What They're Famous For
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."
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
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
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
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)
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.
Editor, Contributor, Joint Author:
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.
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.
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William Marina - 3/9/2006
A really excellent, thorough presentation of Bailyn's life and work.
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