A Fox News poll last month found a remarkable share of Americans under age 30 think the country’s founders are better described as “villains” (31%) than “heroes” (39%). This erosion of a unifying national narrative makes more poignant the death Friday of Bernard Bailyn, the most accomplished historian of early America’s dazzling world of ideas.
At 97, Bailyn was a veteran of World War II, a professor emeritus at Harvard, a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner and laureate of the National Humanities Medal. He is most famous for “The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution” (1967), a close reading of hundreds of pamphlets from the 18th century. The book overthrew the early-20th century Progressive view of the revolution, which argued that elite Americans rebelled more out of economic self-interest than to vindicate political ideals.
Bailyn zeroed in on the intellectual back-and-forth among the revolutionaries and the influence of the British “Radical Whig” tradition of the early 1700s. He showed how Americans applied these potent ideas to questions of power and representation, and he highlighted “the contagion of liberty” in other spheres of American life. The book has been cited as an authority by Supreme Court Justices including conservatives John Roberts and Clarence Thomas and liberals Stephen Breyer and David Souter.
Bailyn’s less well-known “The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson” (1974) showed the revolutionary period from the perspective of the Loyalist Governor of Massachusetts. Americans today could learn from Bailyn’s determination to see conflict from both sides. Critics speculated that the book was a cryptic defense of the then-embattled Richard Nixon, but Bailyn’s scholarship—unlike that of activist historians today—was not in service of any political agenda.
Refining and implementing the ideas of the revolution, Bailyn wrote in the 50th-anniversary edition of “Origins” in 2017, is “a struggle that we now know would have no end.” The struggle will become less lively as scholars like Bailyn pass from the scene and the media and academy promote rote denunciations of America’s past. It may be impossible in the current environment, but one day scholars like Bailyn may emerge again to reclaim America’s inheritance as a republic of liberty.