It is an old chestnut of historical debate, whether and to what extent individuals influence history. Certainly they influence the teaching of history. The death of Bernard Bailyn represents the passing of a cohort of scholars — Edmund Morgan and Douglass Adair were among the others — who revolutionized the teaching of the American founding in the Fifties and Sixties. They did it by taking the ideas of the revolutionary generation seriously, overthrowing the previous paradigm of progressive historians who saw American patriots as motivated by their investments and their balance sheets. Bailyn’s seminal contribution was The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, which says it all: Men think, and sometimes they follow where their thoughts lead. The work of him and his peers kept this quadrant of history safe from the storms of theory that battered the other humanities in the Seventies and later. Those scholars are dead, and even their students are emeritus. Now it looks as if popular interest in the Founding must protect it from the newest wave of leftist disdain.
A special note for NR: Dan Oliver, longtime employee/director/friend of the magazine, took one of Bailyn’s classes when he was a Harvard undergrad. When the topic was Andrew Oliver, the Massachusetts colonial official and Loyalist whose life was upended by the Revolution, Bailyn paused in his lecture to announce that one of Oliver’s descendants was with them in class today. In later years Dan was able to convert his youthful embarrassment into a dining-out anecdote.