Bernard Bailyn (10 September 1922 to 7 August 2020): A Tribute

New York Times, August 7, 2020

The death of Bernard Bailyn on 7 August 2020 not only marked the passing of perhaps the most influential historian in the United States of the past seventy years, but the passing also of a friend of the Moore Institute whose support proved crucial both at the time of gestation, and as the Institute was about to enter upon the second phase of its existence. In this tribute, I propose to offer an appraisal of Bailyn’s scholarly contribution and an explanation and appreciation of his interest in the work of the Moore Institute and in scholarship in Ireland more generally.

Bernard Bailyn was a man of keen intelligence and broad interests who was a captivating lecturer, a dedicated teacher, an indefatigable researcher, a brilliant stylist, and a supporter of good causes in a world that he sought always to make a better place. All of this was given due recognition in 2011 when President Barack Obama conferred on him the National Humanities Medal. Bailyn’s curriculum vitae – undergraduate education at Williams College where he enrolled in 1940 and graduated in English 1945, followed by study for a PhD in History at Harvard University from which he graduated in 1953, and appointment almost immediately to the History faculty of Harvard where he held a sequence of distinguished chairs culminating in the Adams University Professorship which is Harvard’s highest distinction – might convey the impression that his rise to academic excellence was seamless and predictable. His path was certainly smoothed for him because he came from a comfortable family background sustained by his father who had developed a successful dental practice in Connecticut. However because he was Jewish he experienced initial difficulty in elite educational institutions that operated quota systems in order to keep them white and Protestant. On the other hand his concern over the fate of Jews in Europe meant that Bailyn enlisted with enthusiasm in the Signal Corps for service in Germany in the later stages of the war. He spoke with pride to the end of his days of the small part he had played in the destruction of the Nazi regime. As part of his service he took part in the Army Specialized Training Programs, learning German in connection with plans for the eventual occupation of the country. He derived long-term academic benefit by acquiring the language and becoming acquainted with the research methods in social science that scholars – many of them Jewish – had refined in German Universities in the decades before the outbreak of war.

When Bailyn took up his academic position at Harvard he identified himself as a specialist in what was then called the ‘colonial’ period of North American history. Many history departments in the United States then considered this either as an extension of the history of England, particularly in its Puritan dimensions, or as a brief prelude to the American Revolution of 1776 which many identified as the date that marked the beginning of serious American history. Most historians in the United States therefore thought the subject that Bailyn had chosen to study to be of marginal interest, and even at Harvard Colonial America enjoyed a higher standing in its department of English (rather than History) which had on its faculty the then ultimate authority on New England, Perry Miller, author of a two-volume study The New England Mind.

As he began to publish, Bailyn proved no iconoclast and respected the rich vein of scholarship that the study of Puritanism had attracted through the centuries particularly at Harvard College, which had been a Puritan foundation. However, in his first book, The New England Merchants in the Seventeenth Century (Cambridge Mass., 1955), Bailyn looked to the pragmatic side of the lives of the Puritans as he demonstrated how the many artisans, fishermen and minor traders among them who had abandoned England in the 1630s, possibly for religious reasons, sustained a new life by farming, fishing and commerce. Then as Bailyn pieced together the trading activity that these start-up merchants engaged upon, he showed how their endeavours intermeshed with pre-existing English commercial activity which they were able to lubricate by supplying their contacts in England with such North American products as fish, furs, and beaver skins, and, somewhat later, also with sugar, rum and other products from the Caribbean islands that had been settled by the English, including English Puritans. As Bailyn described how the more successful merchants extended their acquisitive American reach in North America the Caribbean and into Spanish America, he explained how they soon formed themselves as an elite group within the city of Boston. These became distinguishable from the population at large by close intermarriage, by a comfortable lifestyle that their critics berated as luxurious, by easy interaction with British government officials, and sometimes by a return to the Anglican Church from which their Puritan ancestors had fled half a century previously.

This first book, to which reference is now seldom made, warrants attention because it contained many of the ideas that Bailyn was to expand upon in later undertakings, and many of the sub themes that he would leave to a succession of research students to develop as projects of their own. If this first book shocked the traditionalists, they must have been relieved to find that he based his next several works on an analysis of literary sources, as he sought to explain how the reading matter of the New England colonists during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries influenced their actions. The books in question were  Education in the Forming of American Society (Chapel Hill, 1960); an edition of Pamphlets of the American Revolution, 1750-65 (Cambridge, Mass., 1963); The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge, Mass., 1967); and The Origins of American Politics (New York, 1968).

The foundation for all this work was Bailyn’s edition of the Pamphlets, and its climax was his Ideological Origins. This made the case that the American colonists went to war against the British government, and eventually established an independent republic, not for economic reasons, as previous historians had argued, but because the monarchy, officials in Whitehall and the British parliament had persistently trespassed upon political principles that the colonists as ‘free born Englishmen’ considered sacrosanct. Bailyn was awarded both the Pulitzer and Bancroft Prizes for this dramatic reappraisal of the factors that gave rise to revolution in North America.

Most historians would have basked in this distinction and seen it as the culmination of a life devoted to scholarship. Not so Bernard Bailyn who launched upon fresh research that resulted in a sparkling book that was awarded The National Book Award in History. This was The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson (Cambridge, Mass., 1974), a biographical study of the last governor of Massachusetts. In this, Bailyn brought together the two streams of scholarship that he had been sifting up to this point. He was able to achieve this conjunction because Hutchinson, born in 1711, was a scion of one of the more successful of New England’s merchant families who, because of his wealth, status, capability and loyalty was appointed by the British government to a succession of offices culminating in that of governor. Hutchinson’s first loyalty, as Bailyn made clear, was to his family and community, and, over the course of his life, he read the same literature as his fellow colonists and knew their preferences and principles. However in the 1770s when the more zealous of the colonists challenged a series of taxes that the British government had imposed upon the colony, Hutchinson, as governor, took the side of Britain rather than the insurgents, not least because he believed that colonists taking up arms against crown forces would face certain annihilation. The consequence for Hutchison was that he, his family and his property became the targets of attack by the mob in Boston, and he personally was forced to seek refuge in England where he died a broken and disillusioned man unable to comprehend why he had become the most hated figure in the community he had served so diligently and that he still considered his own.

At this juncture the quality of Bailyn’s scholarship had been a major factor in securing a firm place for what was now being called Colonial British America on the history curriculum of most research universities in the United States, and many of Bailyn’s former graduate students had come to occupy positions in these universities. He had not been alone however in re-shaping the curriculum, and historians such as Edmund Morgan at Yale, Richard Dunn at Pennsylvania, Jack Greene at Johns Hopkins and a clutch of historians funded by the State of Maryland had been extending the historical purview of British North America from New England, which Bailyn and most of his research students had been exploring, to the Colonial Chesapeake, the West Indies, the coastal areas of the Carolinas, and Georgia. Bailyn had been following these developments from a distance, and after much reflection and deep research he published two books in 1986, one stating the research agenda that he expected would occupy him for the remainder of his working life and the second his first instalment towards the completion of that agenda. The relatively short prescriptive book, The Peopling of British North America: An Introduction (New York, 1986) argued that what made the histories of the Americas unique is that these were vast regions that had been left practically empty of people as the existing populations succumbed to European conquest and disease in the decades and centuries that followed the first voyage of Columbus to the Bahamas. This, pronounced Bailyn, left historians the responsibility to address how this human tragedy had occurred, and to explain how a world that had been left void had been re-peopled.

In order to demonstrate how this mammoth task might be accomplished, at least for North America, Bailyn published in that same year his second Pulitzer prize-winning book entitled, Voyagers to the West: Emigration from Britain to America on the Eve of Revolution (New York, 1986). This book was enabled by a compilation of records on 9,364 individuals from English and Scottish ports (no data seems to have been compiled in Irish ports) who emigrated to multiple destinations in British North America between December 1773 and March 1776. Those enrolled on what Bailyn described as a Register of Emigrants gave details on their place of origin, previous occupation, skills, age, marital status and prospective destinations. Therefore after Bailyn had analysed this data with the aid of a computer, and related it to what evidence he could piece together on the various destinations to which the emigrants were bound, he reconstituted what he described as a world in motion. Bailyn indicated in The Peopling volume that Voyagers would be followed by a further study of what had been happening in British North America in the years before 1773. This task was partially fulfilled by him in 2012 with the publication of The Barbarous Years: The Peopling of British North America: The Conflict of Civilizations, 1600-1675 (New York, 2012).

Bailyn also indicated in Peopling that he contemplated another study that would address how migration to North America persisted through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. However he knew in his heart of hearts that he did not have the capacity to see this task to completion, or the enthusiasm for such an undertaking since his primary interest was in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Bailyn’s hope at this point was that other scholars with the requisite linguistic and archival competence would do as he had done for British North America and seek to reconstitute how other areas of the Americas were similarly re-peopled from other European countries and from Africa.

It was in order to facilitate such studies that in 1995, some years after his formal retirement from the History faculty and with the support of a generous grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Bernard Bailyn organized an Atlantic Seminar to which he invited early stage researchers from around the world, and which he convened and chaired at Harvard over a sequence of summers. His appraisal of the merits and limitations of Atlantic history, and therefore a self-assessment of what the seminar had achieved over a decade, was the subject of Atlantic History: Concept and Contours (Cambridge, Mass., 2005). Moreover some examples of the fruits of Atlantic History appeared in Soundings in Atlantic History: Latent Structures and Intellectual Currents, 1500-1830 (Cambridge, Mass., 2009) that Bailyn edited with Patricia Denault who had been manager for him of the Atlantic Seminar.

As the years mounted and as the heart of Bernard Bailyn weakened he seemed reconciled that he would not see all the mammoth projects that he envisaged through to completion. Despite this onset of realism, the subtle mind of Bernard Bailyn remained active and his pen kept flowing as he reflected in To Begin the World Anew: The Genius and Ambiguities of the American Founders (New York, 2004) on the good fortune of the United States in having had founding fathers who devised a constitution which by any standards was reasonable. Then in his final book, Illuminating History: A Retrospective of Seven Decades (New York, 2020), published in Bernard Bailyn’s 98th year, he reflected on his own good fortune in having discovered a subject that had sustained his interest through a long and productive life and that had introduced him to figures from the past –particularly from the age of Enlightenment – who had given him hope for the present and the future.

Given the eminence of Bernard Bailyn in the 1990s as an authority of the study of colonization, migration and settlement, it is no surprise that his name came to mind as a potential endorser of a project entitled The Study of Human Settlement and Historical Change that I, and a cluster of project leaders, were putting forward in 1999 for possible funding under the second Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions (PRTLI 2) organized by the Higher Education Authority (HEA). Funding was available under the scheme for multidisciplinary research programmes, which, if successful in the competition, would receive recurrent costs (essentially administrative support and stipends for PhD students and postdoctoral researchers for four years) together with the physical infrastructure (a building, furniture and equipment) that would become a permanent acquisition. Each proposal for funding had to be formulated according to a template supplied by the HEA, and it was expected that each would be endorsed by major international figures who would have read the proposal and comment on it in detail. It was also considered politic to have some endorsements from researchers in the US because half of the funding being made available for competition was being provided by Atlantic Philanthropies. This was a body that had been created by the American philanthropist, Chuck Feeney, who had to be satisfied that his money was being invested wisely in research in Irish universities.

I personally had come into the picture because Patrick Fottrell, the University President of the time, and Tom Boylan, who was then Dean of Research at NUI Galway, had persuaded me to lead a proposal that would be beneficial to researchers in Humanities disciplines. Thereafter with support from a range of colleagues we put a proposal together that, as I recall, included researchers in History, Archaeology, English, Irish, French and German. Once the proposal was formulated the project leaders met with the Dean of Research and the President to decide on potential endorsers who would send their supporting statements to a designated fax machine in the President’s Office to arrive there by a specified Tuesday after which the entire university research proposal would be due for submission to the HEA.

Another decision made at that meeting is that I should approach Bernard Bailyn for an endorsement. The responsibility, which I was reluctant to accept, was given to me because my research interests impinged upon those of Bailyn, because he had been my mentor in 1974 when I had held a Fulbright fellowship at Harvard, because we had interacted at a few international conferences in the intervening period, and because, at my invitation, he had participated in a colloquium at the Royal Irish Academy in 1990, and furnished an introduction to the resulting volume, Europeans on the Move: Studies on European Migration, 1500-1800 (Oxford, 1994). My reluctance to approach him, which I voiced, was that composing such an endorsement would be a major burden for a person with so many commitments. Another reason behind my reluctance that I did not mention at the meeting was that the last telephone conversation I had had with Bailyn was when he had called to offer me a one-year Charles Warren fellowship at Harvard and he had been audibly miffed when I had explained that I was not in a position to accept.

Despite my reluctance to proceed, Pat Fottrell insisted that I phone Bailyn there and then from his office. It may have been my good fortune that it was Bailyn’s office manager, Patricia Denault, who answered the phone, since she remembered me from 1974 and was prepared to discuss in relaxed fashion what needed to be done. She explained that Bailyn was on holiday with his wife in Egypt and would not be back in the office until the day before the supporting fax was due in Galway. Pat Denault thought nonetheless that the problem was soluble because she felt confident that Bailyn would supply the necessary letter if I were to leave the paperwork with her and put the request directly to him.

Pat Denault facilitated such an overture by supplying me with the fax number of Bailyn’s hotel in Egypt. Armed with this information, I faxed Bailyn a detailed letter explaining what would be required of him if he could find time to compose the endorsement on his return to his office. This elicited a one sentence faxed response from Egypt – ‘I know how to write a letter’. The episode as I later heard from a mutual acquaintance also added a new story to the Bailyn repertoire, as he took to recounting that he had been but once ever in his life to Luxor only to find at breakfast that a smiling waiter brought him a fax from Canny on a silver tray asking him to support his application for a few million dollars. Bailyn considered this story worthy of adding to his folklore because he had supplied a very fulsome letter of support to the Pat Fottrell fax machine on that final day, because there were people on the PRTLI adjudicating panel who reported back to him that they had been very impressed by the proposal he had endorsed, and because the project was duly funded. All he ever asked in return was that I tell him more about Atlantic Philanthropies since he thought that any entity so called should be well disposed to supporting his Atlantic history seminar.

Once the Centre, that would in 2005 become known as the Moore Institute, got beyond the embryonic stage, Bernard Bailyn agreed, with others, to serve on the International Advisory Board. This Board was more of a fiction than a reality because while the University insisted that each PRTLI-funded research institute should have such a board, it did not, in those pre-Zoom days, provide any budget to cover the cost of meetings. Nonetheless, Bernard Bailyn asked intermittently of how the Centre was progressing, and given his continuing interest it seemed appropriate that we should invite him to attend a mid-term review of the work programme scheduled for 2002, and combine this review of academic progress with a business meeting. Bailyn agreed to join us and his participation was enabled by Professor Maurice Bric, then of the Irish Research Council in Humanities and Social Sciences who joined the event.

On that occasion, Bernard Bailyn proved himself a true mentor of scholarly endeavour because he not only presented a paper and participated in the discussion of each academic session, but was actively engaged also at the business meeting. There, the prime item for discussion was what the Institute would do for research funding when its recurrent grant was exhausted. Bailyn though that we might look to the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for some support. Then, when it was pointed out to him that the Foundation did not usually fund outside the United States and that applications for funding had to be invited, he suggested that we leave it to him as a member of the Mellon Foundation board to resolve these problems. Sure enough, sometime later the Mellon Foundation invited the Moore Institute to apply for some supplemental funding to help it internationalise its endeavours. Researchers at the Moore took up the invitation, and a generous grant was provided by the Mellon Foundation that not only assisted the relevant researchers with their work, but added to the prestige of the Institute and helped keep it afloat until it secured fresh funding, a renewed mission, and a new and larger building under a later PRTLI round in 2009, the last with which I as the first Director of the Moore Institute was associated.

This narration of the involvement of Bernard Bailyn in the creation and flourishing of the Moore Institute is a testimony to his generosity and concern for supporting what he considered worthy causes. While he was in Galway at the Moore Institute mid-term review he might instead have been in Israel assisting a humanities project there, but his wife Lotte, who considered Israel dangerous, had suggested that he conduct his business there by Skype. On the human side he told me how much he and Lotte had appreciated the care and attention that a nurse from Milltown Malbay (or perhaps Spanish Point) had given to his mother-in-law in London in the final years of her life and he asked on the day of his arrival to be shown the metropolis from which that kindly carer had come. As we drove through the West Clare countryside I recall him narrating with amazement how the woman in question had married outside the Catholic Church and on the regular occasions on which she had visited her own ageing parents had always travelled alone and without her wedding ring lest she cause them anguish by letting them know of her transgression. Bailyn’s affection for Ireland and Irish people extended also to matters academic. Given his deep interest in historiography, Bailyn knew the work of W.E.H. Lecky well, and considered Lecky to be among the greats that he himself obviously hoped to join. Of Ireland’s historians of his own generation he had a great admiration for D.B. Quinn and had acted as intermediary to have Knopf, the prestigious New York publisher, bring Quinn’s later writings to a wider public.

It was a pleasure for me in the light of his care and interest in Irish affairs to propose the name of Bernard Bailyn as an honorary member of the Royal Irish Academy to which he was elected in 2011. This was but a minor addition to the many honours he had received throughout a long and productive life but one that he particularly appreciated because he had already been a Corresponding Fellow of both the British Academy and of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Therefore this final addition brought Bernard Bailyn, that great Voyager to the West, home to the three jurisdictions from which so many of those who had peopled New England had come.

Nicholas Canny

Nicholas Canny held an Established Chair in History 1979-2009; was founding Director of the Moore Institute 2000-2011; and was Vice President for Research 2005-8 all at the National University of Ireland, Galway. An expert on early modern history broadly defined, he edited the first volume of The Oxford History of the British Empire (1998) and, with Philip D. Morgan, The Oxford Handbook of the Atlantic World, c.1450-c.1850 (2011). His major book is Making Ireland British, 1580-1650 (Oxford, 2001). He is putting the finishing touches to a major study Imagining Ireland’s Pasts: Early Modern Ireland through the Centuries to be published in 2021 by Oxford University Press. He is a Fellow of the British Academy (2005), a Member of the Royal Irish Academy (1981), of Academia Europaea (1995), of the American Philosophical Society (2007) and of Real Academia de la Historia (Madrid) (2011). He served as President of the Royal Irish Academy, 2008-11, and was Ireland’s first and only Member so far of the Scientific Council of the European Research Council.