LONDON--They had Harvard night at the American Embassy here in early November. Bernard Bailyn, Winthrop Professor of American History, was in town to lecture to a crowd of several hundred in connection with the traveling exhibit, "Franklin and Jefferson," now at the British Museum.
"I will not demean the previous lecturers in this series by saying that we have saved the best for last," said Charles R. Ritcheson (Graduate School of Arts and Sciences 1947-48), cultural attache to the American Embassy in London.
"But it gives me great pleasure to introduce a man who is such a great ornament to the history department at my university, which is also the Ambassador's alma mater."
Elliot L. Richardson '41, Ambassador to the Court of St. James and Secretary of Commerce designate, "unfortunately could not appear" to introduce Bailyn as planned. That morning a picture of Richardson beamed from the center of page one of The Times (of London). Its caption referred to an article on page eight: "Overseas--Mr. Elliot Richardson says he has no Ambition to Stand for United States VicePresidency."
Bailyn followed Ritcheson's lead and introduced his lecture with extended witticisms about Harvard's role in British-American relations. The predominantly British audience responded with polite laughter, straining to understand the humor.
Soon, however, Bailyn's delightfully revealing historical vignettes forced the Redcoats to surrender their traditional reserve. Bailyn first told the story of an unruly English lad, sent by his parents to America and Harvard in hopes that he would straighten himself out. George Downing, Class of 1645, who returned to England as an adult, did go on to make his name here but never fully reformed. Bailyn noted that the Encyclopedia Britannica, rarely a source of exaggerated rhetoric, stepped out of character to say of Downing: "His character was marked by treachery, servility and ingratitude." The Britannica went on to report that a "George Downing" became a proverbial expression in New England to denote a false man who betrayed his trust. Downing Street, where the Prime Minister lives, was named for this Harvard man in what Bailyn termed a payoff for his political betrayal of Richard Cromwell.
Bailyn also explained how upstart Harvard figured in the "contamination of the idea of American history" at Cambridge University. Leading lights there decided not to create a chair of American History and even refused funds offered for that purpose. (The thorn in the offer was that Harvard would select the scholar to fill the chair.)
Moving from the extemporaneous to his prepared text, Bailyn marched with flourish through his theory of the roots and growth of the Revolution. He pointed out the absence of revolutionary intent at the outset of the movement for constitutional and legal reform in the colonies, and stressed that "it was not even a bourgeois revolution." It grew out of no social challenge and presented no assault on established values, he said.
He stressed the continuity of British and American liberal thought, and said that the Revolution put into effect reforms that were idealized in Britain but could never have been enacted there. This "transforming effect of the American Revolution," Bailyn said, for years dominated and fired the lives of patriots he alternately termed "giddy," "able," "brilliant" and "enthusiastic." He waxed eloquent in expounding his vision of the continuing American Revolution, which, he concluded, had transformed the United States "incrementally" up to the present day.
As applause thundered from the audience, Bailyn walked across the stage, took a seat between the British and American flags, and settled back as Ritcheson, in the tradition of British toastmasters, extolled his presentation. Then the British gambit. "Professor Bailyn has kindly agreed to answer a few questions," Ritcheson delicately offered.
A pin-striped gentleman rose to his feet. "Sir!" he intoned. "Would you say that the new American institutions that you have so carefully described took the place of the established church which you Americans chose to eliminate--so that your Supreme Court became a kind of papacy?"
The audience cheered.
Bailyn crossed his legs and said he had never considered this view, paused, and said the question went beyond the scope of his lecture. A fluent few sentences more satisfied the audience, if not the questioner.
"From what you have said, wouldn't one be forced to conclude," a second voice queried, "that this revolution of yours was in fact a British Revolution in America?" (Flurry of whispers.)
"If you like," Bailyn observed. He reaffirmed his earlier point about the impossibility of similar reform in Britain. "But if you like," he allowed.