Charles A. Beard: Wikis


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Charles Austin Beard
Born November 27, 1874(1874-11-27)
Knightstown, Indiana, U.S.
Died September 1, 1948 (aged 73)
New Haven, Connecticut, U.S.
Nationality  American
Occupation Historian

Charles Austin Beard (November 27, 1874 – September 1, 1948) was, with Frederick Jackson Turner, one of the most influential American historians of the first half of the 20th century. He published hundreds of monographs, textbooks and interpretive studies in both history and political science. His works included radical re-evaluation of the founding fathers of the United States, who he believed were more motivated by economics than by philosophical principles.

Richard Hofstadter, a leading historian in the decades following World War II, made this assessment in 1968: "Today Beard's reputation stands like an imposing ruin in the landscape of American historiography. What was once the grandest house in the province is now a ravaged survival."[1]





Charles Beard was born into a wealthy Indiana family in 1874. In his youth he experienced the rigors hard physical labor working on the family farm and attended a local Quaker school, Spiceland Academy. He was expelled from the school when he and his brother Clarence printed a pamphlet criticizing the faculty and administration of Indiana University, where Clarence was a student. Charles graduate from Knightstown High School in 1891. For the next few years the brothers managed a local newspaper. Their editorial position supported the Republican Party and favored prohibition, a cause for which Charles Beard lectured in later years.

Beard attended DePauw University where he studied history until graduating in 1898. He edited the college newspaper and belonged to the debate team. At a dance class, he met Mary Ritter, whom he married in 1900. As an historian, Mary Beard's research interests lay in feminism and the labor union movement (Woman as a Force in History, 1946). They collaborated on many works of history, including the popular survey, The Beards' Basic History of the United States.[2]


Beard went to England in 1899 for graduate studies at Oxford University. He collaborated with Walter Vrooman in founding Ruskin Hall, a school meant to be accessible to the working man. In exchange for reduced tuition, students worked in the school's various businesses. Beard taught for the first time at Ruskin Hall and he lectured to workers in industrial towns to promote Ruskin Hall and to encourage enrollment in correspondence courses.


The Beards returned to the U.S. in 1902, where Charles pursued graduate work in history at Columbia University. He received his doctorate in 1904 and immediately joined the faculty as a lecturer. In order to provide his students with reading materials that were hard to acquire, he compiled a large collection of essays and excerpts in a single volume: An Introduction to the English Historians.[3] That sort of compendium, so commonplace in later decades, was an innovation at the time.

An extraordinarily active author of scholarly books, textbooks, and articles for the political magazines, Beard's career flourished. Academic structures were less rigid at that stage in the development of the university, and Beard moved from the department of History to Public Law and then to a new chair in Politics and Government. In addition to teaching, he coached the debate team and wrote about public affairs, especially municipal reform.

Economic Interpretation

Among many works he published during these years at Columbia, the most controversial was An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (1913), an interpretation of how the economic interests of the members of the Constitutional Convention affected their votes. Academics and politicians denounced the book, but it was well-respected by scholars until the 1950s.[4]

Resigns in World War

Though he completely supported American participation in the First World War, he resigned from Columbia on Oct. 8, 1917, charging that "the University is really under the control of a small and active group of trustees who have no standing in the world of education, who are reactionary and visionless in politics, narrow and medieval in religion. I am convinced that while I remain in the pay of the Trustees of Columbia University I cannot do effectively my part in sustaining public opinion in support of the just war on the German Empire." [5][6]

Independent scholar

He later helped to found the New School for Social Research in New York, where the faculty would control its own membership. He soon left to enjoy his home in rural Connecticut free of academic responsibilities; his many books and textbooks provided a steady stream of revenue. Enlarging upon his interest in urban affairs, he toured Japan and produced a volume of recommendations for the reconstructing of Tokyo after the earthquake of 1923.[7]

Beard had parallel careers as an historian and political scientist. He was active in the American Political Science Association and was elected its President in 1926.[8] He was also a member of the American Historical Association and served as its president in 1933.[9] He was best known for his studies of the Constitution, and for his creation of bureaus of municipal research and his studies of public administration in cities,


Starting as a leading liberal supporter of the New Deal, Beard turned against Franklin Delano Roosevelt's foreign policy. He became one of the leading proponents of American non-interventionism. He promoted as an alternative "American Continentalism," arguing that the United States had no vital interests at stake in Europe and that a foreign war would threaten dictatorship at home. He continued to press this position after the war, even when the American victory in World War II had discredited his earlier warnings. Beard's last work, President Roosevelt and the Coming of the War (1948), blamed Roosevelt for lying to the American people and tricking them into war. Most historians and political scientists rejected Beard's theory and it damaged his reputation.[citation needed]

By the 1950s Beard's economic interpretation of history was also out of favor, with only a few leading historians such as Howard K. Beale and C Vann Woodward clinging to the his models of class warfare in American history.

Progressive historiography

As a leader of the "progressive historians," or "progressive historiography," Beard introduced themes of economic self-interest and economic conflict regarding the adoption of the Constitution and the transformations caused by the Civil War. Thus he emphasized the long-term conflict among industrialists in the Northeast, farmers in the Midwest, and planters in the South that he saw as the cause of the Civil War. His study of the financial interests of the drafters of the United States Constitution (An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution) seemed radical in 1913, since he proposed that the U.S. Constitution was a product of economically determinist, land-holding founding fathers. He saw ideology as a product of economic interests.

Beard's most influential book was the wide-ranging and bestselling The Rise of American Civilization (1927) and its two sequels, America in Midpassage (1939), and The American Spirit (1943), written with his wife, Mary.


Historian Carl Becker in History of Political Parties in the Province of New York, 1760-1776 (1909) formulated the Progressive interpretation of the American Revolution. He said there were two revolutions: one against Britain to obtain home rule, and the other to determine who should rule at home. Beard expanded upon Becker's thesis, in terms of class conflict, in An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (1913) and An Economic Interpretation of Jeffersonian Democracy (1915). To Beard, the Constitution was a counter-revolution, set up by rich bondholders (personalty; bonds were "personal property"), in opposition to the farmers and planters (realty; land was "real property.") Beard argued the Constitution was designed to reverse the radical democratic tendencies unleashed by the Revolution among the common people, especially farmers and debtors. In 1800, said Beard, the farmers and debtors, led by plantation slave owners, overthrew the capitalists and established Jeffersonian democracy. Other historians supported the class-conflict interpretation, noting the states confiscated great semi-feudal landholdings of loyalists and gave them out in small parcels to ordinary farmers. Conservatives, such as William Howard Taft, were shocked at the Progressive interpretation because it seemed to belittle the Constitution.[10] Many scholars, however, eventually adopted Beard's thesis and by 1950 it had become the standard interpretation of the era.

Beginning about 1950, however, historians started to argue that the progressive interpretation was factually incorrect. These historians were led by Charles A. Barker, Philip Crowl, Richard P. McCormick, William Pool, Robert Thomas, John Munroe, Robert E. Brown and B. Kathryn Brown, and above all Forrest McDonald.[11]

Forrest McDonald in We The People: The Economic Origins of the Constitution (1958) argued that Charles Beard had misinterpreted the economic interests involved in writing the Constitution. Instead of two interests, landed and mercantile, which conflicted, there were three dozen identifiable interests that forced the delegates to bargain.

Evaluating the historiographical debate, Peter Novick concluded:

“By the early 1960s it was generally accepted within the historical profession that ...Beard’s Progressive version of the ...framing of the Constitution had been decisively refuted. American historians came to see ....the framers of the Constitution, rather than having self-interested motives, were led by concern for political unity, national economic development, and diplomatic security.”[12]

It was largely replaced by the intellectual history approach, which stressed the power of ideas, especially republicanism, in stimulating the Revolution.[13] However, the legacy of examining the economic interests of American historical actors remains enduring.


Dealing with Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, disciples of Beard such as Howard Beale and C. Vann Woodward focused on greed and economic causation and emphasized the centrality of corruption. They argued that the rhetoric of equal rights was a smokescreen hiding their true motivation, which was promoting the interests of industrialists in the Northeast. The basic flaw was the assumption that there was a unified business policy. Scholars in the 1950s and 1960s argued that businessmen were widely divergent on monetary or tariff policy. While Pennsylvania businessmen wanted high tariffs, those in other states did not; the railroads were hurt by the tariffs on steel, which they purchased in large quantity.[14] Beard's economic approach lost influence in the history profession after 1950 as conservative scholars suggested serious flaws in Beard's research, and attention turned away from economic causation.[15]


Though it played a small role in his overall career, Beard's unapologetic isolationism in the final decade of his life made him a focus of the ensuing debate. Though few were receptive to his arguments in President Roosevelt and the Coming of the War when it appeared, certain elements of his isolation-inspired analysis, especially his advocacy of a non-interventionist foreign policy, have enjoyed something of a comeback. Andrew Bacevich, a historian of diplomacy from Boston University, has used Beard's skepticism towards armed overseas intervention as a starting point for a critique of post-Cold-War American foreign policy in his American Empire.[16] Beard's emphasis on economic causation has influenced the "Wisconsin school" of New Left or revisionist historians, including William Appleman Williams, Gabriel Kolko, and James Weinstein. On the other hand, Beard's foreign policy views have become popular with supporters of paleoconservatism, such as Pat Buchanan.


  1. ^ Hofstadter, The Progressive Historians (1968), 344
  2. ^ First edition: Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc., 1944
  3. ^ See online 1906 edition
  4. ^ See 1921 edition
  5. ^ Michael, Rosenthal, Nicholas Miraculous: The Amazing Career of the Redoubtable Dr. Nicholas Murray Butler (NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006), 236ff.
  6. ^ New York Times: "Quits Columbia; Assails Trustees" Oct. 9, 1917. A sarcastic editorial in the New York Times hailed his resignation, saying the university would be better off without the services of those "teachers of false doctrines sheltering themselves behind the shibboleth of academic freedom." New York Times: "Columbia's Deliverance" Oct. 10, 1917
  7. ^ The Administration and Politics of Tokyo, 1923
  8. ^ Past Presidents List, APSA website.
  9. ^ Past Presidents List, AHA website.
  10. ^ Clyde W. Barrow, More Than a Historian: The Political and Economic Thought of Charles A. Beard (2000) Page 5 online
  11. ^ Robert Livingston Schuyler, "Forrest McDonald's Critique of the Beard Thesis," Journal of Southern History 1961 27(1): 73-80; Peter J. Coleman, "Beard, McDonald, and Economic Determinism in American Historiography," Business History Review 1960 34(1): 113-121
  12. ^ Peter Novick, That Noble Dream (1988) p 336. Ellen Nore, Beard’s biographer, concludes his interpretation of the Constitution collapsed due to more recent and sophisticated analysis. Ellen Nore, "Charles A. Beard's Economic Interpretation of the Origins of the Constitution," This Constitution: a Bicentennial Chronicle 1987 (17): 39-44
  13. ^ See Forrest McDonald, "Colliding with the Past," Reviews in American History 25.1 (1997) 13-18
  14. ^ Hofstadter, The Progressive Historians: Turner, Beard, Parrington. 1968
  15. ^ Hofstadter 1968
  16. ^ Harvard University Press, 2004


  • Bacevich, Andrew J., American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of U.S. Diplomacy (2002). Argues that while Beard might have been wrong about the need to oppose Hitler, he assessed how American economic interests drive foreign policy.
  • Barrow, Clyde W., More Than a Historian: The Political and Economic Thought of Charles A. Beard (2000)
  • Borning, Bernard C., The Political and Social Thought of Charles A. Beard (University of Washington Press, 1962) online edition
  • Brown, David S., Beyond the Frontier: Midwestern Historians in the American Century (2009)
  • Brown, Robert Eldon, Charles Beard and the Constitution: A critical analysis of "An economic interpretation of the Constitution" (1954)
  • Cott, Nancy F., A Woman Making History: Mary Ritter Beard through Her Letters (1991)
  • Cushing, Strout, The Pragmatic Revolt in American History: Carl Becker and Charles Beard (1958) online edition
  • Dennis, L., (1990) George S. Counts and Charles A. Beard: Collaborators for Change. (SUNY Series in the Philosophy of Education). State Univ of New York Press
  • Egnal, Marc, "The Beards Were Right: Parties in the North, 1840-1860," Civil War History, Vol. 47, 2001
  • Hofstadter, Richard. The Progressive Historians: Turner, Beard, Parrington (1968), pp 167-346. Detailed analysis of Beard's historiography.
  • Kennedy, Thomas C., Charles A. Beard and American Foreign Policy (1975) online edition
  • McDonald, Forrest, We The People: The Economic Origins of the Constitution (1958)
  • Nore, Ellen, Charles A. Beard: An Intellectual Biography (1983). online edition
  • Radosh, Ronald, Prophets on the Right: Profiles of Conservative Critics of American Globalism (1978)

Primary sources

External links


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

Charles Austin Beard (1874-11-271948-09-01) was an influential American historian. He stressed the importance of economic factors in American constitutional history.


  • Let us put aside resolutely that great fright, tenderly and without malice, daring to be wrong in something important rather than right in some meticulous banality, fearing no evil while the mind is free to search, imagine, and conclude, inviting our countrymen to try other instruments than coercion and suppression in the effort to meet destiny with triumph, genially suspecting that no creed yet calendared in the annals of politics mirrors the doomful possibilities of infinity.
    • Presidential address to the American Political Science Association at St. Louis, Mo., December 29, 1926[1]: "Time, Technology, and the Creative Spirit in Political Science", The American Political Science Review 21 (1), (February 1927) p. 11.
  • All the lessons of history in four sentences: Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad with power. The mills of God grind slowly, but they grind exceedingly small. The bee fertilizes the flower it robs. When it is dark enough, you can see the stars.
    • "Four Lessons of History", Readers' Digest, February 1941.
    • The first statement is an ancient anonymous proverb, sometimes wrongly attributed to Euripides. The second is from Friedrich von Logau, "Retribution", Sinngedichte III, 2, 24, c. 1654, as translated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow(?).


  • You need only reflect that one of the best ways to get yourself a reputation as a dangerous citizen these days is to go about repeating the very phrases which our founding fathers used in the struggle for independence.
  • I am convinced that the world is not a mere bog in which men and women trample themselves in the mire and die. Something magnificent is taking place here amid the cruelties and tragedies, and the supreme challenge to intelligence is that of making the noblest and best in our curious heritage prevail.

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