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Path-breaking historian Pauline Maier dies at age 75

MIT professor’s work illuminated the richness and complexity of Revolutionary-era America and the origins of democracy in the U.S.
Pauline Maier
Pauline Maier
Photo courtesy of Andrea Maier

The eminent historian Pauline Maier, whose award-winning books cast new light on Revolutionary-era America and the foundations of U.S. democracy, died Aug. 12 in Cambridge, Mass., after a battle with lung cancer. She was 75.

Maier, who served as the William Kenan Jr. Professor of History at MIT, had been a member of the Institute’s faculty since 1978. Her work often recast conventional wisdom about 18th-century America, reconstructing long-forgotten public debates over the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution while bringing crucial figures in American political history into sharper focus.

Maier’s best-known books include “American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence” (1997), a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and “Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788” (2010), winner of the George Washington Book Prize. Both works demonstrated the vitality of local and state-level political debates at the nation’s founding.

Even as Maier’s work brought textbook accounts of American history into question, she herself engaged the greater public by writing new history textbooks for college students and younger students alike — part of a career-long commitment to making history vivid and accessible for all.

“We are deeply saddened to hear of the death of Pauline Maier,” said Deborah Fitzgerald, the Kenin Sahin Dean of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences at MIT. “One of the key intellectual figures in her field, Pauline was also a leader at MIT — a great historian and scholar who understood the pulse of the Institute and helped guide and improve our community in profound ways. Through her research, award-winning publications, and superb teaching, Pauline inspired generations of young historians of the Colonial period. Her classes for MIT undergraduates — for example, on the U.S. Constitution — were learning experiences that her students still remembered decades later. In her classroom, Pauline brilliantly embodied our mission to empower MIT students with cultural and historical perspectives, and an understanding of the world’s complexities. We will miss her enormously.”

From Revolution to ratification

Pauline Rubbelke was born in St. Paul, Minn., on April 27, 1938. She received her undergraduate degree from Radcliffe College in 1960, majoring in American history and literature, and received a Fulbright Scholarship for study at the London School of Economics the following year. As an undergraduate working at Harvard’s student newspaper, the Crimson, she met her future husband, Charles Maier, a historian of modern Europe who is now the Leverett Saltonstall Professor of History at Harvard University; the couple married in 1961, in Oxford, England, and had three children.

Maier pursued her PhD in history at Harvard, and in 1968 completed her dissertation, advised by Bernard Bailyn, on the formation of American opposition to British rule in the decade before the Declaration of Independence. Maier’s thesis became the basis for her first book, “From Resistance to Revolution: Colonial Radicals and the Development of American Opposition to Britain, 1765-1776,” published in 1972.

After receiving her doctorate, Maier joined the history faculty at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, where she taught from 1968 until 1977. Maier then served on the faculty of the University of Wisconsin for one year before accepting a position as professor of history at MIT. Maier led MIT’s history faculty from 1979 to 1988.

Maier’s second book, “The Old Revolutionaries: Political Lives in the Age of Samuel Adams,” appearing in 1980, looked in depth at the lives of five Revolutionary leaders, including Adams, in the years leading up to 1776. “American Scripture” drew widespread praise for its recasting of the public debates over the Declaration of Independence. In it, Maier presented a deep analysis of the founding document’s evolution — from statement of revolutionary intent into one of national principles — and discussed dozens of local “declarations of independence” issued in America during 1776. “American Scripture” was named one of the 11 best books of 1997 by The New York Times Book Review.

“Ratification,” Maier’s most recent book, reconstructed and examined the often-tempestuous state-level debates over the ratification of the U.S. Constitution — which greatly strengthened the nation, then financially weak, by adding elements such as taxing powers, while also generating opposition for the same reasons. As Maier detailed, amendments recommended in the course of the ratification debates in the states helped form the Bill of Rights.

The work was named one of the top 10 books of 2010 by The Wall Street Journal; Gordon Wood, an American historian at Brown University, called it a “wonderful contribution” to the field, while Richard Beeman, a historian at the University of Pennsylvania, said it “will stand as the definitive account of the story of the ratification of the Constitution for many decades to come.” The work also won the Fraunces Tavern Museum Book Award.

History for everyone

Maier’s books were intended for both general and scholarly audiences, and she invested additional effort in furthering public understanding of history. She authored “The American People: A History” (1986), a middle-school textbook covering American history from its beginnings through 1984. She also co-authored a 2002 college textbook, “Inventing America: A History of the United States,” with Merritt Roe Smith of MIT, Alex Keyssar of Harvard, and Daniel Kevles of Yale University.

In addition to her books and textbooks, Maier produced more than 30 articles published in scholarly journals, edited volumes, and other publications, and wrote book reviews for publications including The New York Times Book Review and the William and Mary Quarterly.

Maier received prestigious fellowships and grants including the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship and multiple fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities. In 1998, Maier won MIT’s James R. Killian Jr. Faculty Achievement Award, which recognizes extraordinary professional accomplishment and is given to one faculty member each year.

Maier’s work, prodigious energy for teaching, and commitment to frank truth-seeking in the public sphere made a lasting impression on those who knew her. 

“Her scholarship, perspective, personality and dedication made her a remarkable MIT citizen,” former MIT President Charles M. Vest said. “Her historical writing displayed first-rate research but also was highly accessible and readable. I used to kid her because she once gave a lecture at the University of Virginia (‘Mr. Jefferson’s University’), the thesis of which was that Jefferson is our most overrated president. Now that is sticking your neck out.”

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