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Pulitzer Prize-Winner Offers Lesson in History

For The Heights

Published: Thursday, March 11, 2010

Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 18:01

Bernard Bailyn, a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning historian,and professor of early American history at Harvard University, treated an intimate audience gathered in Fulton Hall Tuesday evening to an unconventional lecture on the context and piecemeal construction of the American Constitution.

 "I am very much interested in the contingencies, accidents, personalities, and timing that play into the outcome of historical events," Bailyn said in his introduction. Bailyn said that the writing and interpretation of the American Constitution was the "perfect example" of the outcome of such a strange mixture of factors, pointing out what he described as the numerous Constitutional accidents, compromises, and contingencies that undermine the modern-day sense of the document's inevitability.

Ken Kersch, director of the Clough Center for the Study of Constitutional Democracy and a  professor in the political science department introduced Bailyn. 

Mary Bilder, a professor in the law school, said that Bailyn boasts an impressive resume that includes two Pulitzer Prizes, a Bancroft prize, and the distinction of being the one-time president of the American Historical Association.

 "Bailyn challenges himself with historical puzzles," Bilder said.  She said that his comprehensive examination of history and sympathy for those in the past made him "the quintessential historian's historian."

Bailyn opened his lecture, titled "How Historians Get it Wrong: The American Constitution, For Example," by discussing the general challenge of chronicling history. "No historian sits on a cosmic perch free from prejudices or interests of his own," Bailyn said. He said that there is a need to understand the context of historical events before examining their ultimate outcome. "We as historians know how it all came out – those in the past couldn't have," he said. After highlighting the American Constitution as an instance of this sort of contingent situation, Bailyn delved into the heart of his lecture, which examined some of the most unexpected, accidental, and flawed moments in the composition of such a revered document.

"Nobody designed the document," Bailyn said. "Nothing about it was inevitable. It was a compound of compromises." Portraying the framers' competing impulses to mitigate centralized government yet somehow secure its power after the failure of the Articles of Confederation, Bailyn highlighted the difficult environment in which "one of the most intense, elevated discussions of ideas ever" took place. He said the ambiguity of the extent of Congress' constitutional power to raise armies was an example of how some problems were simply unsolvable at the time. The delegates, he said, tabled issues like slavery because of the inherent risk of destroying the fragile process of drafting and ratification, hoping that someday the political context would change enough so that the matter could be resolved. Bailyn characterized the constitutional delegates as doing "what they could, satisfying the immediate needs and fears consistent with the issues of the Revolution."

The remainder of the talk centered on a case study of James Madison, through whom "the mix of personality, chance, boldness, and timing that compose the U.S. Constitution," was revealed, Bailyn said. The problem with a Bill of Rights, which Madison initially opposed and then supported in order to ratify the Constitution, gave rise to such moments as John Hancock's hasty recovery from a suspicious illness to push Massachusetts to ratify the document at Madison's urging, "possibly the most important event of the constitutional process," Bailyn said.

The failure of Madison's desire to protect citizens from the power of state governments marked a major flaw in the initial Constitution, only being resolved after the Civil War and the passage of the 14th Amendment establishing equal rights, Bailyn said. "Ironically, [the 14th Amendment] was the most Madisonian element of the Constitution, and he didn't even write it."

"They had no blueprint to follow. They could only seek guidance from the history they knew, and the sense of rights they clung to," Bailyn said, highlighting Madison's transformation from a proponent of government power to the author of the Bill of Rights as a reflection of the indeterminate course of a young nation guided by contingencies and compromises. Following his lecture, Bailyn fielded a variety of questions from students and professors on topics ranging from the 2nd Amendment to the emergence of executive power.

BC's Clough Center for the Study of Constitutional Democracy co-sponsored the event as part of its speaker series, along with the BC Legal History Round Table. "Mary Bilder and I were so delighted that we were able to bring him to BC to deliver his first lecture ever here," Kersch said.

"Professor Bailyn is a very important historian," said Jackie Beatty, A&S '10. "It was a history lecture, but more based on present events than I thought it would be."
"I think he was clear," said Matt Palazzolo, A&S '13. "We take for granted that the Constitution was just going to be ratified. I agree with him that compromises played such a huge role in the process."

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