Bernard Bailyn Makes an Art of the Writing of History
He’s collected every award a historian can win, and yet he confronts his subject with a keen and humble awareness of how much we can never know about our past.
Bernard Bailyn, professor emeritus of history at Harvard, recipient of the Pulitzer and Bancroft prizes, a winner of the National Book Award, the author of seminal works on the cultural and intellectual history of America’s colonial and Revolutionary periods, could certainly not be faulted for taking a victory lap in this collection based on his lectures and writings over more than 60 years. Instead, the persona that presides in these nine extraordinary essays is one of humility at the daunting limitations of seeking to re-create the past, “a different world” whose contours and texture are elusive if not illusory. This volume is a testament to the craft of the historian by someone who has spent a lifetime working at what he acknowledges is “never a science,’’ but can be “sometimes an art,’’ the title, and theme, of this book.
Each one of the essays in Sometimes an Art has been carefully selected to consider a problem confronting the historian in making sense of the past and conveying it to the reader in a cohesive narrative, which itself may alter the messy, inchoate, and confusing reality that forms the raw stuff of history. We read history with the benefit of hindsight, which the participants lacked. Knowing the outcome, Bailyn writes, “we try to describe the path from then to now’’ that appears inevitable to us, but we can never fully recapture the uncertainty of subjects who were not privy to our knowledge.
In a fascinating section on “Context in History,” Bailyn warns against “the optical illusion” that results from studying the past with reference to the present. He introduces us to Herbert Butterfield, a contrarian of the past century—one of a remarkable cast of characters peopling this book—who in his 1931 “Whig Interpretation of History” took to task historians of inevitability who sought “to extract from complex, ambiguous contexts of the past the seeds of future outcomes.” His foils were the 19th Century English Whig historians who saw a chain of progress from antecedents in the Reformation to the pinnacle of 19th Century British liberalism. In this endeavor, they acclaimed Martin Luther as a harbinger of religious toleration. Butterfield pointed out that Luther was no more tolerant than the pope and that toleration arose gradually. It is this gradualism—arduous, precarious, spasmodic—always harkening to the past, that Bailyn evokes. We are told that Copernicus’s celestial theory was only a modification of the Ptolemaic system; that William Harvey, while demonstrating the empirical truths of blood circulation also believed in vital spirits, and that Isaac Newton dabbled in alchemy.
The challenge for the historian, as Bailyn presents it, is to seek the past as it actually was. But the very ordinary circumstances of those who lived it went unremarked, and thereby unrecorded, because they were so commonplace: the mundane discomforts of vermin and clothing, the ubiquitous public squalor, the immediacy of illness and death. “We cannot experience what they experienced in the way they experienced it,” Bailyn writes. At best, we can approximate and, through prodigious research and sympathetic imagination, offer a reasonable, interpretive rendering.
The winners may write history but the author takes cognizance of the losers in his chapter on an American loyalist in the Revolutionary War, Thomas Hutchinson, the subject of an earlier full-length book by Bailyn. Although vilified as a traitor to the Revolution in the aftermath of the war, Hutchinson finally found a sympathetic biographer a century later in the Harvard-educated scholar James K. Hosmer, who saw the loyalists as men “striving to maintain the unity of the English-speaking peoples” and preserve British liberties under the aegis of the empire. With enough distance from the passions of the Revolution, a cottage industry of revisionist history emerged in the Gilded Age that saw the break with England as an “unlucky quarrel.”
In Bailyn’s telling, Hutchinson, the last royal governor of Massachusetts, was a paragon of Puritan rectitude who manifested “stubborn insistence on pursuing the truth however, unpopular.” His aim in politics was “to enforce the law in accepted traditional ways.” Hutchinson’s objection to American independence lay in a belief that Britain’s power extended to its colonies but all of its liberties did not, in contrast to his opponents who argued the opposite. Bailyn considers Hutchinson’s critique to be “accurate, rational, and more logical than what his opponents had staked their lives on.”
One of the delights of this book is that it gathers discordant threads and historical oddments that Bailyn strews throughout his narrative, in a light display of erudition. We learn, for instance, that Thomas Hutchinson received on honorary degree at Oxford on July 4, 1776, and that, in addition to the Declaration of Independence, that year produced other literary fireworks, among them Tom Paine’s Common Sense, Gibbons’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. We discover that during the more than 300 years of the slave trade, rebellions flared on about 10 percent of all slave ships resulting in the deaths of roughly 100,000 people. And we are told that “locusts and other insects in North America sing in the key of C-sharp.’’
In discussing four innovative historians in a chapter on “The Creative Imagination,’’ the author marvels at their “capacity to enrich a whole area of history by redirecting it from established channels into new directions.” Bailyn himself shows this facility in making connections between seemingly unrelated circumstances and demonstrating how such concordances contributed to the outcome of historic events.
In discussing “galaxies of genius,” he compares the thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment with America’s Founders through the common experience of living as provincials on the periphery of the British empire. As distinct from the British nobility, the aspiring classes in both Scotland and America were men of middle-class origins. In Scotland, the Estates Act of 1696 had established a school in every parish. Moreover, the political dislocations of the early 18th century had sent many a son of lesser Scottish noblemen into the trades. In Edinburgh, social and cultural leadership had fallen to the professional classes, most notably lawyers. Contemporaries saw Edinburgh more akin to Boston than London.
In North America, the cultural leaders were merchants and ministers with a good sprinkling of professionals and tradesmen recruited into the flowering of clubs and cultural associations. And even Chesapeake society further south was seen as “a unique bourgeois aristocracy,” far from a leisure class. The benefits of this push-pull between periphery and center produced in Scotland the philosophy of Hume and Adam Smith, in America, the political brilliance of Jefferson, Hamilton, and Madison.
Comparing other imperial peripheries, Bailyn shows why Australia’s Fatal Shore was America’s bountiful one. Although we know that Australia began as a penal colony, we learn that, until the Revolution, North America also absorbed 40,000 convicts transported under British law, approximately the same number as were sent to the Antipodes through 1824. But far from suffering the degradation and punishment meted out in Australia, America’s felons rapidly melded into the general servant population. This was due to no charity on the part of their keepers but rather business exigencies that made it more profitable for private contractors to elide the origins of their charges once they’d landed in American ports. Australia may have been an outdoor prison subject to public control but, harsh as these terms were, they came to an end. This was not the case for chattel slavery in America, which was informed by race, lasted a lifetime, and descended to the slaves’ children in perpetuity.
Bailyn concludes by taking Isaiah Berlin’s warnings against Utopianism out of its European context where it was “a recipe for bloodshed” and transforming it to American soil where it assumes a more populist, benign character. Bailyn traces perfectionist aspirations from Protestant sectarians through Roger Williams to the Quakers and the Amish. The saving grace was that these spiritual questers lacked a monopoly of power. The result was not the totalitarian dystopias of the Old World but a moral striving that influenced our own democracy. Bailyn’s response to Berlin is that there is nothing intrinsically malevolent in Utopias, only in “the fanatical monopolists of power’’ who have appropriated them.
If there is a remonstrance with this collection, it is a complaint that any single one of its nine essays is worth a review in itself. This book would serve as a fitting valedictory for the author’s career and is required reading for anyone interested in the historian’s calling. If history is “sometimes an art,” Bernard Bailyn is surely an artist in its service.
Jack Schwartz formerly supervised the book pages of Newsday and was an editor in the culture section of The New York Times.