Charles Austin Beard
– September 1
) is widely regarded, along with Frederick Jackson Turner
, as one of the two most influential American historians of the early 20th century. While Beard published hundreds of monographs
, textbooks and interpretive studies in both history and political science, he is most widely known for his radical re-evaluation of the Founding Fathers of the United States
, whom he believed were more motivated by economics than by philosophical principles.
As a leader of the "Progressive School" of historiography, he 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 Mary Beard.
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 demonstrated 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. 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.
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.
Beard's interest in progressive higher education was an early one. In 1899, he collaborated with Walter Vrooman
in the founding of Ruskin Hall
, which was billed as an accessible school for the working man. In exchange for considerable reduction in tuition students worked at the school's various businesses.
After resigning from Columbia University in protest in 1917, he helped to found the New School for Social Research in New York, and advised on reconstructing Tokyo after the earthquake of 1923. Although enormously influential through his massive writings, he did not have graduate students or build a school of historiography.
Beard attended and graduated from DePauw University
in 1898. It was at DePauw that he met one of the founders of Kappa Alpha Theta
(the first Greek-letter society for women), Mary Ritter Beard
. They later married. Many of his books were written in collaboration with his wife, whose own interests lay in feminism
and the labor union
movement (Woman as a Force in History,
1946). Together they wrote a popular survey, The Beards: Basic History of the United States
Isolationist foreign policy
Starting as a leading liberal supporter of the New Deal
, Beard turned against Franklin D. Roosevelt
's aggressive foreign policy. Beard promoted "American Continentalism," arguing that the U.S. had no vital stake in Europe, and that a foreign war would threaten dictatorship at home. Beard was thus one of the leading proponents of United States non-interventionism
. After the war, 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. It generated angry controversy as internationalists denounced Beard as an apologist for isolationism. As a result, Beard's reputation collapsed among liberal historians who previously had admired him. His whole interpretation of history came under widespread attack, though a few leading historians such as Beale and Woodward clung to the Beardian interpretation of American history.
Recently however, Beard's isolationist approach, 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 intervention overseas as a starting point for his own critique of post-Cold War American foreign policy. Beard is heavily cited in Bacevich's analysis of this policy, American Empire. In addition, Beard's foreign policy views have become popular with supporters of paleoconservatism, such as Pat Buchanan. Beard's stress on economic causation influenced the "Wisconsin school" of New Left historians William Appleman Williams, Gabriel Kolko, and James Weinstein.
Leadership positions as Political Scientist, Historian
In the field of political science, Beard was active in the American Political Science Association
and was elected as its President in 1926. He was also a member of the American Historical Association
and served as its president in 1933. 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, including a famous study of Tokyo, The Administration and Politics of Tokyo,
- 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 (1979), 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)