A Fox News poll last month found a remarkable share of Americans under age 30 think the country’s founders are better described as “villains” (31%) than “heroes” (39%). This erosion of a unifying national narrative makes more poignant the death Friday of Bernard Bailyn, the most accomplished historian of early America’s dazzling world of ideas.
At 97, Bailyn was a veteran of World War II, a professor emeritus at Harvard, a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner and laureate of the National Humanities Medal. He is most famous for “The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution” (1967), a close reading of hundreds of pamphlets from the 18th century. The book overthrew the early-20th century Progressive view of the revolution, which argued that elite Americans rebelled more out of economic self-interest than to vindicate political ideals.