Beer, George L(ouis) 1872-1920

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BEER, George L(ouis) 1872-1920

PERSONAL: Born July 26, 1872, in New York, NY; died 1920, in New York, NY; son of Julius (a tobacco importer) and Sophia (Walter) Beer; married Edith Cecilia Hellman, November 11, 1896; children: Eleanor Frances. Education: Columbia University, B.A., 1892, M.A., 1893.

CAREER: Historian and author. Columbia University, New York, NY, lecturer, 1893-97; worked in his family's tobacco business, 1893-1903.

AWARDS, HONORS: Loubat Prize, Columbia University, 1913, for The Origins of the British Colonial System, 1578-1600 and British Colonial Policy, 1754-1765.


The Commercial Policy of England toward theAmerican Colonies, Columbia University Press (New York, NY), 1893, reprinted, Peter Smith Publisher (Gloucester, England), 1981.

British Colonial Policy, 1754-1765, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1908.

The Origins of the British Colonial System, 1578-1600, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1908.

The Old Colonial System, 1660-1754, Part I: TheEstablishment of the System, 1660-1688, 2 volumes, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1912.

The English-speaking Peoples; Their Future Relations and Joint International Obligations, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1917.

African Questions at the Paris Peace Conference, withPapers on Egypt, Mesopotamia, and the Colonial Settlement, edited by Louis Herbert Gray, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1923.

Contributor to periodicals, including Political Science Quarterly, New Republic, Forum, and Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. Beer's diary of his activities immediately before and during the Paris Peace Conference is located at the Rare Book and Manuscript Library of Columbia University; his other papers can be found in various collections at the same library.

SIDELIGHTS: George L. Beer was a versatile scholar, businessman, and revolutionary thinker. Who is regarded as one of the founders of the "imperial school" of early American history. Beer's research into the British Empire and its relationship to its colonies was novel at the time and stood in opposition to prevailing theories. His conclusions, however, have stood the test of time, and were still considered valuable more than a century after he published them in a series of books focusing on the economic history of Great Britain.

Beer came from an affluent family; his father, a German immigrant, managed a successful tobacco importing business. Beer attended the New York public school system and entered Columbia College when he was sixteen years old. Upon completion of his graduate degree, Beer lectured at Columbia and simultaneously worked in the family importation business. He was so financially successful that he was able to comfortably retire in 1903 and devote himself to research and writing.

In 1893 the Columbia University Press published Beer's thesis, The Commercial Policy of England toward the American Colonies. This book introduces the theories about the British Empire and colonies that permeate all of Beer's subsequent writings. According to essayist Peter A. Coclanis in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Beer examines in his thesis "the origins and development of English commercial policy toward the colonies from the early seventeenth century to 1763." Beer also describes how the British put their policy into action, and how this policy was received by the colonials. Beer concludes that although British policy may have been a bit harmful to the economic development of the American colonies, it was not intended to be burdensome or manipulative to its subjects.

Another point Beer notes in his thesis is that the colonists did not seem to disagree with the policy or find it questionable until after 1763. Coclanis wrote: "That such sound conclusions were based upon examination of printed sources only and arrived at by so young a scholar underscores the talent and ability with which Beer was blessed."

Upon its publication, The Commercial Policy of England toward the American Colonies was very highly regarded. The author was praised by reviewers for his "broad vision, fresh interpretation, and evenhanded treatment of both England and the colonies," Coclanis noted. Beer's book has been reprinted several times, including in 1981, which attests to the fact that his research is still considered valuable and important.

Beer's British Colonial Policy, 1754-1765 was conceived as part of a series of four books describing the origins of the British Empire through the start of the American Revolution. After Beer retired from the tobacco business, he spent fourteen months in London, England, in order to begin his painstaking research. Beer found that he devoted much of his time to reading documents from the Seven Years' War; therefore, he started the series with the declining years of the British Empire. In British Colonial Policy, 1754-1765 Beer explains that the British were displeased by the conduct of the American colonists throughout the Seven Years' War and sought, in Coclanis's words, "to restructure the imperial relationship in such a way as to reduce the possibility of similar conduct in the future." Since the colonists disagreed with these changes and considered them harmful to their interests, they resisted and rebelled. Beer maintains that the subsequent revolution was an inevitable outcome of British actions.

British Colonial Policy, 1754-1765 "was something of a classic in its field," according to Samuel Willard Crompton in American National Biography. due to the authors use of numerous original sources. Coclanis called British Colonial Policy, 1754-1765 "unquestionably Beer's greatest work," noting: "Beer's discussions of the considerations involved in British policy-making and the actual manner in which policy was implemented, for example, represented notable contributions to the historiography on the eighteenth century."

The Origins of the British Colonial System, 1548-1660 is the second book in Beer's series on the British system. This book uncovers and examines the roots of the British Empire that may be found in the fertile soil of the Stuart and Tudor periods in England. Coclanis wrote that the book "won unstinting praise," although some reviewers "complained about Beer's arid prose." Coclanis commented that The Origins of the British Colonial System, 1578-1660 "is not as stimulating or original as [British Colonial Policy, 1754-1765] . . . but it is a significant work nonetheless." Crompton stated that despite any that British scholars may have found in the work, Beer "had by this point become the American scholar most fitted to undertake studies of the British Empire."

In 1912 Beer published his third book about the British Empire, The Old Colonial System, 1660-1754; Part I: The Establishment of the Old System, 1660-1688. For many years, this book was considered to be "the most complete and authoritative study made on English colonial policy during the period 1660-1688," Crompton noted. "In these long, sober volumes," Coclanis remarked, "Beer attempted nothing strikingly original, being content to extend and expand upon ideas, themes, and arguments from his earlier works."

In 1913 Beer was awarded the Loubat Prize by his alma mater, Columbia University. He was the first to receive the award, which was given to recognize the "best work printed and published in the English language on the History, Geography, Archaeology, Ethnology, Philology, or numismatics of North America during the preceding five years."

With the start of World War I, Beer shifted his focus to international affairs, and thus never completed the fourth book in his series. Instead he published articles in journals such as Political Science Quarterly and New Republic in which he strongly encouraged the United States to involve itself on the side of the Allied forces. He felt that an alliance of English and American political and strategic forces would prove mutually beneficial. Coclanis remarked that Beer might have been "every bit as skilled at Anglo-American publicity and propaganda as he had been in the scholarly world."

During the war Beer worked as a part of the Inquiry Commission established by President Wilson to prepare a peace program for the United States to abide by at the war's end. Beer later participated in the Paris Peace Conference as a member of the American delegation.

After a long period of ill health, Beer died in 1920 at the relatively young age of forty-eight. He continues to be viewed as a pioneer and forward-thinker. Coclanis wrote: "Beer left a rich legacy both to the historical profession and to modern historiography. . . . [He] helped to revolutionize the study of early American history, rejecting the narrow parochialism that then dominated the field in favor of a much broader interpretive frame."



American National Biography, edited by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1999, pp. 472-473.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 47: American Historians, 1866-1912, edited by Clyde N. Wilson, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1986, pp. 40-47.*