I wandered into Professor Bailyn’s graduate seminar in the fall of 1969, with little initial interest in early American history. I planned to work on 20th-century history, but Frank Freidel, a great New Deal historian, suggested that I take Bailyn’s seminar instead. It was the best academic advice anyone ever gave me. The reading we did in that seminar had something to do with early American history—but not that much. The one text we read that had anything to do with the law was Lord Denning’s report on the Profumo scandal of 1963, which we read primarily to learn something about the use of adjectives. Another text that could qualify as legal history was Oscar and Mary Handlins’ essay on the “Origins of the Southern Labor System,” but the discussion of that focused on deciphering the causal mechanism that relegated African workers to the novel status of chattel slaves.
In truth (as I noted at Bailyn’s memorial service in late October) the real point of his legendary seminar was to teach us to think about problems of historical exposition, broadly considered, and not the field itself. But there was a research paper to write, and at that first meeting Bailyn presented us with a list of research topics he had scratched out. I took “early uses of The Federalist,” a text I am still working on a half-century later, having just co-edited The Cambridge Companion to The Federalist, (a book whose publishing history proved yet again that no good deed goes unpunished).
Bailyn’s own main interest in legal history was mainly concerned with constitutional topics. A few of his students obviously became major legal historians: Stan Katz, Bill Nelson, David Konig, and Jim Kettner (who I fondly remember sitting daily in the big reading room in Widener library). But legal history in the more conventional sense of the term was not one of Bailyn’s main interests. The real value legal historians can derive from Bailyn’s work comes not from his views of our field per se, but from finding other sources of inspiration in his writings.
Let’s start with his most famous book, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, whose fiftieth anniversary was celebrated at a conference at the Yale Humanities Center in 2017. Bailyn built upon the pioneering work that Edmund Morgan had done a decade earlier in his work on the Stamp Act crisis, demonstrating how quickly American constitutional ideas had matured. But to this emphasis on their role in the great imperial controversy, Bailyn added two further interpretive elements. The more obvious one related to the role of Radical Whig or Commonwealth or ideology in driving the colonists from constitutional argument to political action by providing a compelling explanation of the insidious motives driving British decisions. The second and more subtle interpretation involved tracing the ways in which the imperial controversy spurred Americans to recognize how characteristics of their own societies that seemed to be “defects—isolation, institutional simplicity, primitiveness of manners, multiplicity of religions, weakness in the authority of the state—could now be seen as virtues” (160), inspiring a reconsideration of essential aspects of American life.
Yet as Bailyn’s recollections at the Yale conference made clear, there was another grand theme that had driven his work. It was, he told us, the palpable fear of unchecked, arbitrary, potentially tyrannical power that lurked everywhere in colonial political thinking and which also appeared elsewhere in eighteenth-century culture, notably, he suggested, in Piranesi’s “most famous etchings, the sixteen nightmarish, hallucinatory scenes of wildly imagined prisons, the Carceri—deep, gargantuan, cavernous and darkly threatening spaces with sweeping ranges of staircases and platforms that lead nowhere, soaring ropes of heavy chains, spiked wheels, and racks,” all conveying a raw “sense of the brutality of power.” As his teaching assistant, I recall how Bailyn loved showing these slides to his Harvard undergraduates, who may have struggled a bit to grasp the implications he ascribed to these etchings (or for that matter, to Samuel Richardson’s novel Pamela, which he also saw as a study in power). But if you knew his continued interest in the workings of totalitarian regimes and anything about his wartime assignment to the Army Security Service, you understood why the concern with arbitrary power that he ascribed to the eighteenth-century colonists reflected, in some discreet but potent way, a deeper commitment with a profoundly moral dimension rooted in his own times.
This concern with power also figured in other ways in his writing. History was Sometimes an Art, to take the title of another one of his collections of essays. One facet of his own artistic genius was to find documents that were particularly illuminating, starting with The Apologia of Robert Keayne, the subject of his first publication. His last book, Illuminating History, is a memoir documenting this process with an array of other examples.
For legal historians, the single best illustration of this process appears in The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson, the book I regard as Bailyn’s best book though not his most important. Here Bailyn describes a remarkable manuscript, entitled “A Dialogue between Europe and America,” that Hutchinson wrote, probably in 1768. In this manuscript, which Bailyn later published in Perspectives in American History (lamentably not available online), Hutchinson explored the limits of civic obedience, the boundary between law and morality, and the ultimate danger that an appeal to revolutionary authority would entail. In his brilliant sketch, Hutchinson was the first to grasp “that persistence in the claims of a moral basis for resistance must end in revolution,” and that revolution, if successful, would lay a foundation for a new set of civic commitments and institutions alike. Hutchinson, in Bailyn’s account, was not only America’s leading Loyalist but in certain respects the Revolution’s greatest loser, and the pathos of his final London exile brings this brilliant psychological biography to its moving and tragic conclusion. Bernard Bailyn was the most brilliant, influential, and intellectually cosmopolitan American historian of the past century, arguably its greatest narrative artist, and, in his curiosity, the youngest historian I have ever know, even at age 97.