(b. 10 September 1922 in Hartford, Connecticut), historian of early U.S. history, Harvard professor of history, two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize in history, winner of the Bancroft Prize, and former president of the American Historical Association.
Bailyn was born to Charles Manuel Bailyn and Esther Schloss, and was raised in Hartford. In the fall of 1940, Bailyn entered Williams College, where he studied history, literature, and philosophy. During his junior year Bailyn joined the U.S. Army, serving in the Signal Corps and the Army Security Agency during World War II. In 1945, while still in the army, Bailyn completed the requirements for a B.A. degree in English literature from Williams College. After leaving the army the following year, Bailyn began graduate studies in history at Harvard University. Reflecting on his decision to enter graduate school, Bailyn remembered that he was interested in studying three facets of history: the relationship between Europe and the United States, the evolution of the world from a premodern to modern society, and the interplay between social and intellectual history. Bailyn's early queries into history served as the foundation for his entire academic career.
Specializing in the early social and economic history of the United States, as well as the history of Rome and medieval Europe, Bailyn earned his M.A. in 1947, and his Ph.D. in 1953. On 18 June 1952 he married Lotte Lazarsfeld; they have two sons. Proving his merits as a student, Bailyn became an instructor at Harvard in 1949, an associate professor with tenure in 1958, and a full professor in 1961. In 1966 he was named the Winthrop Professor of History and in 1981 became the Adams University Professor. Between 1962 and 1970, he served as editor-in-chief of the John Harvard Library, a series of modern editions of classic works by American authors. Between 1967 and 1977 (and again from 1984 to 1986), Bailyn worked as the coeditor of Perspectives in American History, a collection of essays published by the Charles Warren Center. As well as carrying out his professional duties at Harvard, Bailyn has been an active member of the American Historical Association, serving as president in 1981.
In the early 1960s, Bailyn established himself as a preeminent social and intellectual historian in the field of U.S. colonial history, with the publication of two significant works: Education in the Forming of American Society: Needs and Opportunities for Study (1960), and "Political Experience and Enlightenment Ideas in Eighteenth-Century America," an article in the American Historical Review (1962). In the former, Bailyn revealed that education is more than simply a formal institution of learning; it is a process in which culture transmits itself from one generation to the next. Bailyn noted that in early colonial education, the family unit was responsible for educating the children, aided by the apprentice system, the church, and the local community. However, Bailyn discovered that education in British North America slowly began to take on a distinctive American character as colonial society matured. As labor shortages, the abundance of land, and religious pluralism became commonplace in the British colonies, the number of schools rapidly increased. As a result, colonial society, as well as colonial education, became more American than European. Education in the Forming of American Society solidified Bailyn's place as a prominent social historian of early U.S. history.
Bailyn furthered his reputation as a social historian with the article "Political Experience," which portrayed the American colonial experience as being distinctively different from its European counterpart. This brief article suggested that the American Revolution was not the result of social upheaval as many progressive historians had defined it, but it was instead a contest of ideas. Unlike many scholars writing about the Revolutionary period, Bailyn did not see Enlightenment political philosophies, England's common-law tradition, or the appeal of antiquity as the driving force behind the activities of the revolutionaries; rather, he characterized the Americans as being loyal to the republican experiments of the seventeenth century and suspicious of the rise of ministerial power and influence in the eighteenth century.
In the early 1960s Bailyn would further refine his interpretations of the American Revolution by editing a large collection of Revolutionary pamphlets for the John Harvard Library. As he culled through over 400 pamphlets dating from 1750 to 1776, Bailyn came to a greater understanding of the Revolutionary period. In 1965 Bailyn explained his findings in a lengthy introduction ("The Transforming Radicalism of the American Revolution") to the first published volume of pamphlets, Pamphlets of the American Revolution, 1750–1776, for which he won the Harvard Faculty Prize. Bailyn introduced the idea that the American Revolution is best understood as a constitutional dispute between the British colonies and the British government. Bailyn believed that the colonial arguments presented in the edited pamphlets were not merely rhetorical rationalizations used by radical colonial leaders to overshadow their material interests, but expressed the convictions and principles that lay at the heart of the Revolutionary movement.
Bailyn's introduction was separately published in 1967 as The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. This was undoubtedly the most important work Bailyn published in the 1960s, and its arguments greatly affected American and British scholars who studied the causes of the American Revolution. Bailyn asserted that American leaders during the late colonial period were committed to the ideals of the radical Whig Party, an association politically opposed to the absolute authority of the British crown in seventeenth-century England. According to Bailyn, strict adherence to the Whig philosophy caused Americans to see British rule in the colonies from 1763 to 1776 as sinister and maligned. In fact, Bailyn claimed that the colonials were so dedicated to the idea of protecting civil and political rights from governmental tyranny that they became firmly convinced that the British government was engaged in a corrupt plan designed to rob them of their most basic rights as Englishmen.
Although Bailyn's findings concerning the conservative characteristics of the colonists were important in understanding the causes of the American Revolution, he placed an equal if not greater emphasis on understanding the consequences of the Revolutionary movement, which proved to be more radical in nature. Bailyn suggested that American society in the years following 1765 was completing a period of transformation that had been slowly taking place since the British first colonized North America. American political leaders became increasingly willing to adopt more radical positions pertaining to issues such as representation in government, natural rights of citizens, constitutional construction, and political sovereignty. Additionally, Bailyn argued that Revolutionary ideology served as a challenge to many social institutions in the colonies, especially the legitimacy of slavery, the right of states to establish and maintain an official religion, and the need to adhere to the policy of deference to social superiors. Counter to traditional interpretations of the Revolution, Bailyn argued that the radicalism of the Revolutionary period was not the result of economic distress or social upheaval, but was caused by a new radical ideology that was opposed to all practices that restricted human liberties. The fact that The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution won both the Pulitzer Prize and the Bancroft Prize in 1968 suggests how important Bailyn's contribution was to the historical community. Bailyn continued to examine the influence of radical Whig thought in the colonies in The Origins of American Politics (1968), which was the Harvard professor's last major publication in the 1960s.
As a whole, Bailyn's publications in the 1960s significantly contributed to the development of a new body of historical literature that focused on the idea of republicanism and pushed scholars to consider how ideology influences society. Bailyn continued to make valuable contributions to the study of early U.S. history in the decades following the 1960s. His work on the Royalist governor of Massachusetts, The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson (1974), won the 1975 National Book Award in history. Proof of his enormous influence on the historical community was evident when he won his second Pulitzer Prize for Voyagers to the West: A Passage in the Peopling of British North America on the Eve of the Revolution (1986), a study that examines the dramatic upsurge in emigration from Britain to the North American colonies prior to the Revolution. Although Bailyn has enjoyed a long and influential career, his most valuable and enduring insights into early U.S. history came in the 1960s.
Biographical information on Bailyn is in James A. Henretta, Michael G. Kammen, and Stanley N. Katz, eds., The Transformation of Early American History: Society, Authority, and Ideology (1991); and Robert Allen Rutland, ed., Clio's Favorites: Leading Historians of the United States, 1945–2000 (2000). Analyses of Bailyn's views are in John A. Garraty, Interpreting American History:Conversations with Historians, Part I (1970); Karen J. Winkler, "Wanted: A History that Pulls Things Together—An Interview with Bernard Bailyn," Chronicles of Higher Education 20 (July 1980): 3; A. Roger Ekirch, "Sometimes an Art, Never a Science, Always a Craft: A Conversation with Bernard Bailyn," William and Mary Quarterly (Oct. 1994): 625–658; and Edward Connery Lathem, Bernard Bailyn: On the Teaching and Writing of History: Responses to a Series of Questions (1994). Examinations of Bailyn's influence on intellectual historiography are in Robert Shalhope, "Toward a Republican Synthesis: The Emergence of an Understanding of Republicanism in American Historiography," William and Mary Quarterly 29 (Jan. 1972): 49–80; and Shalhope, "Republicanism and Early American Historiography," William and Mary Quarterly 39 (Apr. 1982): 334–356.
Kenneth Wayne Howell