York Review of Books reviewing “The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson”
  • “Rarely has a single book stimulated such a burst of productive scholarship, though the new works often presented alternative formulations of the argument. Mr. Bailyn has little patience with revisionist positions, and while in the present essays he corrects and enlarges his original thesis, he essentially adheres to it.” — Forrest McDonald in the New York Times Book Review reviewing “Faces of Revolution: Personalities and Themes in the Struggle for American Independence”
  • I can’t think of a better way to inaugurate this series of lectures than with one on the founding of our republic, also the first White House cyberspace lecture. We are truly imagining — honoring the past, not by imagining the future, but through the prism of the future.
    I thank Bernard Bailyn for what he said and the way he said it and for a lifetime of work. We received the distilled wisdom tonight of more than four decades of hard thinking and work about what it means to be an American and what America means to Americans and to the rest of the world.
    I was rather amused, he said when we started that all these people who came from a lot of different places, they moved around a lot, they disagreed a lot, they were disdainful of government — I thought, what’s new? (Laughter.) But they were also, as Professor Bailyn said at the end of his remarks, at their best moments profoundly idealistic and always, always appropriately suspicious of untrammeled power in the hands of anyone in the government. — Remarks by President Bill Clinton at the Millenium Lecture in response to Bailyn’s Speech 
  • When I entered graduate school in the history department at Harvard in 1969, I knew almost nothing about Bernard Bailyn, nor was I interested in the field of early American history that he taught. The fact that his study of The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution had received the Pulitzer Prize in the spring of 1968 was lost on me, overshadowed by the tumultuous events that marked my final semester of college: the aftermath of the Tet offensive, Lyndon Johnson’s abdication and the Gene McCarthy boomlet, the assassination of Martin Luther King. The notion that someone immersed in the events of the 1960s would want to carry his interest in American politics back to its eighteenth-century origins would have struck me as quaint. For all I knew or cared, real American history began sometime around the New Deal — the rest was prologue, nothing more. Of course, one might be expected to know something about the colonial and Revolutionary eras — but who would want to make them the subject of his own work?A funny thing happened to me, though, on my way to becoming a historian of modern America. When I went to sign up for my first graduate seminar with the late Frank Freidel, a distinguished biographer of Franklin Roosevelt, he surprised me with his advice. “You’ll learn a lot more if you take Professor Bailyn’s seminar,” Frank said, smiling beneath the last flattop haircut sported by any member of the Harvard faculty. I dutifully wandered down the corridor of the top floor of Widener Library to Bailyn’s office and secured the necessary permission.For me, as for literally scores of his students, that seminar was a transforming intellectual experience… To an untutored naif like myself, Bailyn’s seminar was at once mystifying and elating. For the first half of the course, we were never quite sure what the subject was. Each week’s readings were so eclectic that we went to class wondering what we would possibly discuss…With that seminar, I was hooked — a common fate for many of his students. The next year I was a teaching assistant in two of Bailyn’s lecture courses. Here I saw a different facet of his approach to teaching. In his graduate courses, Bailyn mustered an admirable patience that most professors find hard to sustain, making us kick problems around, false leads and all, before nudging us (or sometimes commanding us, with an imperious “Look!”) to consider the points he wanted us to see. His undergraduate lectures took a different form. Bailyn was not a classroom lecturer in the grand style; he never gave the sort of polished performance that is full of bons mots and witticisms and manages to reach its scintillating conclusion seconds before the bell. For the first twenty minutes of class, one barely needed to take a note, because he usually spent the time restating the problem he had been discussing at the close of the previous class. But round about 25 minutes past the hour, it would be off to the races, as a whole new topic was introduced and brilliantly sketched, opening up interpretive vistas more rapidly than anyone could imagine….Teaching Voyagers to the West (as I regularly do) to our graduate students carries me back to the heady experience of Bailyn’s seminar. For the one lesson I learned best in 1969 was that I was preparing to write a book (on what subject I hardly knew), and that when I did, Bailyn’s extraordinary lessons and example would set the standard I would aspire to meet. That standard was never imposed, however; Bailyn left us to puzzle things out for ourselves, goaded only by his critical eye and his alarming propensity to call us short with the most famous of all his questions: “So what?”

    Bernard Bailyn has just turned seventy-five, and he remains as actively engaged in original research as he was when he was the young star of the Harvard history department in the 1950s. His studies of the peopling of British North America continue, and for the past few years, he has been conducting a highly energized series of seminars and workshops on the settlement and economic development of the early modern Atlantic world. He is, in fact, the youngest historian I know. — Jack Rakove “Bernard Bailyn: An Appreciation” (Humanities, March/April 1998)

    Basic Facts

    Teaching Positions: Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, joined faculty in 1949, instructor in education, 1953-54, assistant professor, 1954-58, associate professor, 1958-61, professor of history, 1961-66, Winthrop Professor of History, 1966-81, Adams University Professor, 1981-93, James Duncan Phillips Professor of Early American History, 1991-93, professor emeritus, 1993–, director of Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History, 1983-94.

    Colver Lecturer, Brown University, 1965;
    Phelps Lecturer, New York University, 1969;
    Trevelyan Lecturer, Cambridge University, 1971;
    Becker Lecturer, Cornell University, 1975;
    Walker-Ames Lecturer, University of Washington, 1983;
    Curti Lecturer, University of Wisconsin, 1984;
    Lewin Visiting Professor, Washington University (St. Louis, MO), 1985;
    Pitt Professor of American History, Cambridge University, 1986-87;
    Thompson Lecturer, Pomona College, 1991;

    Area of Research: Early American history, the American Revolution, and the Anglo-American world in the pre-industrial era

    Education: A.B., Williams College 1945, A.M. (1947), and Ph.D. (1953) Harvard University.

    Major Publications:

  • The New England Merchants in the Seventeenth Century,(Harvard University Press, 1955).
  • (With wife, Lotte Bailyn) Massachusetts Shipping, 1697-1714: A Statistical Study, (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1959).
  • Education in the Forming of American Society: Needs and Opportunities for Study, (University of North Carolina Press, 1960).
  • The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1967, enlarged edition, 1992.)
  • The Origins of American Politics, (Knopf, 1968).
  • The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson, (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1974).
  • History and the Creative Imagination, (Washington University, 1985).
  • The Peopling of British North America: An Introduction, (Knopf, 1986).
  • Voyagers to the West: A Passage in the Peopling of America on the Eve of the Revolution, (Knopf, 1986).
  • Faces of Revolution: Personalities and Themes in the Struggle for American Independence, (Knopf, 1990).
  • The Great Republic: Nineteenth and Early Twentieth-Century America, 1820-1920, (D. C. Heath, 1993).
  • On the Teaching and Writing of History: Responses to a Series of Questions, edited by Edward Connery Lathem, (Montgomery Endowment, 1994).
  • The Federalist Papers (Bradley Lecture Series Publication), Library of Congress, 1998.
  • To Begin the World Anew: The Genius and Ambiguities of the American Founders, Knopf, 2003).

Editor, Contributor, Joint Author:

  • (Editor, with Jane N. Garrett, and author of introduction) Pamphlets of the American Revolution, 1750-1776, Volume 1, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1965.
  • (Editor) The Apologia of Robert Keayne: The Self-Portrait of a Puritan Merchant, Harper & Row (New York, NY), 1965.
  • (Editor, with Donald Fleming) The Intellectual Migration: Europe and America, 1930-1960, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1969.
  • (Editor, with Donald Fleming) Law in American History, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1972.
  • (With others) The Great Republic: A History of the American People, (Heath, 1977, 4th edition, 1992).
  • (Editor, with John B. Hench) The Press and the American Revolution, (American Antiquarian Society, 1980).
  • (Editor, with Philip D. Morgan) Strangers within the Realm: Cultural Margins of the First British Empire, (University of North Carolina Press, 1991).
  • (Editor) The Debate on the Constitution: Federalist and Antifederalist Speeches, Articles, and Letters during the Struggle over Ratification, two volumes, (Library of America, 1993).
  • From Protestant Peasants to Jewish Intellectuals: The Germans in the Peopling of America (published together with Causes and Consequences of the German Catastrophe, by Heinrich August Winkler), (Berg for the German Historical Institute, 1988).
  • Editor-in-chief, “John Harvard Library,” 1962-70.
  • Editor with Donald Fleming, Perspectives in American History,annual of Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History, Harvard University, 1967-77, 1984-86.
  • Contributor to symposia and proceedings of professional organizations. Contributor to professional journals, including American Historical Review and William and Mary Quarterly.
  • Contributor to books including A Lyme Miscellany, 1776-1976,edited by George J. Willauer, Jr., (Wesleyan University, 1977); and Glimpses of the Harvard Past, (Harvard University Press, 1986).


Pulitzer Prizes in history, 1967, for The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, and 1986, for Voyagers to the West: A Passage in the Peopling of America on the Eve of the Revolution.
Bancroft Prize, Columbia University, 1967, for The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution.
National Book Award in history, 1975, for The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson.
Saloutos Award, Immigration History Society, 1986, Triennial Book Award, and nomination for National Book Critics Circle Award, 1986, all for Voyagers to the West.
Kennedy Medal of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 2004.
Centennial Medal of the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, 2001.
Bruce Catton Prize of the Society of American Historians for lifetime achievement in the writing of history, 2000.
Medal of the Foreign Policy Association, 1998.
Henry Allen Moe Prize, American Philosophical Society, 1994.
Thomas Jefferson Medal of the American Philosophical Society, 1993.
Fellow, British Academy, and Christ’s College, Cambridge University, and Montgomery fellow, Dartmouth College, 1991.
L.H.D., Lawrence University, 1967, Bard College, 1968, Clark University, 1975, Yale University, 1976, Grinnell College, 1979, Trinity College, 1984, Manhattanville College, 1991, Dartmouth College, 1991, University of Chicago, 1991, and William and Mary College, 1994.
Litt.D., Williams College, 1969, Rutgers University, 1976, Fordham University, 1976, and Washington University (St. Louis, MO), 1988.
Recipient of first Robert H. Lord Award, Emmanuel College, 1967.
Harvard Faculty Prize, 1965, for Volume 1 of Pamphlets of the American Revolution.

Additional Info: During World War II Bailyn served in the Army Signal Corps and in the Army Security Agency.
Professor Bailyn is a member of the American Historical Association and served as President in 1981. He is also a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and the National Academy of Education. He is a Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy and the Royal Historical Society, and a Foreign Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, the Academia Europaea, and the Mexican Academy of History and Geography. He was a Trustee of the Institute of Advanced Study, Princeton, 1989-94.
Bailyn was the Jefferson Lecturer, National Endowment for the Humanities, 1998, and the first millennium lecturer, White House, 1998.
He also serves as a Senior Fellow in the Society of Fellows.
Bailyn is Director of the Harvard’s International Seminar on the History of the Atlantic World since 1995.