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

Pauline at Lunch

Late last spring, at noon, my wife and I met Pauline at the Grafton Street Grill on Harvard Square for lunch. It was the day before Harvard graduation and the place was packed. We had to speak with energy and focus, never a problem for Pauline. Three hours later we were still going strong, the only ones left. No voices but ours filled the room, yet why stop? We met this way every time I came into town, the three of us for a three-hour lunch. It was the highlight of my trip, no matter what else I had going on. We talked about history of course, but also of gardening, cooking, apples, family, and such.

The time before that, after lunch, Pauline and I repaired to the Gutman Library, which houses thousands of old textbooks, some dating from the early nineteenth century. Pauline was tracking down the emergence of the exact words “Bill of Rights” in texts (which, as it turns out, was not until after the Civil War), while I was investigating the etymology of various historical tales. We read, we shared, we joked—a raucous time at the Gutman, so joyous in our peculiar way, two kids in a candy shop.

A few days later, Pauline introduced a talk I gave at MHS. I can’t immediately recall my subject, nor, I suspect, can anybody else present because Pauline stole the show. She told the story of how we first met, from her perspective. Some guy from California had sent her a book with a letter, saying he had discovered a local declaration of independence that predated the 90 “other” declarations she featured in American Scripture by a year-and-one-half. She shelved the book. There was no ill intent, she reported, it was just one of those things you think you will get around to but don’t. A few months later, here comes another copy of the same book, this time with post-its flagging key passages. Then, with dramatic flare and to considerable laughter, she produced the book, post-its intact, and proceeded to tell the rest of the story through our original, decade-old emails, which she managed to retrieve for her introduction. That’s Pauline for you—primary sources only, please. The joke, as Pauline told it, was on her: she had disregarded my initial communication, the way people often pass over missives from strangers, but in the end she did pay attention, and she agreed: the Worcester Town Meeting did indeed issue instructions for independence on October 4, 1774, the first known public body to do so. Ever excited by a story, even when telling a tale on herself, and ever at ease in her thinking and her delivery, Pauline captivated her audience.

From those post-its and emails, one thing led to another. We worked together on educational projects, and I sent her chapters from various books-in-progress, which she critiqued in great detail. She’s a tough editor, people say; that is true, and what a gift it was for me. She undertook impeccable research, and I followed her lead on several counts: the “other” declarations, her deconstruction of the “Sam” Adams mythologies, her portrait of Dr. Thomas Young, the limited contemporaneous impact of The Federalist (Federalist 10 was a nonstarter at the time), the misunderstood structure of the ratification debates, and the retrospective attachment of the term “Bill of Rights” to the First Ten Amendments. Tracing misconceptions of the historical “Bill of Rights” was Pauline’s unfinished work, which she hinted at in her Epilogue to Ratification. (You can find a talk she gave on the subject at Georgetown Law School last spring. The talk begins fifteen minutes into the clip.)

Maier belonged to no particular school of historians, nor did she have any interest in membership. She did no more than follow the basic rules of historical investigation: look carefully, observe people strictly from within their own times, and follow the story wherever it might lead. Her notes to Ratification include scant references to secondary sources. Responding to critics who complained that she made no mention of Charles Beard, she noted wryly that his name did not appear in contemporaneous sources.

Some have catalogued Maier as a “neo-Whig.” True, she shied from notions of “class,” but this was not because she denigrated socio-economic factors; she only resisted the dichotomous formulations to which class analysis is prone. (Similarly, she recoiled at the term “elite,” currently in fashion, which seemed imprecise, facile, and limiting.) Through all her books she explored the popular roots of the nation’s founding, and that thread ties her major works into a body. Fifty-seven of her ninety “other” declarations of independence were instructions from Massachusetts town meetings, fashioned by ordinary people. In our lunchtime encounters, she was never more animated than when telling a story about town meetings like these, where little known characters took center stage and laid out the issues in untutored terms.

Two days after our lunch at Grafton Street, Pauline suffered her first stroke. She had been tired for months last spring, uncharacteristic for her, but she thought she was on the mend. She showed no signs of fatigue at lunch, and we were hatching new schemes to attack mythologies perpetuated in textbooks, but a week later she wrote me: “Life has not been so good since.” She was hospitalized, she reported, but at least she was back home. “I do think I feel better today than yesterday for the first time, and I like that trend line. For now, I take pleasure in thinking of our lunch, which has become something of a tradition now! There will be more!” But there were not. A second stroke followed, far worse. “But could you please take Marie out for a good hamburger and beer and think of me?” she wrote two weeks later.

Still, despite the loss of speech, she wanted to carry on as soon as she could get back home. “I’ll be nearer to my desktop computer that has all my material on the B of R on it,” she wrote. “Having a project to work on might be a good thing.” Then, two weeks after that, and finally home: “Maybe tomorrow I’ll do a little work.” This was the last mention of work in her emails. From that point on, she wrote only of family and the comfort she took in their care. Loved ones report her verve and her courage to the end. A grandson was born, giving her great heart. Pauline loved her family “fiercely,” as her daughter Jessica stated for the Boston Globe obituary. Jessica also reported that near the end, unable to speak, Pauline wrote on a tablet, “I have three wonderful children. I have written some books. I have planted flowers. I have baked bread. I have been blessed.” As are all of us with the good fortune to know Pauline or follow the course of her historical investigations.

Here is a link to some other thoughts re Pauline’s contributions to the field:

Ray Raphael