Bernard Bailyn
Born(1922-09-09)September 9, 1922
DiedAugust 7, 2020(2020-08-07) (aged 97)
Alma mater
Scientific career
FieldsAmerican history
InstitutionsHarvard University
Doctoral studentsGordon S. Wood, Pauline Maier

Bernard Bailyn (September 9, 1922 – August 7, 2020) was an American historian, author, and academic specializing in U.S. Colonial and Revolutionary-era History. He was a professor at Harvard University from 1953. Bailyn won the Pulitzer Prize for History twice (in 1968 and 1987).[2] In 1998 the National Endowment for the Humanities selected him for the Jefferson Lecture.[3] He was a recipient of the 2010 National Humanities Medal.

He specialized in American colonial and revolutionary-era history, looking at merchants, demographic trends, Loyalists, international links across the Atlantic, and especially the political ideas that motivated the Patriots. He was best known for studies of republicanism and Atlantic history that transformed the scholarship in those fields.[4] He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1963.[5]


Bailyn was born in Hartford, Connecticut in 1922, the son of Esther (Schloss) and Charles Manuel Bailyn.[6] His family was Jewish. Bailyn earned his bachelor's degree from Williams College in 1945 and in 1953 earned his Ph.D from Harvard University. He was associated with Harvard for the rest of his life. As a graduate student at Harvard, he studied under Perry Miller, Samuel Eliot Morison, and Oscar Handlin. He was made a full professor in 1961, and professor emeritus in 1993. In 1979, he received an honorary doctorate from Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa.[7]

History books

Bernard Bailyn was the editor of Pamphlets of the American Revolution, the first volume of which, published in 1965, was awarded the Faculty Prize of the Harvard University Press for that year, and editor of The Apologia of Robert Keayne (1965) and the two-volume Debate on the Constitution (1993).

He co-authored The Great Republic (1977), an American history textbook, and was co-editor of The Intellectual Migration, Europe and America, 1930–1960 (1969), Law in American History (1972), The Press and the American Revolution (1980), and Strangers within the Realm: Cultural Margins of the First British Empire.

Major themes and ideas

Bailyn's dissertation and first publications dealt with New England merchants. He argued that international commerce was an uncertain business, given the high risk of losses at sea in the very long turnaround times meant that information was often too old to be useful. Merchants reduced the uncertainty by pooling their resources, especially with marriages to other merchant families, and placing their kinfolk as trusted agents in London and other foreign ports.

International commerce became a chief means of growing rich in colonial Massachusetts. However, there was an ongoing tension between the entrepreneurial spirit on the one hand and traditional Puritan culture on the other. The world of merchants became an engine of social change, undermining the isolationism, scholasticism, and religious zeal of the Puritan leadership. Bailyn pointed the younger generation of historians away from Puritan theology and toward broader social and economic forces. Bailyn expanded his research to the social structure of Virginia, showing how its leadership class was transformed in the 1660s. Like Edmund Morgan at Brown University and Yale, Bailyn emphasized the multiple roles of the family in the colonial social system.[8]

Bailyn is known for meticulous research and for interpretations that sometimes challenge the conventional wisdom, especially those dealing with the causes and effects of the American Revolution. In his most influential work, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, Bailyn analyzed pre-Revolutionary political pamphlets to show that colonists believed the British intended to establish a tyrannical state that would abridge the historical British rights. He thus argued that the Revolutionary rhetoric of liberty and freedom was not simply propagandistic but rather central to their understanding of the situation. This evidence was used to displace Charles A. Beard's theory, then the dominant understanding of the American Revolution, that the American Revolution was primarily a matter of class warfare and that the rhetoric of liberty was meaningless. Bailyn maintained that ideology was ingrained in the revolutionaries, an attitude he said exemplified the "transforming radicalism of the American Revolution."[9]

Bailyn argued that republicanism was at the core of the values French radical thinkers had striven to affirm. He located the intellectual sources of the American Revolution within a broader British political framework, explaining how English country Whig ideas about civic virtue, corruption, ancient rights, and fear of autocracy were, in the colonies, transformed into the ideology of republicanism.

According to Bailyn,

The modernization of American Politics and government during and after the Revolution took the form of a sudden, radical realization of the program that had first been fully set forth by the opposition intelligentsia ... in the reign of George the First. Where the English opposition, forcing its way against a complacent social and political order, had only striven and dreamed, Americans driven by the same aspirations but living in a society in many ways modern, and now released politically, could suddenly act. Where the French opposition had vainly agitated for partial reforms ... American leaders moved swiftly and with little social disruption to implement systematically the outermost possibilities of the whole range of radically libertarian ideas. In the process they ... infused into American political culture ... the major themes of eighteenth-century radical libertarianism brought to realization here. The first is the belief that power is evil, a necessity perhaps but an evil necessity; that it is infinitely corrupting; and that it must be controlled, limited, restricted in every way compatible with a minimum of civil order. Written constitutions; the separation of powers; bill of rights; limitations on executives, on legislatures, and courts; restrictions on the right to coerce and wage war—all express the profound distrust of power that lies at the ideological heart of the American Revolution and that has remained with us as a permanent legacy ever after.[10]

Bailyn's approach to the constellation of Whig ideas is artfully diachronic rather than structural; that is, contested libertarian meanings change through time as "the colonists" struggle to define, and to pursue, the property of independence. Recent historians, such as Tufts University wiki-skeptic and CUNY professor Benjamin Carp, hold that more than any other "colonist," Boston waterfront rebels channeled their "cosmopolitanism into a belief that 'the cause of America' was a libertarian 'cause for all mankind'" (Carp, Rebels Rising, 61).

Social history

In the 1980s, Bailyn turned from political and intellectual history to social and demographic history. His histories of the peopling of colonial North America explored questions of immigration, cultural contact, and settlement that his mentor Handlin had pioneered decades earlier.

Bailyn was a major innovator in new research techniques, such as quantification, collective biography, and kinship analysis.[8]

Bailyn is representative of those scholars who believe in the concept of American exceptionalism but avoid the terminology, and thereby avoid getting entangled in rhetorical debates. According to Michael Kammen and Stanley N. Katz, Bailyn:

is very clearly a believer in the distinctiveness of American civilization. Although he rarely, if ever, uses the phrase "American exceptionalism," he repeatedly insists upon the "distinctive characteristics of British North American life." He has argued...that the process of social and cultural transmission resulted in peculiarly American patterns of education (in the broadest sense of the word); and he believes in the unique character of the American Revolution.[11]

Atlantic history

As a leading advocate of Atlantic history, Bailyn organized an annual international seminar on the "History of the Atlantic World" from the mid-1980s onward. Through the seminar, he promoted social and demographic studies, especially regarding flows of population into colonial America. [12] Bailyn's Atlantic History: Concepts and Contours (2005) explores the borders and contents of the emerging field, which emphasizes cosmopolitan and multicultural elements that have tended to be neglected or considered in isolation by traditional historiography dealing with the Americas.

Personal life

Bailyn was married to MIT Professor of Management Lotte Bailyn (née Lazarsfeld). He was the father of Yale astrophysicist Charles Bailyn[13] and Stony Brook linguist John Bailyn.[14]

Bailyn died on August 7, 2020, at his home in Belmont, Massachusetts. He was 97, and suffered from heart failure.[14]


Former students of Bailyn include Pulitzer Prize winners Michael Kammen, Jack N. Rakove and Gordon S. Wood as well as Pulitzer Prize finalist Mary Beth Norton. Other notable Bailyn students include:

Many of these historians have gone on to train a new generation of American historians; others have branched out into fields as diverse as law and the history of science.



  1. ^ "Golden Plate Awardees of the American Academy of Achievement". American Academy of Achievement.
  2. ^ "History". Past winners & finalists by category. The Pulitzer Prizes. Retrieved 2012-03-17.
  3. ^ Jefferson Lecturers at NEH Website (retrieved January 22, 2009).
  4. ^ Jack N. Rakove, "Bernard Bailyn" in Robert Allen Rutland, ed. "Clio's Favorites: Leading Historians of the United States, 1945–2000" (2000) pp 5–22
  5. ^ "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter B" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved May 5, 2011.
  6. ^
  7. ^ "Past Honorary Degrees Grinnell College". Archived from the original on February 23, 2017.
  8. ^ a b A. Roger Ekirch, "Bernard Bailyn," in Clyde N. Wilson, ed. Twentieth-century American Historians (Gale Research Company, 1983) pp 19–26
  9. ^ Bailyn, The ideological origins of the American Revolution (1992 edition) Page v
  10. ^ Bernard Bailyn, "The Central Themes of the American Revolution: An Interpretation," in S. Kurtz and J. Hutson, eds., Essays on the American Revolution (1960), pp. 26–27.
  11. ^ Michael Kammen and Stanley N. Katz, "Bernard Bailyn, Historian, and Teacher: An Appreciation." in James A. Henretta, Michael Kämmen, and Stanley N. Katz, eds. The Transformation of Early American History: Society, Authority, and Ideology (1991) p 10.
  12. ^ See See course details
  13. ^ "Heads of the Two New Residential Colleges Are Named" (July 6, 2016). YaleNews ( Retrieved October 3, 2018.
  14. ^ a b McLean, Renwick; Schuessler, Jennifer (August 7, 2020). "Bernard Bailyn, Eminent Historian of Early America, Dies at 97". The New York Times. Retrieved August 7, 2020.
  15. ^ "National Book Awards – 1975". National Book Foundation. Archived from the original on September 9, 2011. Retrieved March 17, 2012.
  16. ^ Edited version of the 1995 Charles La Trobe Lecture.

Further reading