Authors: Charles Beard

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American historian and political scientist

Author Works

Nonfiction:

The Industrial Revolution, 1901

An Introduction to English Historians, 1906

American Government and Politics, 1910

The Supreme Court and the Constitution, 1912

An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States, 1913

American Citizenship, 1914 (with Mary R. Beard)

Contemporary American History, 1877-1913, 1914

A History of the American People, 1919 (with William C. Bagley)

History of the United States, 1921 (with Mary R. Beard)

The Economic Basis of Politics, 1923

The Rise of American Civilization, 1927 (with Mary R. Beard)

The American Party Battle, 1928

The Open Door at Home, 1934

The Nature of the Social Sciences in Relation to Objectives of Instruction, 1934

The Devil Theory of War, 1936

The Discussion of Human Affairs, 1936

Jefferson, Corporations, and the Constitution, 1936

The Making of American Civilization, 1937 (with Mary R. Beard)

America in Midpassage, 1939 (with Mary R. Beard)

Giddy Minds and Foreign Quarrels, 1939

Public Policy and the General Welfare, 1941

The American Spirit: A Study of the Idea of Civilization in the United States, 1942 (with Mary R. Beard)

The Republic: Conversations on Fundamentals, 1943

A Basic History of the United States, 1944 (with Mary R. Beard)

American Foreign Policy in the Making, 1932-1940, 1946

President Roosevelt and the Coming of the War, 1941: A Study in Appearances and Reality, 1948

Edited Text:

The Enduring Federalist, 1948

Biography

Charles Austin Beard was probably the most influential and controversial historian of the first half of the twentieth century. He was the son of a prosperous farmer who took a keen interest in public affairs. When he was eighteen years old, his father bought the town’s weekly newspaper, The Knightstown Sun, which Beard and his brother supervised for the next four years. After graduating from DePauw University in 1898, he attended graduate school at Columbia University in New York and at Oxford in England. In 1900 he married another student of history, Mary Ritter.{$I[AN]9810000691}{$I[A]Beard, Charles A.}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Beard, Charles A.}{$I[tim]1874;Beard, Charles A.}

Charles Beard

(Library of Congress)

While still a student in England, Beard published his first book, a study of the Industrial Revolution. At the same time he actively engaged in worker-education programs and helped found Ruskin College at Oxford. After obtaining a Ph.D. from Columbia in 1904, he began his spectacular career as professor of history and government at the same institution. His early specialties were local government and public administration, and his many writings and speeches promoted the Progressive movement of the period. The leading founder of the department of politics at Columbia, he published a very popular textbook on American government in 1910, which went into ten editions during his lifetime.

In 1913 Beard published his most famous book, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States. The thesis of the book was that the framers of the Constitution were industrial capitalists whose class interests were helped by the ratification of the document. The controversial book created a firestorm of strong and often virulent attacks. Many critics accused Beard of endorsing Karl Marx’s views on economic determinism, a charge that he vigorously denied. Because the Supreme Court was interpreting the Constitution in ways that generally defended vested property rights, left-wing progressives welcomed the message of the book.

During these years, Beard and James Harvey Robinson were the most prominent advocates of the New History movement, which emphasized the role of common people, the connection between the past and current events, the importance of culture and ideas, and the relativist nature of historical knowledge. Beard and Robinson rejected the view that historians could accurately “re-create” the past, and they minimized the traditional emphasis on battles, great leaders, and political dynasties.

With the entrance of the United States into World War I, Beard became involved in a controversy relating to the firing of three Columbia professors because of their opposition to the war. Although he supported involvement, he became so angry over the firing that he submitted his resignation in 1917. After leaving Columbia, Beard had no trouble supporting his family with his increasingly popular writings and his consultations for reforming local government. In the early 1920’s, he taught two years as a visiting professor in Japan. About this time Beard and his wife began to write collaborative works of popular history, with The Rise of American Civilization appearing in 1927.

Beard was elected president of both the American Political Science Association in 1926 and the American Historical Association (AHA) in 1933. At the turn of the twenty-first century he remained the only person ever elected to both positions. His famous presidential address to the AHA, “Written History as an Act of Faith,” emphasized that historical knowledge could not be entirely separated from the subjective viewpoints and experiences of the historian. However, Beard respected the objectivity of historical facts, and he never defended the extreme relativism later advocated by some postmodernist writers.

A supporter of government planning and social services, Beard enthusiastically welcomed Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Later, convinced that U.S. participation in World War I had been a mistake, Beard was strongly opposed to another such adventure. When Roosevelt in 1937 urged a “quarantine” of aggressors, Beard became a bitter opponent of the president’s foreign policy. Two years later, he published a book suggesting that the president was using foreign quarrels to keep the “giddy minds” of the population from domestic problems, an idea taken from the fourth act of William Shakespeare’s Henry IV (c. 1597-1598). Beard was frustrated and angry as he observed the events and policies that culminated in the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

During World War II, Beard, not wishing to appear disloyal, had little to say about the conflict. His scholarly achievements during the war included a revision of his political science text, a critical edition of the Federalist papers, a reflective analysis of the American political experiment, The Republic: Conversations on Fundamentals, and a single-volume condensation of his previous work with his wife, A Basic History of the United States. He also spent much time researching the way that the United States got involved in the war.

In 1946 Beard’s revisionist work, American Foreign Policy in the Making, 1932-1940, took a very negative view of President Roosevelt’s internationalism and especially what Beard perceived as his failure to be frank and honest with the American people. Two years later, President Roosevelt and the Coming of the War, 1941 anticipated the criticisms of the “imperial presidency,” particularly the growth in presidential powers and the decline of constitutional limitations on these powers. Many supporters of Roosevelt, infuriated that a left-leaning scholar had expressed such views, denounced Beard and even questioned his patriotism. By this time Beard was suffering from aplastic anemia. His last public act was to testify before a Senate Committee in 1948, arguing against the requirement of universal military training.

Beard was influential for a number of reasons. His students testified that he was a masterful and inspirational teacher. His bold theses on the Constitution and American foreign policy, while usually not entirely accepted by later scholars, stimulated a great deal of fruitful research and historical debate. His ideas about a New History became widely accepted by the majority of historians. He was an energetic researcher with a clear writing style and special ability to present an interesting synthesis. He was one of the few great historians who had the capacity to communicate effectively with general readers.

BibliographyBarrow, Clyde W. More than a Historian: The Political and Economic Thought of Charles A. Beard. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 2000. A scholarly and readable analysis of Beard’s ideas, with especially interesting accounts of his political debates and the various writers who influenced his thinking.Beale, Howard K., ed. Charles A. Beard: An Appraisal. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1954. A collection of essays about Beard’s historiography, teaching, and various aspects of his thought.Beard, Mary Ritter. The Making of Charles A. Beard. New York: Exposition Press, 1955. A firsthand account of Beard’s career, written by the person who knew him better than anyone else.Benson, Lee. Turner and Beard: American Historical Writing Reconsidered. Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1960. A sympathetic but not uncritical examination of Beard’s application of the economic interpretation to the study of American history.Berg, Elias. The Historical Thinking of Charles A. Beard. Stockholm: Almqvist and Wicksell, 1957. A European scholar’s abstract, and all-too-often murky, analysis of the changing philosophical assumptions underlying Beard’s approach to the study of history.Borning, Bernard C. The Political and Social Thought of Charles A. Beard. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1962. A workmanlike, detailed survey of Beard’s views on political and social issues traced over time.Brown, Robert E. Charles A. Beard and the Constitution. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1957. A polemical but scholarly critique of Beard’s thesis on the economic origins of the Constitution.Dahlberg, Jane S. The New York Bureau of Municipal Research: Pioneer in Government Administration. New York: New York University Press, 1966. The fullest available account of Beard’s work in the area of public administration.Higham, John, Leonard Krieger, and Felix Gilbert. History. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1965. An excellent and insightful survey of changing fashions in American historiography that illuminates Beard’s place in that larger context.Hofstadter, Richard. The Progressive Historians: Turner, Beard, Parrington. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1968. A lucidly written and penetrating analysis of the forces shaping the so-called Progressive school of American historiography and its influence by a distinguished historian who had himself been strongly influenced by Beard’s work.Kennedy, Thomas C. Charles A. Beard and American Foreign Policy. Gainesville: University Presses of Florida, 1975. A standard work that deals with Beard’s critique of imperialism and intervention in the two world wars.Marcell, David W. Progress and Pragmatism: James, Dewey, Beard, and the American Idea of Progress. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1974. Shows how Beard fitted into the larger American tradition of pragmatic philosophy.Nore, Ellen. Charles A. Beard: An Intellectual Biography. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983. An excellent book that emphasizes the left-wing nature of Beard’s thought.Strout, Cushing. The Pragmatic Revolt in American History: Carl Becker and Charles Beard. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1958. A still-useful introduction to the thought of two leading American exponents of historical relativism.White, Morton G. Social Thought in America: The Revolt Against Formalism. New York: Viking Press, 1949. An influential, if too abstrusely written, account of the role played by Beard, along with such other figures as John Dewey and Thorstein Veblen, in reorienting American scholarship from formalistic description to realistic analysis.
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