Posted: August 6, 2013
hen I was an undergraduate at Harvard I attended a couple of lectures in Bernard Bailyn's course on colonial American history. Bailyn was a careful and fluent lecturer, but I decided not to take the course. I just wasn't comfortable with that part of American history, with no regular political landmarks—no congressional elections every two years, no presidential elections every four. I felt I couldn't make sense of the seeming chaos of the colonies. All of which is evidence that higher education is wasted on undergraduates—or at least on this undergraduate.
In the years since, I have come to appreciate and to read colonial history, not least the brilliant work produced by Bailyn, which had me soon regretting that I had not taken his course. Beginnings matter, and to understand American history—to understand America—you have to understand at least something of the colonial period. After all, it took 180 years to get from Jamestown to the Constitutional Convention, almost as many as the 226 years from the convention to today. The cultural and political folkways of the different colonies have persisted in various ways and through various transformations from the days of the early republic to our own.
One thing that is interesting about the trajectory of Bailyn's long career—he got his Ph.D. in 1953 and his new book, The Barbarous Years, was published after he turned 90—is that he has moved from studying the most sophisticated, worldly colonial Americans to studying something like their opposites. His first books were on the New England merchants of the 18th century, on the Tory governor of Massachusetts Thomas Hutchinson, and on the ideological origins of the American Revolution. In the last three decades he has turned to studying, in vivid detail and with statistical evidence that he has ingeniously mustered, the ordinary people who came over to the North American colonies from the British Isles and elsewhere. At the end of his 1986 book The Peopling of British North America: An Introduction, he ponders the
mingling of primitivism and civilization, however transitory stage by stage, [which] was an essential part of early American culture.... What did it mean to Jefferson, slave owner and philosophe, that he grew up in this far western borderland world of Britain, looking out from Queen Anne rooms of spare elegance onto a wild, uncultivated land? We can only grope to understand.
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The Barbarous Years can be seen as an elegant groping to understand the earliest settlers of the British North American colonies and the indigenous peoples they found, infected, and fought there. It is informed by the plenteous scholarship of the last half-century (much of it written by his own students), which Bailyn seems to have entirely mastered. The Peopling of British North America: The Conflict of Civilizations, 1600-1675 is his subtitle and he begins with a generalizing chapter on the North American Indians. Some readers may bristle (wrongly, I think) at his characterizing their culture as a civilization; these peoples had adapted to and shaped their environment in ways that deserve respectful attention if not the partisan championship that some historians have given them. Bailyn clearly sees them as barbarous in important respects, but he also sees that the British and European settlers often behaved barbarously, too. They were all attempting to do difficult things, after all. Settling North America or maintaining a way of life there was difficult for all concerned.
Bailyn combines lucid, even luscious prose with vast swarming detail, with many deft character sketches and several deep investigations of colonial leaders. He seems to try to put himself in their place, to imagine the world as they saw it, just as he imagined Thomas Jefferson looking out his paned windows toward the wilderness not far away. The book concentrates on the major areas of settlement—the Chesapeake colonies of Virginia and Maryland, the Hudson and Delaware River colonies of the Dutch and Swedes, the New England colonies settled by Pilgrims and Puritans. He is most respectful of the founders William Bradford of Plymouth and John Winthrop of Massachusetts Bay, men whose sensibilities and hopes are most sympathetic to our own, and recounts with sadness how their hopes ended in failure. He does not flinch at the brutality and stupidity of some of the leaders of Virginia and New York. We see murders, massacres, maimings, torture. At the same time Bailyn seems to know many of these people personally; he explains how Roger Williams, even as he was thrown out of every New England community for his heterodoxy, nevertheless seemed always to charm his contemporaries.
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Bailyn makes a point of showing that the different colonies were settled by men and (fewer) women from many parts of England and the British Isles. This marks an obvious contrast with David Hackett Fischer's 1989 book, Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in North America, which argues that Virginians came mainly from the West Country of England and New Englanders mainly from East Anglia and that their colonies' cultures reflected their regions of origin. But this may just reflect different angles of vision. Fischer is making generalizations based on statistics over multiple generations. Bailyn uses his statistics to paint a pointillist picture, of many individuals from many places, within shorter periods of time. But he allows that at the end of his period the different colonies were taking on a homogeneous cast.
Bailyn reminds us as well that colonial America was part of an Atlantic world. We tend to assume that colonial settlers and later immigrants left their homelands forever behind. But in fact many settlers returned whence they came; ideas and arguments were exchanged across the ocean, not as rapidly as by e-mail, but regularly and with consequences. The Virginians and the New Englanders looked nervously back at England lest their autonomy be threatened by the defeat of their respective royalist and republican champions jousting for power in the English Civil War. New England thronged with settlers in the 1630s as King Charles I and Archbishop Laud persecuted the Puritans; Virginia and Maryland thronged with settlers when Oliver Cromwell's troops defeated the king in the 1640s and established a republican government in the 1650s. Nieuw Amsterdam was taken from the Dutch when the Duke of York, later James II, launched an attack in 1664 (New York, though few New Yorkers know it, was named for the king who was later ousted from power in the Glorious Revolution of 1688).
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That takes us past Bailyn's time period. At the end of his chapters we see the glimmerings of the more civilized colonial America he concentrated on in his earlier career. The New England merchants are going to sea, setting up three- and four-legged trading voyages to Britain, the Caribbean and, yes, Africa. The great Virginia planter families are consolidating their holdings and setting up the autonomous hierarchical republic which, like New England, would in the 1770s rebel against taxes and limits imposed by king and Parliament. New York is, well, New York—messy, polyglot, quarrelsome, where a few clever men make great fortunes. We are denied other glimmerings of the future by the cutoff date of 1675. We don't get Bailyn's take on the Carolina colony, founded by the Earl of Shaftesbury with a constitution endorsing slavery written by his physician/philosopher-in-residence, John Locke. We are denied a glimpse at William Penn, the Quaker who wangled a charter for Pennsylvania from King Charles II who owed a favor to Penn's admiral father. Was he a thoughtful philosopher like Bradford or Winthrop, or a manipulative courtier as some other historians have suggested?
Perhaps we will see. Bailyn is 90 now, but The Barbarous Years is written with an energy and assuredness that shows him in full grasp of his powers. Jacques Barzun's From Dawn to Decadence (2000) was published when the author was 93. Perhaps we yet can hope for The Civilizing Years from Bernard Bailyn.