Charles Austin Beard

All Sources -
Updated Media sources (1) About content Print Topic Share Topic
views updated

Beard, Charles A



Charles A. Beard (1874–1948), historian, political scientist, and educator, was, from about 1912 to 1941, one of the most influential social thinkers in the United States. He helped to transform the discipline of political science in the early twentieth century, and came close to dominating the study of American history between the two world wars. He was ranked by a group of liberal intellectuals of that era as second only to Thorstein Veblen among the writers who had influenced their thought, and in a poll taken shortly after Beard’s death by Survey magazine, a group of editors and educators voted his masterpiece, The Rise of American Civilization (1927), the book that best explained American democracy. Altogether, he published over three hundred articles and about sixty books, some in collaboration with his wife, Mary Ritter Beard, some with other associates. His textbooks on European and American history and on American government sold many millions of copies. The product of an age of reform, he was always the scholar engagé, assailing conventional myths and shibboleths, pronouncing continually on current events, and plunging repeatedly into policy making. The force of his personality penetrated not only his writings but every dimension of his life; for Beard enjoyed his power and bore himself with the authority of an ancient sage.

The son of a substantial landowner and building contractor, Beard was raised on a farm near Knightstown, Indiana. His parents were old-fashioned rationalists and descendants of Quakers; this heritage gave Beard a lifelong sense of close personal and intellectual kinship with eighteenth-century America. The down-to-earth, humane cast of mind that he derived from his upbringing was broadened at DePauw University through acquaintance with the writings of Karl Marx and especially John Ruskin, whose portrait always hung in Beard’s study. A summer in Chicago, spent partly at Hull House, brought Beard into direct involvement with current social unrest. On graduating from DePauw in 1898, he went to England to study English and European history at Oxford. There he associated with cosmopolitan and radical spirits and had a large share in organizing a workingmen’s college, Ruskin Hall. His first book, The Industrial Revolution (1901), explained current social problems to British working-class readers. His Oxford experience gave Beard a considerable familiarity with English literary culture, a distinctly uncommon attribute among American social scientists.

These moral and humane enthusiasms came increasingly under the discipline of an austere scientific methodology. From his Oxford professors, notably Frederick York Powell, Beard learned of the growing aspiration for a science of man that would furnish empirical understanding of human affairs without the intrusion of value judgments. Further graduate study at Columbia University, where Beard acquired the ph.d. degree in 1904, confirmed his adherence to a value-free social science.

From one point of view Beard’s whole career can be seen as a struggle to maintain a fruitful union between his belief in science as a rigidly objective inquiry and his ardent commitment to moral action.

At Columbia in the early twentieth century, such a union was not hard to maintain. Empiricism was then the watchword throughout the social sciences in America, and at Columbia Beard joined a notable company of scholars who were convinced that the advance of democracy depended on a social science that would replace dogmatic or speculative statements with concrete, practical knowledge of particular situations and techniques. This view—at once scientific, utilitarian, and “present-minded”— was spelled out in philosophy by John Dewey and in history by James Harvey Robinson. The latter propounded a “New History,” which would be a synthesis of the results of more specialized sciences and which would thereby reach out into the whole context of human activity instead of dwelling on the slow unfolding of formal institutions. New Historians would study the technique of progress and, in general, concentrate on the aspects of the past most relevant to the great public problems of the present. Thus Robinson’s history emphasized change rather than continuity and invoked the authority of science for the reform of scholarship and society. All of this appealed strongly to Beard, who grew rapidly from a protege to a partner of the older man.

Although Beard’s training was primarily in history, his appointment at Columbia after 1907 was in the department of public law. Over the next decade his teaching and writing related primarily to American constitutional history and public administration. He constantly stressed the social and economic “realities” discoverable behind legal principles and governmental forms. To Beard the abandonment of an abstract, largely a priori analysis of law and sovereignty permitted political science to look more closely into motives, interests, and practical results. In the new field of public administration his work was very practical indeed. As a leader in the pioneering New York Bureau of Municipal Research, he directed a number of major state and municipal surveys designed to rationalize governmental machinery and establish clear criteria of public responsibility. Later, in 1922–1923, he acted as adviser to the Bureau of Municipal Research in Tokyo and also advised the Japanese government on the rebuilding of the city after a disastrous earthquake.

In constitutional history Beard’s research flowed from an equally practical, contemporary interest. A series of conservative, laissez-faire decisions by the Supreme Court had aroused a heated debate over its legitimate powers. In The Supreme Court and the Constitution (1912) Beard made a more intensive investigation than anyone had previously done of the intentions of the Founding Fathers with respect to judicial review. He concluded that the framers had intended the Supreme Court to exercise control over legislation. Judicial control was just one facet of the larger purpose of the framers to protect property rights against turbulent popular majorities. Yet Beard ended by acclaiming the tough-minded intelligence with which the makers of the constitution grounded it on the rock of self-interest. Where others discerned idealism, Beard saw a more praiseworthy realism.

Beard’s most famous monograph, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution (1913), examined with care the Founding Fathers’ motives. Inspired partly by the quantitative studies of sectional voting patterns that Frederick Jackson Turner and his students were making, Beard surveyed the distribution of economic power in the United States in 1787 and itemized the property holdings of every delegate to the Constitutional Convention of that year. He concluded that at least five-sixths of the delegates stood to gain personally from the adoption of the constitution, chiefly because it would protect the public credit and raise the value of the public securities they held. This thesis was a striking demonstration of a research technique—collective biography—that has only recently come into common use in historical studies; but Beard’s analytical design seems crude compared to subsequent refinements. He proceeded as if conscious material self-interest were the only determinant of political behavior and thus assumed what he proposed to demonstrate. Moreover, he imposed a simplistic social dualism on his findings about individuals: he presented the constitution as the instrument of capitalistic creditors arrayed against landowning debtors. Beard further documented the same cleavage in a third significant monograph, Economic Origins of Jeffersonian Democracy (1915). Here he tried to demonstrate that the alignment of 1787 reappeared in the political parties of the 1790s: Jeffersonian democracy simply meant the transfer of federal power from the holders of fluid capital to the agriculturalists.

In the writing of American history Beard’s capitalist–agrarian dichotomy quickly assumed immense importance, for it asserted a pattern of conflict that was refreshingly “realistic” without being alien to traditional American political rhetoric. In effect, Beard’s economic interpretation of American history provided a tangible class basis for the old idea that American politics was essentially a contest between Jeffersonian democracy and Hamiltonian privilege. By postulating a basic antagonism between two coalitions of interest groups, one dominated by urban capitalists, the other by farmers and planters, he used a flexible dualism in place of the more complex Marxist scheme that was influencing the writing of European history.

During the 1920s and 1930s the best of the books Beard wrote, together with those of such major scholars as Vernon L. Parrington, Arthur M. Schlesinger, and Howard K. Beale, amplified this conceptual scheme. Thus Beard’s The Idea of National Interest (1934a) attributed differences between Hamiltonian and Jeffersonian traditions of foreign policy to economic interests, and the capitalistagrarian struggle supplied the underlying dynamics for The Rise of American Civilization (1927). Among the special features of this panoramic volume were an interpretation of Jacksonian democracy as a farmer–labor uprising and of the Civil War as a “Second American Revolution,” in which northern businessmen drove the planter aristocracy from power.

Yet there were significant differences between The Rise of American Civilization and Beard’s prewar writings. He had resigned from Columbia in 1917 in protest against wartime infringements on academic freedom, and during the 1920s he became deeply disturbed both by the threat that modern war posed to democratic values and by the loss of confidence in progress and human nature then spreading in many intellectual circles. Instead of simply trusting in scientific inquiry to solve social problems, Beard began explicitly to defend his basic values. Living independently in the hills of Connecticut, he was increasingly removed from the behavioralist trend in political science; his writing assumed a more humanistic cast. The Rise of American Civilization combined the economic determinism he had developed before the war with an unashamed celebration of the cultural achievements of the American people. Specifically, it vindicated their collective energy and their undaunted faith in progress.

The depression and the spread of totalitarianism intensified Beard’s concern with values. His herculean activities in the 1930s were an attempt to reanimate in America by creative thought that progress which science and world history no longer seemed to assure. In The Open Door at Home (1934c) and other writings he sketched an ambitious blueprint for a planned economy. He exercised a major and perhaps decisive influence on the 16-volume Report of the American Historical Association’s Commission on the Social Studies in the Schools, 1932–1937, which declared that education in primary and secondary schools should be attuned to the advance of collectivistic democracy. He became the principal intellectual spokesman of isolationism. And he began to study the philosophy of history.

Until the 1930s very few American scholars in any discipline had paid serious attention to the basic problems of historical thought. Pragmatic Americans accepted science rather than philosophy as the key to historical knowledge. While Beard continued to insist that history must be useful, he now declared that it could not also be scientific and objective and that it must cease to be deterministic. His thunderous address as president of the American Historical Association, “Written History as an Act of Faith” (1934d), urged historians to recognize the subjectivity of history in order to restore the primacy of values in the study of man and thereby guide history in the making.

Beard’s loss of confidence in the ability of scientific techniques to solve the great problems of the day inspired a general revolt against scientific history. His new conception of history, along with similar views expressed by Carl Becker, plunged U.S. historians into a great debate on relativism. The debate, which continued through the 1940s, created much confusion, partly because Beard drew his arguments from Italian and German philosophers, notably Benedetto Croce, whose idealist epistemology he never really understood or shared. Ultimately, most historians decided that Beard went too far in denying objectivity and thereby made history too “present-minded.” Yet his agitation left a lasting impact. It upset the complacent assumption of professional historians that moral judgment has no legitimate place in their work. It awakened a philosophical consciousness and renewed American receptivity to European historical theory.

Beard’s death in 1948 touched off a general reaction against his interpretation of American history. Much of the best scholarship since that time has gone to revise his stress on materialistic causation, on conflict rather than consensus, on the domestic rather than the international context of events. Attention has turned in good measure from interest groups to status groups and from rational to irrational motivation. Ironically, the history that Beard himself wrote in his old age prefigured this change of outlook: in the 1940s he put a new emphasis on ideas in history and on the role of individuals. He largely abandoned interpretation in economic terms. One characteristic that remained unaltered, however, was a lifelong rationalism, a determination to control power by reason.

John Hicham

[For the historical context of Beard’s work, seeConstitutions and constitutionalism; National interest; and the biographies ofCroce; Dewey; Marx; Robinson; Turner.]


(1901) 1927 The Industrial Revolution. London: Allen & Unwin.

(1912) 1962 The Supreme Court and the Constitution. With an introduction and bibliographies by Alan F. Westin. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

(1913) 1935 An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States. New York: Macmillan → A paperback edition was published in 1962 by Macmillan.

(1915) 1952 Economic Origins of Jeffersonian Democracy. New York: Macmillan.

(1922) 1945 The Economic Basis of Politics. 3d ed. rev. New York: Knopf. → A paperback edition was published in 1957 by Random House.

(1927) 1933 Beard, Charles A.; and Beard, Mary R. The Rise of American Civilization. New ed., rev. & enl. 2 vols. New York: Macmillan. → Volume 1: The Agricultural Era. Volume 2: The Industrial Era.

1934a The Idea of National Interest: An Analytical Study in American Foreign Policy. New York: Macmillan.

1934b The Nature of the Social Sciences in Relation to Objectives of Instruction. New York and Chicago: Scribner.

1934 c The Open Door at Home: A Trial Philosophy of National Interest. New York: Macmillan.

(1934d) 1959 Written History as an Act of Faith. Pages 140–151 in Hans Meyerhoff (editor), The Philosophy of History of Our Time: An Anthology. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday.

1939 Beard, Charles A.; and Beard, Mary R. America in Midpassage. New York: Macmillan.

1942 Beard, Charles A.; and Beard, Mary R. The American Spirit: A Study of the Idea of Civilization in the United States. New York: Macmillan. → A paperback edition was published in 1962 by Collier.

1943 The Republic: Conversations on Fundamentals. New York: Viking.

1948 President Roosevelt and the Coming of the War, 1941: A Study in Appearances and Realities. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press.


Beale, Howard K. (editor) 1954 Charles A. Beard: An Appraisal. Lexington: Univ. of Kentucky Press. → Contains a bibliography of Beard’s writings.

Benson, Lee 1960 Turner and Beard: American Historical Writing Reconsidered. Glencoe, III.: Free Press.

Borning, Bernard C. 1962 The Political and Social Thought of Charles A. Beard. Seattle: Univ. of Washington Press.

Crick, Bernard 1959 The American Science of Politics: Its Origins and Conditions. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

Hicham, John; Krieger, Leonard; and Gilbert, Felix 1965 History. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

Josephson, Matthew 1949 Charles A. Beard: A Memoir. Virginia Quarterly Review 25:585–602.

Pressly, Thomas J. 1954 Americans Interpret Their Civil War. Princeton Univ. Press. → A paperback edition was published in 1962 by Collier.

Strout, Cushing 1958 The Pragmatic Revolt in American History: Carl Becker and Charles Beard. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press.

White, Morton 1949 Social Thought in America: The Revolt Against Formalism. New York: Viking. → A paperback edition was published in 1957 by Beacon.

views updated

Beard, Charles and Mary


The American historian Charles Austin Beard (18741948) in 1900 married Mary Ritter (18761958), a fellow Indiana-born DePauw student who became his lifelong intellectual companion and in her own right a pioneering historian of women. Mary followed Charles to Oxford University in 1900 and later enrolled for graduate work at Columbia University (1902), but pressures of child rearing and her growing involvement in Progressive community causes ended her work there. Charles Beard studied British legal institutions for his PhD in political science at Columbia, where he taught history (19041917); there he also wrote textbooks on European history with James Harvey Robinson and joined the New History movement to revitalize historical practice. Members of the New History movement, or Progressive historians, as they were also known, reoriented history toward solving current problems and integrated social, economic, and intellectual subjects into their political narratives. Beard was not only a Progressive but also a political activist seeking reform of government through the application of academic knowledge when he joined the New York Bureau of Municipal Research in 1914. Resigning from Columbia in protest over the dismissal of an antiwar colleague in 1917, Beard became increasingly dissatisfied with conventional academia as too intellectually conservative, and he helped to found the interdisciplinary and Progressive-oriented New School for Social Research (1919).

Though trained as an historian, Beards contribution straddled the porous borderland between the politics and history disciplines of the era. He wrote, among other works, American Government and Politics (1910), American City Government (1912), and The Economic Basis of Politics (1922). In 1927 he became president of the American Political Science Association, though historians continued to claim his allegiance, and he served as American Historical Association (AHA) president in 1933. Beard assumed a key role in the AHAs attempted reform of high school history curricula as part of the Carnegie-funded Commission on the Social Studies in Schools (19291934). While working on the commission, he advocated in A Charter for the Social Sciences in the Schools (1932) the integration of the social sciences around Progressive history.

Beard was an avowed exponent of the economic interpretation of history as the study of interest groups, though he was not committed to class analysis in a Marxist sense. His controversial An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution (1913) examined the relationship of economics and politics at the Federal Convention of 1787, showing a clash of landed and mercantile property interests. His study of Treasury records revealed that those favoring the Federalist position held securities likely to be repaid if a federal government with a stronger financial basis were established; in a similar interpretive vein, he also wrote Economic Origins of Jeffersonian Democracy (1915). Empirical studies and a counter-Progressive trend in historiography eventually challenged his account of the Constitution, revealing a much more complex array of economic interests within the Federal Convention. His larger intellectual dominance faded by the 1950s, but in the meantime, he had influenced a generation of scholars from the 1920s. Increasingly he had become a public intellectual, reaching a wide audience through popular history books written with his wife.

Mary Beard not only served as a coworker, but also influenced his intellectual vision. She was herself an activist who worked in the suffrage and trade union movements before World War I. Seeing supposedly objective scientific history as biased because historians did not recognize womens past contributions to human society, she stimulated Charles Beards relativist views. These later became a foundation for his presidential address to the AHA, Written History as an Act of Faith, which enunciated his frame of reference approach to historical knowledge. Mary and Charles collaborated on The Rise of American Civilization (1927), a work that sold more than 130,000 copies in early editions and won wide acclaim along with its successor volumes America in Midpassage (1939) and The American Spirit (1942). The Rise of American Civilization innovatively interpreted the Civil War (18611865) and Reconstruction (18651877) as a second American Revolution in which the forces of a (Northern) industrial civilization overcame the agrarian South. The volumes together sought to capture a synthetic view of a holistic and unique civilization shaped by American material abundance, thus linking the economic interpretation to cultural and social history. Mary added much social and cultural history thematic material and textual evidence to these works that examined media, urban life, and social reform.

Mary Beard also wrote on her own, most notably Woman as Force in History (1946), in which she argued that women as much as men had shaped society over the course of human social evolution, and she criticized male historians for neglecting to recognize those contributions. The book did not achieve the success that she had hoped for, but later feminist scholars rediscovered its pioneering ideas. Her efforts to stimulate collection of womens history archives, begun in 1935, added to this legacy concerning her pioneering role.

In their later years the Beards became increasingly alienated from the American mainstream as Charles espoused political isolationism and attacked the foreign policy of Franklin Roosevelt in President Roosevelt and the Coming of the War: A Study in Appearances and Realities, 1941 (1948), but their legacy continued to influence the consensus historians of the 1950s, who tried to transcend the Beards work.

SEE ALSO Gilded Age



Beard, Charles A. 1910. American Government and Politics. New York: Macmillan.

Beard, Charles A. 1912. American City Government. New York: Century.

Beard, Charles A. 1913. An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution. New York: Macmillan.

Beard, Charles A. 1915. Economic Origins of Jeffersonian Democracy. New York: Macmillan.

Beard, Charles A. 1922. The Economic Basis of Politics. New York: Knopf.

Beard, Charles A. 1932. A Charter for the Social Sciences in the Schools. New York: Scribner.

Beard, Charles A. 1948. President Roosevelt and the Coming of the War: A Study in Appearances and Realities, 1941. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Beard, Charles A., and Mary Ritter Beard. 1927. The Rise of American Civilization. New York: Macmillan.

Beard, Charles A., and Mary Ritter Beard. 1939. America in Midpassage. New York: Macmillan.

Beard, Charles A., and Mary Ritter Beard. 1942. The American Spirit. New York: Macmillan.

Beard, Mary Ritter. 1946. Woman as Force in History: A Study in Traditions and Realities. New York: Macmillan.


Cott, Nancy F. 1991. A Woman Making History: Mary Ritter Beard through Her Letters. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Des Jardins, Julie. 2003. Women and the Historical Enterprise in America: Gender, Race, and the Politics of Memory, 18801945. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Hofstadter, Richard. 1968. The Progressive Historians: Turner, Beard, Parrington. New York: Knopf.

Nore, Ellen. 1983. Charles A. Beard: An Intellectual Biography. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Ian Tyrrell

views updated


Few academicians achieve the public recognition and professional respect accorded to historian Charles Austin Beard. His polemic An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States stirred debate among fellow scholars and the U.S. public by contradicting the popular understanding of how and why the United States was founded. A brilliant, original thinker, Beard achieved a unique prominence among twentieth-century historians and political scientists.

Beard was born to well-to-do parents in Knightstown, Indiana, on November 27, 1874. After graduating from Indiana's DePauw University in 1898, he sailed to England to attend

the University of Oxford. While at Oxford, he helped establish Ruskin Hall, a college for British working men that represented to Beard the liberation of the English masses from upperclass domination. In Beard's mind, Ruskin Hall was a symbol and precursor of the true political democracy that would be ushered in by the industrial revolution.

In 1900 Beard returned briefly to the United States to marry Mary Ritter. An intellectual in her own right, Mary Ritter Beard became an invaluable critic and collaborator in the more than fifty books produced during Beard's prolific career. After his marriage, Beard resumed his studies in England, then returned permanently to the United States. He earned his doctor's degree from New York City's Columbia University and in 1904 accepted a teaching position in political science at Columbia.

In 1913, Beard published An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States. The book created a mild sensation because it suggested that the United States was not yet a true democracy. Even more disturbing to some U.S. citizens was Beard's argument that the U.S. Constitution was designed primarily to protect the property rights of the wealthy capitalists attending the Constitutional Convention. He insisted that self-interest, not democratic principles, motivated the Founding Fathers. To Beard, the Constitution was a tribute to the power of class, not democracy.

Although several U.S. politicians criticized Beard's unorthodox view of U.S. history, many of his colleagues praised his innovative approach. They understood how the private economic interests of the colonial ruling class could have had a far-reaching effect on the nascent U.S. government.

In 1917 Beard protested the firing of several Columbia University faculty members by resigning his own position. Beard had been outraged when the university dismissed his colleagues for their refusal to support the United States' involvement in world war i. In 1919 he helped found the New School for Social Research in New York City.

In 1927 Beard produced another remarkable tome, The Rise of American Civilization. Coauthored by his wife, it provided an overview of U.S. history with further insights into the government's origins. This sprawling, two-volume set was followed by America in Midpassage, in 1939, and The American Spirit, in 1942.

During the early 1930s, Beard wrote extensively about the nature of historical knowledge. He was particularly interested in historians' personal biases and the effect of those biases on the presentation of historical facts.

Although Beard was closely associated with the U.S. progressive movement and social reforms, he disagreed with several aspects of franklin d. roosevelt's new deal programs. In 1934 he began an acrimonious, decade-long campaign against Roosevelt's foreign policy. In American Foreign Policy in the Making, 1932–1940 (1946) and President Roosevelt and the Coming of War (1948), Beard maintained that the United States had backed Japan into a corner and had forced the country into a war. His extreme isolationist views damaged his professional reputation to some extent.

Beard died in 1948, at the age of seventy-three. He is remembered as an accomplished historian who influenced the way U.S. citizens view their own history.

further readings

Noble, David W. 1985. The End of American History. Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press.

Snider, Keith F. 2000. "Rethinking Public Administration's Roots in Pragmatism: The Case of Charles A. Beard." American Review of Public Administration 30 (June): 123–43.


Constitution of the United States; Constitution of the United States "Constitutional Convention of 1787" (Sidebar); Constitution of the United States "Federalists vs. Anti-Federalists" (In Focus).

views updated

Charles Austin Beard

Charles Austin Beard (1874-1948), American historian and political scientist, was probably the most influential historical scholar of his time. He is best known for his emphasis on the role of economic interests in American history.

Charles A. Beard was born into a well-to-do family on a farm near Knightstown, Ind., on Nov. 27, 1874. He graduated from DePauw University in 1898. His interest in social problems was stimulated by a visit to Chicago's Hull House and subsequent study at Oxford in England, where he came in contact with economic reformers and helped found Ruskin Hall, a workingmen's school. In 1900 he married Mary Ritter, whom he had met at DePauw; they had a daughter and a son.

After taking his doctorate at Columbia University in 1904, Beard taught there until he resigned in 1917 in the midst of a controversy over academic freedom and the right of professors to criticize the government's war policy. After that, except for his participation in the New School for Social Research, he never again held a regular academic post. Financially well-off and the author of highly successful textbooks, Beard worked at his farm in New Milford, Conn. An amazingly prolific writer, he published, alone or with collaborators (particularly his wife), some 60 books and 300 articles. Between world Wars I and II he was nationally and internationally prominent as scholar, adviser, publicist, and polemicist on questions of public administration and various aspects of social and foreign policy.

Beard caused an early sensation with An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (1913), a study of the property holdings of the Founding Fathers; it concluded that they "were, with few exceptions, immediately, directly, and personally interested in, and derived economic advantages from, the establishment of the new system, " and maintained that "the Constitution was essentially an economic document." Viewing American history as a conflict between financial and agrarian interests, Beard carried his analysis further in his Economic Origins of Jeffersonian Democracy (1915) and most brilliantly in his and Mary Beard's The Rise of American Civilization (1927). The latter volume popularized a view of the Civil War as a "Second American Revolution, " in which capitalists carried out against the property interests of slave-holding planters "the most stupendous act of sequestration in the history of Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence." In addition, the Beards charged that the 14th Amendment was planned from the beginning to be a bulwark for the property rights of corporations.

Ever a reformer and a longtime advocate of a planned democratic economy, Beard, in the manner of his teacher and colleague at Columbia, James Harvey Robinson, saw the writing of history as providing tools for progressive social change. By 1933, when he gave his presidential address to the American Historical Association, he was convinced of the radical subjectivity of historical knowledge: "written history" was merely "an act of faith, "and the ideal of objectivity, he later asserted, was only a "noble dream." As his economic determinist viewpoint lost rigidity, he was able to assess the Founding Fathers more traditionally in The Republic (1943).

During the 1930s Beard was a staunch continentalist and isolationist and vigorously opposed American involvement in World War II. His last years were devoted to a highly controversial study of the approach of war, in which he placed heavy blame upon Franklin D. Roosevelt: President Roosevelt and the Coming of the War, 1941 (1948). Since Beard's death on Sept. 1, 1948, his historical methods and characteristic views of American history have been seriously attacked by new generations of historians.

Further Reading

Some biographical material appears in Mary Beard, The Making of Charles A. Beard: An Interpretation (1955). Beard's career is insightfully discussed and appraised in Richard Hofstadter, The Progressive Historians: Turner, Beard, Parrington (1968), and in Cushing Strout, The Pragmatic Revolt in American History: Carl Becker and Charles Beard (1958). Howard K. Beale, ed., Charles A. Beard: An Appraisal (1954), contains a number of useful assessments.

Additional Sources

Borning, Bernard C., The political and social thought of Charles A. Beard, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1984, 1962.

Nore, Ellen, Charles A. Beard, an intellectual biography, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983. □

views updated

Charles Austin Beard, 1874–1948, American historian, b. near Knightstown, Ind. A year at Oxford as a graduate student gave him an interest in English local government, and after further study at Cornell and Columbia universities he wrote, for his doctoral dissertation at Columbia, The Office of Justice of the Peace in England (1904, repr. 1962). While teaching (1904–17) history and politics at Columbia, he joined James Harvey Robinson in promoting the teaching of history that would encompass all aspects of civilization, including economics, politics, the intellectual life, and culture. Together they wrote The Development of Modern Europe (1907) and compiled an accompanying book of readings.

Beard was especially concerned with the relationship of economic interests and politics. His study of the conservative economic interests of the men at the Federal Constitutional Convention, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution (1913), caused much stir; he also wrote Economic Origins of Jeffersonian Democracy (1915, repr. 1965) and The Economic Basis of Politics (1922). His interest in city government led to American City Government (1912) as well as the long-standard American Government and Politics (1910). After resigning from Columbia in World War I, he helped to found the New School for Social Research (now New School Univ.), was director (1917–22) of the Training School for Public Service in New York City, and was an adviser on administration in Tokyo after the disastrous Japanese earthquake of 1923. Beard wrote A Charter for the Social Sciences in the Schools (1932), which had an enormous influence on the teaching of history.

Beard became widely known to the general reading public through The Rise of American Civilization (2 vol., 1927, repr. 1933) and its sequels (Vol. III and Vol. IV), America in Midpassage (1939), and The American Spirit (1943), all written in collaboration with his wife, Mary Ritter Beard, 1876–1958. This panoramic work is an example of the broad historical view that Beard championed; the great store of fact is laid open with easy and graceful literary style. With his wife he also later wrote a brief survey, The Beards' Basic History of the United States (1944, rev. ed. 1960).

Charles Beard, much criticized as a radical in his earlier years, was just as much criticized by the liberals in his later years for his violent opposition to Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration, especially in the struggle over the Supreme Court and in foreign policy. Beard's last work was President Roosevelt and the Coming of the War, 1941 (1948, repr. 1968). Mary R. Beard, a historian in her own right, was particularly interested in feminism and the labor movement and wrote a number of works on the subjects, notably Women's Work in Municipalities (1915), A Short History of the American Labor Movement (1920), On Understanding Women (1931), and Woman as Force in History (1946).

See studies by B. C. Borning (1962) and R. Hofstadter (1968, repr. 1970).