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Bernard Bailyn dies at 97; his research changed how scholars view the American Revolution

Dr. Bailyn (pictured in 2003) started teaching at Harvard University in 1949.JULIA MALAKIE/AP/file

Bernard Bailyn, whose writings on Colonial and Revolutionary America made him one of the nation’s most influential and esteemed historians, died Friday at his home in Belmont. He was 97.

His wife, Lotte, told The New York Times the cause was heart failure.

Dr. Bailyn was Adams University Professor at Harvard, where he had taught since 1949. A university professorship is Harvard’s highest academic designation.

He twice won the Pulitzer Prize for history, for “The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution” (1967) and “Voyagers to the West: A Passage in the Peopling of America on the Eve of the Revolution (1986). He also won the National Book Award, for “The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson” (1974).


No stranger to prizes, Dr. Bailyn kept a refreshingly casual attitude toward them. After winning the Bancroft Prize (which carried an award of $4,000) for “Origins,” he called the honor “a nice surprise all around, and a nice bundle of cabbage.”

It is a mark of Dr. Bailyn’s range that “Origins” is a work of intellectual history, “Voyagers” of social history,” and “Hutchinson” a biography. And Dr. Bailyn’s first book, “The New England Merchants in the Seventeenth Century” (1955), is a work of economic history.

Asked in a 1991 Globe interview about refusing to pigeonhole himself, Dr. Bailyn said, “I’m trying to give an account in various ways of the emergence of modern America out of a very different past, and there’s no simple approach to it.”

The title of a 1991 collection of essays by some of his former graduate students, “The Transformation of Early American History: Society, Authority, and Ideology,” indicates both the depth and extent of Dr. Bailyn’s impact on his field. In that volume, Brown University’s Gordon S. Wood wrote, “few if any American historians in the modern era of professional history-writing have dominated their particular subject of specialization to the degree that Bailyn has dominated early American history.”


Indeed, one sign of Dr. Bailyn’s dominance is that, of the more than 70 PhDs he trained, three went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for history: Wood, Michael Kammen, and Jack N. Rakove.

The son of Charles Manuel Bailyn and Esther (Schloss) Bailyn, Bernard Bailyn was born on Sept. 10, 1922, in Hartford and grew up there. As a boy, he was called “Buddy.” The nickname, shortened to “Bud,” stayed with him in adulthood.

Dr. Bailyn studied literature and philosophy at Williams College, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in 1945. He interrupted his undergraduate education to serve in the Army during World War II.

Dr. Bailyn entered graduate school, at Harvard, in 1946. Before arriving in Cambridge, he wrote down three areas of interest that would shape his studies. “The first was the relation between European and American life. The second was the transition between the pre-modern and modern worlds, a period of history close enough to the modern world to show palpable continuities between past and present but distant enough for effective historical perspective. And the third was the interplay between social history and cultural or intellectual history.”

Dr. Bailyn’s mentor as a graduate student was the famed social historian Oscar Handlin. Earning his master’s degree in 1947 and doctorate in 1953, Dr. Bailyn became an instructor at Harvard in 1949. He quickly ascended the academic ladder, becoming an assistant professor in 1953, a tenured associate professor in 1958, and full professor in 1966. He was accorded university professor status in 1981. Among other visiting teaching positions, he served in 1986-87 as Pitt professor of American history at Cambridge University.


Dr. Bailyn married Lotte (Lazarsfeld) Bailyn in 1952. The daughter of the pioneering sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld, she taught for many years at MIT’s Sloan School of Management and collaborated with her husband on his second book, “Massachusetts Shipping, 1697-1714” (1959).

Dr. Bailyn’s best-known and most influential book remains “Origins.” Drawing on scores of political pamphlets published during the years prior to the Revolution, it argues that conflict with England owed far more to political than economic or other causes. A year later, Dr. Bailyn published “The Origins of American Politics,” further elaborating on this view.

Dr. Bailyn, poking fun at Prince Charles of Wales during the 350th Harvard University Convocation at Harvard Yard in Cambridge in 1986. Frank O'Brien/Globe Staff/file

Starting in the mid-‘70s, Dr. Bailyn devoted himself to a vast project examining immigration to Canada and the 13 colonies in the years before the Revolution. “Voyagers to the West” was a product of that research, as were “The Peopling of British North America: An Introduction” (1986) and “The Barbarous Years: The Peopling of British North America: The Conflict of Civilizations, 1600-1675” (2012).

A past president of the American Historical Association, Dr. Bailyn was awarded the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Jefferson Medal in 1998. That year he was chosen to deliver the first in a series of millennium lectures at the White House. In 2000, the Society of American Historians awarded him its Bruce Catton Prize for lifetime achievement in the writing of history. He was also author of “To Begin the World Anew: The Genius and Ambiguities of the American Founders” (2003 ), “Atlantic History: Concept and Contours” (2006), “Sometimes an Art: Nine Essays on History” (2015), and “Illuminating History: A Retrospective of Seven Decades,” published earlier this year. In 2010, he was awarded a National Humanities Medal.


Though very much an academic historian, Dr. Bailyn felt history should include as its audience the educated layperson as well as the scholar. He was one of several authors of a popular college textbook, “The Great Republic” (1977), and edited a two-volume collection of contemporary documents on ratification, “Debate on the Constitution” (1993), for the Library of America.

President Obama presented a National Humanities Medal to Dr. Bailyn during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in 2011.Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP/file

“I think every historian has an obligation to reach out to a general public,” Dr. Bailyn said in that 1991 Globe interview, “because the purpose of the whole effort is to make a culture aware of its origins and developments.”

In addition to his wife, Dr. Bailyn leaves two sons, Charles, of New Haven, and John, of Brooklyn, N.Y., and two granddaughters. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, no service is planned.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mark.feeney@globe.com.