Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture

Leading Early American Scholarship Since 1943


Memorials: Pauline Maier

Pauline Maier served on the Council of the Omohundro Institute from 1981 to 1984.

Pauline Maier

Photograph courtesy of Andrea Maier

Remembering Pauline Maier

From the obituary published on H-LAW

Pauline Maier, the William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of History at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a leading scholar of the American colonial, revolutionary, and early national periods, died on Monday morning, 12 August 2013, at the age of 75, after a brief illness.

Born on 27 April 1938 in St. Paul, Minnesota, Pauline Rubbelke was educated in local parochial schools. She attended Radcliffe College, where she worked on the Harvard Crimson and, during summers, on the Quincy Patriot-Ledger. Graduating in 1960 with a B.A. in history and literature, she was a Fulbright Scholar at the London School of Economics and Political Science. During her time in England, she met a fellow scholar, Charles S. Maier; the two married after completing their studies.

The Maiers returned to Harvard to pursue graduate work in history. Though Pauline Maier at first intended to study modern urban history, she enrolled in the famed “Colonial and Revolutionary America” seminar taught by Bernard Bailyn and, as she later observed, “Once you get into the eighteenth century, you never get out.” Bailyn became her graduate mentor, and she received her Ph.D. in 1968.

Maier taught at the University of Massachusetts – Boston from 1968 to 1976, and at the University of Wisconsin-Madison from 1976 to 1977. In 1977, she joined the history faculty of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she taught for the rest of her career, becoming the William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of History.

Beside a profusion of articles and two history textbooks, Maier’s principal scholarly work comprises four distinguished, influential, and well-crafted books published between 1972 and 2010.

From Resistance to Revolution: Colonial Radicals and the Development of American Opposition to Britain, 1765-1776 (1972), showcased the hallmarks of all of Maier’s books—igorous research in a wide and deep array of primary sources, command of the existing historical scholarship, and an emphasis on the interactions among levels of political thought and action not confined to recognized elite leaders who were the traditional subjects of historical research.

The Old Revolutionaries; Political Lives in the Age of Samuel Adams (1980), was based on the Anson Phelps lectures that she delivered at New York University. She wrote this engaging and incisive book, which presented a set of five biographies of key figures in the revolutionary movement, to explore the human dimension of the decision to join the movement for independence.

American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence (1997), won recognition as one of the finest and most illuminating studies of the origins of the Declaration and its intellectual and political significance. In particular, Maier traced with great care the relationship between the many local resolutions and declarations adopted throughout the colonies in late 1775 and early 1776 and the Second Continental Congress’s gradual acceptance of the need to address the issue of independence. The book was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for General Nonfiction in 1998.

Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787–1788 (2010) is the first comprehensive narrative history of the ratification of the U.S. Constitution. In writing it, Maier drew extensively upon, and generously acknowledged her indebtedness to, the efforts of the editors of the Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, 1787–1791, and more generally to the documentary editing revolution that has transformed the writing of American history in the decades since World War II. Maier’s account is notable particularly for its close and rewarding engagement with the wealth of primary sources generated by the ratification controversy, and for her tracing of the roles of ordinary Americans in the debate over whether to ratify or reject the proposed Constitution of the United States. Ratification won the 2011 George Washington Book Prize; the Fraunces Tavern Book Prize (shared with Ron Chernow’s Washington); the Ruth Ratner Miller Award for “excellence in American History”; the Henry Paolucci/Walter Bagehot Book Award of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, and the American Historical Association’s Littleton-Griswold Prize for a book on American law and society. It was also a finalist for the American Bar Association’s Silver Gavel Award.

Professor Maier’s scholarship will have a long and influential life, as these books are among the short list of “must-read” titles for those who would understand the American revolutionary era.

Mr. Bernstein adds:

It was exceptionally difficult for me to write an obituary for our colleague Pauline Maier—not only because her work inspired my own, but also because I was fortunate enough to count Pauline as a close friend. The reasons for that friendship were the resonances between our work and her extraordinary capacity for collegial friendship. She was not only a role model to me, as to so many other historians, but she also brought out the sheer fun of doing history, of digging through sources and framing arguments and testing them against our colleagues and against the existing literature.

In early 2012, we team-taught an institute on the Revolutionary origins of American constitutionalism at the New-York Historical Society, under the auspices of the Institute for Constitutional History. It was a uniquely inspiring and creative experience for me, as not only did I get to work with Pauline as a colleague and an equal, but I also got to watch from a ring-side seat one of the master teachers of our time.

In that setting, as in her books and her public lectures and interviews, Pauline was one of the premier explainers of our profession, elucidating complex ideas and tangled historical events and processes in clear, graceful language, and always with a wry and creative sense of humor. And she epitomized the best of the profession in her ability to reach out—whether to colleagues, to prospective colleagues, or to a general audience—with infectious joy and excitement.

Those who were not fortunate enough to meet her in person can see her in action on various videos available on youtube.com such as C-SPAN2 Book Notes: “In depth: Pauline Maier” and UNE Center for Global Humanities Presents Pauline Maier and Ratification.

R. B. Bernstein
City College of New York