Activism & Solidarity

How Not to Read Bernard Bailyn

This article originally appeared on Age of Revolutions.

The passing of intellectual giants inevitably prompts a collective stocktaking of their influence and importance – but such assessments also act as occasions to weaponize them in the service of current culture wars, especially by the right-wing. Such conservative appropriations serve to obfuscate rather than illuminate the real significance of the person’s work. When the philosopher Jacques Derrida passed in 2004, the New York Times published an obituary that characterized him as an “abstruse theorist” and mischaracterized Derrida’s signature intellectual contribution – the interpretive method known as “deconstruction” – as asserting that “all writing was full of confusion and contradiction,” an assessment that, as a group of academics including Derrida’s foremost interlocutor Gayatri Chakrovarty Spivak noted in a written response, was “as mean-spirited as it [was] uninformed.”

The same pattern is now repeating itself following the death of the historian Bernard Bailyn on August 7, 2020 – this time as genuine farce. Now, the giant is being valorized rather than derided, but the basic tactic is the same: to capitalize on the death of an intellectual celebrity to attack critical approaches in his field. A Harvard professor, Bailyn was a giant in the study of early American history: the winner of two Pulitzer Prizes and the National Humanities Medal (among many well-deserved economiums), his work – and especially his 1967 book, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution – reshaped the study of the American Revolution by pointing to the significance of the revolutionaries’ rhetoric and ideas, not simply their economic self-interest, as foundational to their political mobilization against the British empire. Bailyn also played a signature role in broadening the geographical definitions of “early America” to encompass the entire “Atlantic world,” including the Caribbean, and West Africa, spending much of the latter part of his career helping to replace the path-dependence of proto-nationalist approaches to the American past with what he described as one that emphasized a vision of “early American” history as “not the aggregate of several national histories, but something shared by and encompassing them all.”

For cultural conservatives, however, Bailyn’s utility lies not within the towering scholarly legacy he leaves behind – comprising over 20 books which he wrote or edited, a plethora of influential articles, and a flock of former graduate students who have become leading historians, teachers, and mentors in their own right. Instead, the Right wants to weaponize a caricatured Bailyn-as-culture warrior so they can expel him as cannon fodder in their long standing war on higher education and academic freedom. The current skirmish sees them invoke Bailyn as a counterexample to current scholarly approaches that emphasize the importance of the enslavement and exploitation of African and African-descendent peoples to the making of the United States, and which have recently been popularized through the New York Times’ 1619 Project. Writing for the National Review, Richard Brookheiser lionized Bailyn and other historians of his generation, notably Edmund Morgan and Douglas Adair, as heroes who “kept” the “quadrant” of the American founding “safe from the storms of theory that battered the other humanities in the Seventies and later.” According to David Boaz of the Cato Institute, Bailyn’s accomplishment was to demonstrate the consistency of the American founders with the think tank’s mission by showing that they held a “deeply libertarian view of the world.” And Craig Bruce Smith at The Spectator has called for historians to “finish” Bailyn’s “historical revolution” by rejecting “neo-Marxist revisionism” and “activist history” in favor of the “scholarly objectivity” the late historian purportedly expounded.

This opportunistic caricaturing of a leading historian’s vast and complex body of scholarship aligns perfectly with the reactionary effort to cancel critically engaged understandings of the American past, but poorly with Bailyn’s own far more nuanced vision of historical practice. Bailyn himself was often besieged by radical historians – most notably Jesse Lemisch, who in a 1977 polemic assailed Bailyn as interpreting the past from within a “bunker” of “celestial neutrality.” But Bailyn’s own views on historical interpretation were notably more complex and, indeed, very much in alliance with the current scholarly approaches against which he has been posited by right-wing hagiographers. For one, although conservatives are now holding him up as somehow anti-Marxist, Bailyn himself admired the powerful possibilities for a synthetic understanding of the past that lay in Marxist methods. “Whatever our approach to history happens to be,” he argued in his 1981 presidential address to the American Historical Association, “we are all Marxists in the sense of assuming that history is profoundly shaped by underlying economic or “material” configurations and by people’s responses to them.” EP Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm, and the generations of historians who have followed in their footsteps would have concurred.

Bostonians Paying the Excise-Man (Wikimedia Commons)

Conservatives have also caricatured Bailyn as standing athwart leftwing cultural “theory,” yelling “Stop,” at a time when no other historian was supposedly inclined to protect the discipline from its “attack” on humanistic scholarship after the Second World War. But Bailyn himself embraced this ostensible bogeyman. Indeed, Bailyn’s conception of the American Revolution as having “ideological” origins in the first place reflected his debts to the theoretical vocabulary of another field – anthropology. His interest in “ideology” stemmed from the deep intellectual play that Bailyn and many other postwar historians engaged in with the writings of the anthropologist Clifford Geertz. Geertz’s emphasis on the importance of mental structures to explain why people behaved as they did deeply inspired the historian Bailyn’s own investigations into the “otherwise inchoate social and political discontent” that – crystallized into “an integrated set of values, beliefs, attitudes, and responses” to present conditions – was transformed into “concerted resistance” aimed at making another world possible in the British empire in the 1760s and 1770s. Far from a purist, Bailyn championed methodological ecumenicalism, finding in other disciplines much that was good to think with about history.

Conservative commentators also face a challenge when confronted with Bailyn’s late career efforts to undermine nationalist accounts of the American past. Smith writes in the Spectator that Bailyn was “one of the leading proponents of transnational Atlantic World history, which looks at interactions between Europe, Africa and the Americas” – an accurate statement, but one that does not accord well with the critiques lobbed by other conservatives against it. Writing in The Weekly Standard in 2005, Gordon Wood, one of Bailyn’s most distinguished doctoral students, lamented that by embracing less path-dependent and more geographically expansive accounts of the early American past, scholars were “losing [their] way” by “no longer concentrate[ing] exclusively on the origins of the United States,” and instead decamping to purportedly disconnected topics like “mestizos in 16th-century colonial Peru, patriarchal rule in post-revolutionary Montreal, the early life of Toussaint Louverture, and slaves in 16th-century Castile.” The paradox, of course, is that as the leading exponent of Atlantic world history, Bailyn inspired and nurtured much of the geographically expansive work that conservatives decry, most notably through the “International Seminar on the History of the Atlantic World,” which he founded and led at Harvard University beginning in 1996.

By invoking Bailyn the caricature as an exemplar that we should “go back to” by abandoning approaches to the past that emphasize race, gender, and sexuality as mere fashion, the Right actually rejects Bailyn the historian’s vision of intellectual innovation. Juxtapositions, such as the one drawn by the Wall Street Journal editorial page between Bailyn and “activist historians today,” miss his true contribution, which was to always push the discipline forward and seize upon the rich opportunities provided by new questions – whether those derived from other disciplines or from within his own. He animated change, not stasis. As Bailyn himself once remarked, “twenty years from now kinds of history will be published that we haven’t yet thought of, things which students will conceive, write, and publish that will supersede what we’ve managed to do.” The best way to honor Bernard Bailyn is to embrace this radical, forward-looking spirit.

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