Peter Charles Hoffer: Reflections on Bernard Bailyn

Peter Charles Hoffer is Distinguished Research Professor in the History Department at The University of Georgia.  Hoffer’s most recent work includes Past Imperfect: Facts, Fictions, and Fraud in the Writing of American History (PublicAffairs, 2004); Seven Fires: The Urban Infernos that Reshaped American History (PublicAfairs, 2006); The Brave New World: A History of Early America (Johns Hopkins, 2007); The Supreme Court: An Essential History (Kansas, 2007); The Treason Trials of Aaron Burr (Kansas, 2008); and The Historian’s Paradox: A Philosophy of History for Our Times (NYU, 2008). In 2010, Cry Liberty, his book length essay on the Stono Rebellion appeared from Oxford University Press, and his Nation of Laws: America’s Incomplete Search for Justice was published by Kansas. In 2011, Kansas released his Free Press Crisis of 1800: The Trial of Thomas Cooper for Seditious Libel. Johns Hopkins published his When Benjamin Franklin Met the Reverend George Whitefield: Revivalism, Enlightenment, and the Power of the Printed Word in Early America in its Witness to History series in 2012 and his Prelude to Revolution:The Salen Gunpowder Raid of 1775 in 2014. In that year, NYU Press published his Clio Among the Muses: Essays on History and the Humanities. In 2015, Oxford University Press released his Benjamin Franklin Explains the Stamp Act Crisis to Parliament, 1766. In 2016, the University Press of Kansas released his Rutgers v. Waddington: Alexander Hamilton, The End of the War for Independence, and the Origins of Judicial Review. Later in that year, his co-authored The Federal Courts: An Essential History came out from Oxford University Press. In 2017, his John Quincy Adams and the Gag Rule, 1835-1850 appeared from the Johns Hopkins University Press. In 2018, his Uncivil Warriors: The Lawyers Civil War, from Oxford; The Clamor of Lawyers: The American Revolution and the Crisis in the Legal Profession, from Cornell; and a new edition of his The Supreme Court: An Essential History appeared. He awaits publication of his Searching for Justice: Lawyers in the Civil Rights Era, 1950-1975, from Chicago, in 2019. Hoffer has won the Choice “Outstanding Academic Title” award four times, in 1991, 1992, 2005, and 2008.

I am grateful to Gautham Rao for the chance to write some recollections of Bernard Bailyn. Can it be said that a nonagenerian passed away suddenly? Well, that is what it felt like—for somehow I assumed that he would always be there, a benign and awesome presence whose shadow fell over the whole of early American studies.  

I did not become a legal historian because of Bernard Bailyn, rather in spite of him. He was my advisor from 1965 to 1970, and the first edition of his Ideological Origins regarded the legal references in his subjects’ works as “window dressing.” (As I recall it was one of his introduction’s marvelous footnotes, assembled from bits and pieces of a wide variety of sources.) Of course he was wrong. Most of the authors of his pamphlets were lawyers, and they made their living with that very sort of window dressing. In my Law and People in the American Colonies’ first edition, in 1992, I spent the final chapter trying to refute him. At a meeting of the ASLH shortly thereafter, Mary Bilder came up to me, introduced herself, and said, “Bailyn said you were right.” (She may remember it differently, but I prefer my version). But I’m still trying to refute him—for example in The Clamor of Lawyers, (2018) a book that my son Williamjames and I wrote.  

Bailyn was a formidable presence in my professional education, not because he was the endearing, supportive mentor that one often reads about in scholars’ memoirs. I think that the introductory biographical essay in the Bailyn festschrift gave him a pass by saying “when it came to ‘direct’ [dissertation] however, he didn’t. Or not exactly. He achieved a delicate balance between detachment and cordial support.”  I don’t think we met more than four or five times to discuss my work on early American historians. But when I was the only American history teaching fellow to go on strike and meet my students off campus, he was both cordial and supportive. Other members of the Harvard faculty who shall go nameless were not so cordial or supportive.  

But I always wanted to impress him. I can recall walking down the long row of seminar tables in Bailyn’s study in Widener, the tables piled with manuscripts, toward his desk against the far wall, not exactly trembling, but girding myself for the inevitable, “Peter, what’s the news.” I am told by others that in seminar he would sit through a presentation and then ask, “so what?” Of course, when I decided to work with him, it was after he had sent a cohort of giants into the world—Stan Katz, both Peter Wood and Gordon Wood, Phil Greven, Mike Zuckerman, and Mike Kammen. Who could match them? Well, Pauline Maier and Mary Beth Norton my contemporaries, and Jack Rakove, Peter Mancall, Fred Anderson, and Eric Hinderaker among others who came after me, were not exactly chopped liver. I regularly sent him copies of my publications after I figured out how to write a book, and he regularly responded with short and kindly notes. I think he was much more comfortable writing than in face to face engagements.  

He was not a legal historian per se, but surely his work is a standard in every constitutional history bibliography. I cannot find an index item for “law” in the enlarged edition of the Ideological Origins of the American Revolution or in his Origins of American Politics, although the subject matter of both lends itself to legal history and the books are full of lawyers talking about law. His collection of documents on ratification demonstrated a respect for lawyers, thinking like lawyers, that was absent in the earlier work. As he wrote in the “Preface” to the Debate on the Ratification of the Constitution (1992) “the framers assumed, without even saying so, that beyond everything else a free state required for its survival, lay respect for the law and for the courts that enforced it. Many of the founders were lawyers…they know how difficult impartial adherence to the law could be…and nothing is more revealing in their respect for law and the courts than the speech with which states moved to reinstitute in republican terms the legal systems they had known.” Maybe this was what Mary Bilder had heard in her seminar, because it sounds a lot like the final chapter of Law and People.  

I believe that he thought historical methods were very important for teaching about and writing about legal history, and wished that legal historians had some historical training. I recall walking across Harvard Yard with Bailyn in winter of 1786-1787, he coming back from lecturing on the Constitution at the law school where I was a Liberal Arts fellow. He was genuinely astounded that the folks teaching constitutional law there did not seem to care much about the history of the ratification. (A few weeks later, walking with Mort Horwitz across the same grounds, I was amused to hear him say that he did not think much of the constitutional history we were putting out.)  

A final, sigh, recollection of our departed mentor: when Natalie (N. E. H.) Hull was teaching at Rutgers Camden Law School and I stole away from Athens to be with her, I would go to the meetings of the McNeil Center for Early American Studies. One of these sessions introduced the Penn program in Atlantic Studies, and Bailyn was the inaugural speaker. I was sitting outside the lecture hall before the beginning of the session eating a sandwich, and Bailyn walked in, unescorted, looked at me, and asked, “what the hell are you doing here.” And I said, “I have come to hear you speak.” This dismayed him somewhat, I think, and he retreated by asking me what I was working on. Back to my orals! Typical Bailyn. 

I never called him “Bud,” which to my mind would have been disrespectful. Richard Dunn, whose favors to me exceed my ability to repay, was nonplussed by this. When he asked why, I explained that for me he was always Professor Bailyn.