Charles A. Beard

Charles A. Beard
Charles Austin Beard
Born November 27, 1874(1874-11-27)
Knightstown, Indiana, U.S.
Died September 1, 1948(1948-09-01) (aged 73)
New Haven, Connecticut, U.S.
Nationality  American
Occupation Historian, co-founder of The New School
Spouse Mary Ritter Beard

Charles Austin Beard (November 27, 1874 – September 1, 1948) was, with Frederick Jackson Turner, one of the most influential American historians of the first half of the 20th century. He published hundreds of monographs, textbooks and interpretive studies in both history and political science. His works included radical re-evaluation of the founding fathers of the United States, who he believed were motivated more by economics than by philosophical principles. Beard's most influential book, written with his wife Mary Beard, was the wide-ranging and bestselling The Rise of American Civilization (1927), which had a major influence on American historians.

Beard was famous as a political liberal, but he strenuously opposed American entry into World War II, for which he blamed Franklin D. Roosevelt more than Japan or Germany. This stance destroyed his career,[1] as his fellow scholars repudiated his foreign policy and dropped his materialistic model of class conflict. Richard Hofstadter concluded in 1968: "Today Beard's reputation stands like an imposing ruin in the landscape of American historiography. What was once the grandest house in the province is now a ravaged survival."[2]




Charles Beard was born into a wealthy Indiana family in 1874. In his youth he experienced the rigors hard physical labor working on the family farm and attended a local Quaker school, Spiceland Academy. He was expelled from the school when he and his brother Clarence printed a pamphlet criticizing the faculty and administration of Indiana University, where Clarence was a student. Charles graduated from Knightstown High School in 1891. For the next few years the brothers managed a local newspaper. Their editorial position supported the Republican Party and favored prohibition, a cause for which Charles Beard lectured in later years.

Beard attended DePauw University where he studied history until graduating in 1898. He edited the college newspaper and belonged to the debate team. At a dance class, he met Mary Ritter, whom he married in 1900. As a historian, Mary Beard's research interests lay in feminism and the labor union movement (Woman as a Force in History, 1946). They collaborated on many works of history, including the popular survey, The Beards' Basic History of the United States.[3][4]


Beard went to England in 1899 for graduate studies at Oxford University. He collaborated with Walter Vrooman in founding Ruskin Hall, a school meant to be accessible to the working man. In exchange for reduced tuition, students worked in the school's various businesses. Beard taught for the first time at Ruskin Hall and he lectured to workers in industrial towns to promote Ruskin Hall and to encourage enrollment in correspondence courses.[citation needed]


The Beards returned to the U.S. in 1902, where Charles pursued graduate work in history at Columbia University. He received his doctorate in 1904 and immediately joined the faculty as a lecturer. In order to provide his students with reading materials that were hard to acquire, he compiled a large collection of essays and excerpts in a single volume: An Introduction to the English Historians.[5] That sort of compendium, so commonplace in later decades, was an innovation at the time.

An extraordinarily active author of scholarly books, textbooks, and articles for the political magazines, Beard's career flourished. Beard moved from the department of History to Public Law and then to a new chair in Politics and Government. In addition to teaching, he coached the debate team and wrote about public affairs, especially municipal reform.[citation needed]

Economic Interpretation

Among many works he published during these years at Columbia, the most controversial was An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (1913), an interpretation of how the economic interests of the members of the Constitutional Convention affected their votes. Academics and politicians denounced the book, but it was well respected by scholars until the 1950s[who?].[6]

Resigns in First World War

Though he completely supported American participation in the First World War, he resigned from Columbia on Oct. 8, 1917, charging that "the University is really under the control of a small and active group of trustees who have no standing in the world of education, who are reactionary and visionless in politics, narrow and medieval in religion. I am convinced that while I remain in the pay of the Trustees of Columbia University I cannot do effectively my part in sustaining public opinion in support of the just war on the German Empire." [7][8]

Independent scholar

He soon helped to found The New School in Greenwich Village, New York City, where the faculty would control its own membership. He later left to enjoy his home in rural Connecticut free of academic responsibilities; his many books and textbooks provided a steady stream of revenue. Enlarging upon his interest in urban affairs, he toured Japan and produced a volume of recommendations for the reconstructing of Tokyo after the earthquake of 1923.[9] His financial independence was secured by The Rise of American Civilization (1927), and its two sequels, America in Midpassage (1939), and The American Spirit (1943), all written with his wife, Mary.[citation needed]

Beard had parallel careers as a historian and political scientist. He was active in the American Political Science Association and was elected its President in 1926.[10] He was also a member of the American Historical Association and served as its president in 1933.[11] 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,


Though he had been a leading liberal supporter of the New Deal, Beard turned against Franklin Delano Roosevelt's foreign policy. He became one of the leading proponents of American non-interventionism. He promoted "American Continentalism" as an alternative, arguing that the United States had no vital interests at stake in Europe and that a foreign war could lead to domestic dictatorship. He continued to press this position after the war, even when the American victory in World War II seemed to have discredited his earlier warnings. 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. Most historians and political scientists rejected Beard's theory and it damaged his reputation.[12]

By the 1950s Beard's economic interpretation of history was also out of favor; only a few prominent historians held to his view of class conflict as a primary driver in American history, among them Howard K. Beale and C. Vann Woodward.

Progressive historiography

As a leader of the "progressive historians," or "progressive historiography," Beard 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.


Historian Carl Becker in History of Political Parties in the Province of New York, 1760-1776 (1909) formulated the Progressive interpretation of the American Revolution. He said there were two revolutions: one against Britain to obtain home rule, and the other to determine who should rule at home. Beard expanded upon Becker's thesis, in terms of class conflict, in An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (1913) and An Economic Interpretation of Jeffersonian Democracy (1915). To Beard, the Constitution was a counter-revolution, set up by rich bondholders ("personalty" since bonds were "personal property"), in opposition to the farmers and planters ("realty" since land was "real property.") Beard argued the Constitution was designed to reverse the radical democratic tendencies unleashed by the Revolution among the common people, especially farmers and debtors. In 1800, said Beard, the farmers and debtors, led by plantation slave owners, overthrew the capitalists and established Jeffersonian democracy. Other historians supported the class-conflict interpretation, noting the states confiscated great semi-feudal landholdings of loyalists and gave them out in small parcels to ordinary farmers. Conservatives, such as William Howard Taft, were shocked at the Progressive interpretation because it seemed to belittle the Constitution.[13] Many scholars, however, eventually adopted Beard's thesis and by 1950 it had become the standard interpretation of the era.

Beginning about 1950, however, historians started to argue that the progressive interpretation was factually incorrect because it was not true that the voters were polarized along two economic lines. These historians were led by Charles A. Barker, Philip Crowl, Richard P. McCormick, William Pool, Robert Thomas, John Munroe, Robert E. Brown and B. Kathryn Brown, and above all Forrest McDonald.[14]

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, McDonald identified some three dozen identifiable interests that forced the delegates to bargain.

Evaluating the historiographical debate, Peter Novick concluded:

“By the early 1960s it was generally accepted within the historical profession that ...Beard’s Progressive version of the ...framing of the Constitution had been decisively refuted. American historians came to see ....the framers of the Constitution, rather than having self-interested motives, were led by concern for political unity, national economic development, and diplomatic security.”[15]

Beard's economic determinism was largely replaced by the intellectual history approach, which stressed the power of ideas, especially republicanism, in stimulating the Revolution.[16] However, the legacy of examining the economic interests of American historical actors endures.


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 argued 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.[17] 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.[18]


The unapologetic isolationism that Beard espoused in the final decade of his life was rejected by most contemporary historians and political scientists. However, some of the arguments in his President Roosevelt and the Coming of the War influenced the "Wisconsin school" of New Left or revisionist historians in the 1960s, among them William Appleman Williams, Gabriel Kolko, and James Weinstein. On the right, Beard's foreign policy views have become popular with "paleoconservatives" like Pat Buchanan. Certain elements of his isolationism, especially his advocacy of a non-interventionist foreign policy, have enjoyed a minor comeback among a few scholars since 2001. For example, Andrew Bacevich, a historian of diplomacy at Boston University, has cited Beardian skepticism towards armed overseas intervention as a starting point for a critique of post-Cold-War American foreign policy in his American Empire (2004).


  1. ^ Burris, Charles (2007-08-01) Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal: An Annotated Bibliographic Guide,
  2. ^ Hofstadter, The Progressive Historians (1968), 344
  3. ^ First edition: Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc., 1944
  4. ^ Beard, Charles A.; Beard, Mary R., History of the United States, (1921).
  5. ^ See online 1906 edition
  6. ^ See 1921 edition
  7. ^ Michael, Rosenthal, Nicholas Miraculous: The Amazing Career of the Redoubtable Dr. Nicholas Murray Butler (2006), 236ff.
  8. ^ New York Times: "Quits Columbia; Assails Trustees" Oct. 9, 1917. A sarcastic editorial in the New York Times hailed his resignation, saying the university would be better off without the services of those "teachers of false doctrines sheltering themselves behind the shibboleth of academic freedom." New York Times: "Columbia's Deliverance" Oct. 10, 1917
  9. ^ The Administration and Politics of Tokyo, 1923
  10. ^ Past Presidents List, APSA website.
  11. ^ Past Presidents List, AHA website.
  12. ^ Ellen Nore, Charles A. Beard: An Intellectual Biography (1983)
  13. ^ Clyde W. Barrow, More Than a Historian: The Political and Economic Thought of Charles A. Beard (2000) Page 5 online
  14. ^ Robert Livingston Schuyler, "Forrest McDonald's Critique of the Beard Thesis," Journal of Southern History 1961 27(1): 73-80; Peter J. Coleman, "Beard, McDonald, and Economic Determinism in American Historiography," Business History Review 1960 34(1): 113-121
  15. ^ Peter Novick, That Noble Dream (1988) p 336. Ellen Nore, Beard’s biographer, concludes his interpretation of the Constitution collapsed due to more recent and sophisticated analysis. Ellen Nore, "Charles A. Beard's Economic Interpretation of the Origins of the Constitution," This Constitution: a Bicentennial Chronicle 1987 (17): 39-44
  16. ^ See Forrest McDonald, "Colliding with the Past," Reviews in American History 25.1 (1997) 13-18
  17. ^ Hofstadter, The Progressive Historians: Turner, Beard, Parrington. 1968
  18. ^ Hofstadter 1968


  • 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 (1968), pp 167–346. Detailed 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)

Primary sources

External links

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