Bernard Bailyn, the historian who revolutionized the study of the American Revolution, has died at the age of 97. Beginning in the 1960s he revived interest in the study of the Revolution and challenged interpretations that focused on economic self‐interest. “Burrowing himself in 18th‐century source materials,” the Washington Post writes, “Dr. Bailyn used pre‐revolutionary political pamphlets to portray the colonists as deeply principled and driven by radical ideas about republicanism and liberty in the face of encroaching British power.”
Bailyn took seriously what the colonists wrote. And what he found, as he read through pamphlets and newspaper essays, was that “it was a fundamental distrust of government power that led them to throw off the colonial yoke.” Indeed, drawing on the “opposition” writers of England, they displayed a deeply libertarian view of the world. If you’ve ever wondered how the Cato Institute got its name, consider this line from Bailyn’s pathbreaking book The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution: “To the colonists the most important of these publicists and intellectual middlemen were those spokesmen for extreme libertarianism, John Trenchard (1662–1723) and Thomas Gordon (d. 1750),” who published newspaper essays in the early 1720s signed Cato and later published in book form as Cato’s Letters. “The writings of Trenchard and Gordon ranked with the treatises of Locke as the most authoritative statement of the nature of political liberty and above Locke as an exposition of the social sources of the threats it faced.”
I particularly like this summary quotation from Bailyn’s essay “The Central Themes of the American Revolution: An Interpretation” in Stephen G. Kurtz and James H. Hutson, eds., Essays on the American Revolution, which I have quoted in The Libertarian Mind and elsewhere:
[T]he major themes of eighteenth‐century radical libertarianism [were] 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; bills 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.
Bailyn won both the Bancroft Prize for American history and the Pulitzer Prize for The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, and another Pulitzer for Voyagers to the West, a demographic study and social history of early British immigration to the United States. His graduate students at Harvard included such distinguished historians as Gordon Wood, Jack Rakove, Pauline Maier, and Mary Beth Norton.
In 1998 I had the privilege of attending his Jefferson Lecture sponsored by the National Endowment of Humanities, where he considered the Founders as “provincials” living on the outer borderlands of an Atlantic civilization whose heartlands were the metropolitan centers of England, France, the Netherlands, the German states, and Spain.” He called them “one of the most creative groups in modern history” and contrasted their relatively modest art and architecture to the splendors of the English nobility and aristocracy. You can read his text here, but the slides he used in the lecture—of portraits and great houses—added a great deal to his meaning and are unfortunately not included here. You can also find a version of the lecture in his book To Begin the World Anew, with small black‐and‐white images that have much less impact than the resplendent images he used at the lecture.