Charles A. Beard
Born November 27, 1874
Knightstown, Indiana, USA
Died September 1, 1948
New Haven, Connecticut, USA
Charles Austin Beard (November 27, 1874 - September 1, 1948) was, with Frederick Jackson Turner, the most influential American historian of the early 20th century. 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. His approach lost favor in the history profession after 1950 as conservative scholars demonstrated the 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 John Ruskin at Oxford in the founding of Ruskin House, the first institution of labor education, and which set in motion a succession of failed attempts in the United States which finally culminated with the founding of the National Labor College in 1999.
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's reputation rests on his wide-ranging and bestselling The Rise of American Civilization (1927) and its two sequels, America in Midpassage (1939), and The American Spirit (1943). They were written in collaboration with his wife, Mary Ritter Beard 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. 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. (Hofstadter 1979) 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.
Although a leading supporter of the early New Deal, Beard grew critical of Franklin D. Roosevelt's aggressive foreign policy. Beard promoted "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 isolationism. 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, which is perhaps ironic considering Beard's generally liberal (or progressive) stance on most other issues. Beard's stress on greed and economic motivation influenced the "Wisconsin school" of New Left historians William Appleman Williams, Gabriel Kolko, and James Weinstein.
ReferencesWikiquote has a collection of quotations related to:Charles A. Beard
- Clyde W. Barrow. More Than a Historian: The Political and Economic Thought of Charles A. Beard. (2000).
- Charles Beard, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (1913).
- Robert Eldon Brown, Charles Beard and the Constitution: A critical analysis of "An economic interpretation of the Constitution" (1954).
- 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.
- Nancy F. Cott. A Woman Making History: Mary Ritter Beard through Her Letters. (1991).
- Cott, Nancy. Online article from The Reader's Companion to American History
- Marc Egnal, "The Beards Were Right: Parties in the North, 1840-1860," Civil War History, Vol. 47, 2001
- Richard Hofstadter, The Progressive Historians: Turner, Beard, Parrington (1979), analysis of Beard's historiography.
- Kennedy, Thomas C. Charles A. Beard and American Foreign Policy (1975)
- Forrest McDonald We The People: The Economic Origins of the Constitution (1958)
- Ellen Nore. Charles A. Beard: An Intellectual Biography (1983).
- Works by Charles A. Beard at Project Gutenberg
- Ronald Radosh. Prophets on the Right: Profiles of Conservative Critics of American Globalism (1978)
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