Without the early, generous, and long-standing support of the late Barbara Bradfield Taft, the Folger Institute Center for the History of British Political Thought could not have flourished. While a National Endowment for the Humanities grant established the Center in 1984, it was Dr. Taft’s early matching gifts that sustained the Center until she ensured its future with an endowment in 1996. Dr. Taft, an historian of seventeenth-century British history, died at her home in Washington, DC, on 22 November 2007 of complications from a stroke.
Dr. Taft was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on 24 May 1917 and graduated from the University of Michigan in 1939. With a dissertation titled The Fate of the Republican Party in Seventeenth-Century England, she earned her Ph.D. at Bryn Mawr in 1942. She was an active reader at the Folger Shakespeare Library for nearly forty years. Her best-known scholarly work, co-edited with Jack R. McMichael, is the 1989 edition of the works of William Walwyn, a Leveller pamphleteer and political leader in London during the English Civil War and Interregnum. She also wrote the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography essays for Walwyn and the parliamentarian army officer, Robert Overton. In addition to articles published in journals such as History, Historical Journal, Huntington Library Quarterly, and History of Political Thought, she contributed an essay to a volume of the Center’s Proceedings that grew out of the seminar, Religion, Resistance, and the Civil War, directed by William Lamont in 1985. That seminar was the third in a series of six inaugural Center seminars that comprehensively remapped the field of studies in the history of British political thought. Another of her essays appeared in The Putney Debates of 1647: The Army, the Levellers, and the English State (edited by Michael Mendle, 2001), a volume that issued from the Center’s 1997 conference of that name. In Absolute Liberty (1982), Dr. Taft edited selections from the articles and papers of Caroline Robbins, her indomitable Bryn Mawr professor who studied the history of eighteenth-century dissenters and quasi-republicans in The Eighteenth-Century Commonwealthman (1959).
In the opening days of World War II, Dr. Taft survived the sinking by a German submarine of a passenger liner making a transatlantic voyage. She was introduced to William H. Taft III, her future husband, by the Bryn Mawr dean of the college, his aunt. She accompanied him to Ireland from 1948 to 1951 when he was a Foreign Service officer and again from 1953 to 1957 when he was named Ambassador. Survivors include four children, William H. Taft IV, Maria Clemow, Martha Golden, and John T. Taft; nine grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter. Her life was celebrated by friends and family in the Bethlehem Chapel of the Washington National Cathedral on 3 December 2007.