Charles A. Beard

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Charles A. Beard
Charles Austin Beard in 1917.jpg
Beard in 1917
Born Charles Austin Beard
(1874-11-27)November 27, 1874
Knightstown, Indiana, U.S.
Died Script error: The function "death_date_and_age" does not exist.
New Haven, Connecticut, U.S.
Nationality American
Alma mater DePauw University (B.A., History, 1898)
Columbia University (Ph.D., 1904)
Occupation Historian, co-founder of The New School
Spouse(s) 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 a 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, An Economic Interpretation of the U.S. Constitution (1913), has been the subject of great controversy ever since its publication. While frequently criticized for its methodology and conclusions, it was responsible for a wide-ranging reinterpretation of American history of the founding era.[1][2][3] He was also the co-author with his wife Mary Beard of The Rise of American Civilization (1927), which had a major influence on American historians.[4]

An icon of the progressive school of historical interpretation, his reputation suffered during the Cold War era when the subject of economic class conflict was anathema to most historians. 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".[5] Hofstadter, nevertheless, praised Beard, saying he was "foremost among the American historians of his or any generation in the search for a usable past".[6]



Charles Beard was born into a well-to-do family in the Indiana Corn Belt in 1874. His father was a banker and farmer. In his youth he did 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.[7]

Beard attended DePauw University, graduating in 1898. He edited the college newspaper and belonged to the debate team. He married his classmate Mary Ritter 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 textbooks.[8]


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 United States 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 (1906).[9] 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 history department to the department of public law and then to a new chair in politics and government. He also regularly taught a course in American history at Barnard College. In addition to teaching he coached the debate team and wrote about public affairs, especially municipal reform.[10]

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. He emphasized the polarity between agrarians and business interests.[11] Academics and politicians denounced the book, but it was well respected by scholars until challenged and discredited in the 1950s.[12]

Resigns in First World War

Though he completely supported American participation in the First World War, he resigned from Columbia University on October 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."[13][14] Following a series of faculty departures from Columbia in disputes about academic freedom, his friend James Harvey Robinson also resigned from Columbia in May 1919 to become one of the founders of the New School for Social Research and serve as its first director.

Independent scholar

Beard never sought a permanent academic appointment. Living on lucrative royalties from textbooks and other bestsellers, the couple operated a dairy farm in rural Connecticut that attracted many academic visitors.

The Beards were active in helping to found the New School for Social Research (a.k.a. The New School) in Greenwich Village, New York City, where the faculty would control its own membership. 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.[15] 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.

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.[16] He was also a member of the American Historical Association and served as its president in 1933.[17] In political science he was best known for his textbooks, 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, consistent with his Quaker roots. He became one of the leading proponents of American non-interventionism seeking to avoid American involvement in Europe's wars. 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. Beard's last two books were American Foreign Policy in the Making: 1932–1940 (1946) and President Roosevelt and the Coming of War (1948). Beard blamed FDR for lying to the American people and tricking them into war, which some historians and political scientists have disputed.[18]

Personal and Death

Beard died in New Haven, Connecticut, on September 1, 1948. He was interred in Ferncliff Cemetery, Hartsdale, Westchester County, New York, joined by his wife Mary a decade later.[19]


Progressive historiography

By the 1950s Beard's economic interpretation of history had fallen 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. Still, 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.[20]


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.[21] 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.[22]

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.”[23]

It should be noted that, in a strong sense, this view simply involved a reaffirmation of the position Beard had always criticized by saying that parties were prone to switch rhetorical ideals when interest dictated.[24]

Beard's economic determinism was largely replaced by the intellectual history approach, which stressed the power of ideas, especially republicanism, in stimulating the Revolution.[25] However, the legacy of examining the economic interests of American historical actors endures. Recently, in To Form a More Perfect Union: A New Economic Interpretation of the United States Constitution (2003), Robert A. McGuire, relying on a sophisticated statistical analysis, has shown that Beard's basic thesis regarding the impact of economic interests in the making of the Constitution is not off the mark.[26]

Civil War and Reconstruction

The Beardian interpretation of the Civil War was highly influential among historians and the general public from its publication in 1927 until well into the civil rights era of the 1950s. The Beards downplayed slavery, abolitionism, and issues of morality. They ignored constitutional issues of states rights and even ignored American nationalism as the force that finally led to victory in the war. Indeed the ferocious combat itself was passed over as merely an ephemeral event. Much more important was the calculus of class conflict. The Beards announced that the Civil War was really a "social cataclysm in which the capitalists, laborers, and farmers of the North and West drove from power in the national government the planting aristocracy of the South".[27]

The Beards were especially interested in the postwar era, as the industrialists of the Northeast and the farmers of the West cashed in on their great victory over the southern aristocracy. Hofstadter paraphrases the Beards as arguing that in victory:

the Northern capitalists were able to impose their economic program, quickly passing a series of measures on tariffs, banking, homesteads, and immigration that guaranteed the success of their plans for economic development. Solicitude for the Freedman had little to do with northern policies. The Fourteenth Amendment, which gave the Negro his citizenship, Beard found significant primarily as a result of a conspiracy of a few legislative draftsman friendly to corporations to use the supposed elevation of the blacks as a cover for a fundamental law giving strong protection to business corporations against regulation by state government.[28]

Dealing with the Reconstruction era 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.[29] 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.[30]


The unapologetic isolationism that Beard espoused in the final decade of his life was disputed by many 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 diplomatic historian 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).


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  4. Ellen Nore, Charles A. Beard: An Intellectual Biography (1983).
  5. Hofstadter, The Progressive Historians (1968), 344
  6. Kraus and Joyce, Writing of American History, p265.
  7. Thomas Bender. "Beard, Charles Austin" in American National Biography Online (2000)
  8. Nancy F. Cott. "Beard, Mary Ritter"; American National Biography Online (2000)
  9. See online October 1906 edition
  10. Bender, 2000
  11. See 1921 edition
  12. Peter J. Coleman, "Beard, McDonald, and Economic Determinism in American Historiography," Business History Review (1960) 34#1 pp. 113-121 in JSTOR
  13. Michael, Rosenthal, Nicholas Miraculous: The Amazing Career of the Redoubtable Dr. Nicholas Murray Butler (2006), 236ff.
  14. 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
  15. The Administration and Politics of Tokyo, 1923
  16. Past Presidents List, APSA website.
  17. Past Presidents List, AHA website.
  18. Gerald Stourzh, "Charles A. Beard's Interpretations of American Foreign Policy," World Affairs Quarterly (1957) 28#2 pp 111-148.
  20. Hofstadter, The Progressive Historians ch 6
  21. Clyde W. Barrow, More Than a Historian: The Political and Economic Thought of Charles A. Beard (2000) Page 5 online
  22. 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
  23. 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
  24. Charles Beard, The Economic Basis of Politics (new York: Vintage, 1957; original 1922), pp. 158-9
  25. See Forrest McDonald, "Colliding with the Past," Reviews in American History 25.1 (1997) 13-18
  27. Charles A. Beard and Mary R. Beard, The Rise of American Civilization (1927), 2:54
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  29. Hofstadter, The Progressive Historians: Turner, Beard, Parrington. 1968
  30. Hofstadter 1968

Published works of Charles A. (and Mary Ritter) Beard: a brief selection

  • Works by Charles A. Beard at Project Gutenberg
  • Beard, Charles A. "Some Economic Origins of Jeffersonian Democracy," American Historical Review (1914) 19#2 pp 282–298. in JSTOR
  • Beard, Charles, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (1913) online edition
  • Beard, Charles, Economic Origins of Jeffersonian Democracy, (1915) online edition
  • Beard, Charles A. and Beard, Mary Ritter. History of the United States (2 vols.) (1921) vol 1. online ed. June 13, 2007
  • Beard, Charles, The Administration and Politics of Tokyo, (1923) online edition
  • Beard, Charles A. and Beard, Mary Ritter, The Rise of American Civilization (1927) online edition
  • Beard, Charles, A Century of Progress (1932) excerpts re Government and Law and The Idea of Progress [1]
  • Beard, Charles, The Myth of Rugged American Individualism, John Day (1932)
  • Beard, Charles, APSA Presidential Address [2]
  • Beard, Charles A. "Written history as an act of faith." American Historical Review (1934) 39#2 pp 219–231.AHA Presidential Address online
  • Beard, Charles A. "That noble dream," American Historical Review (1935) 41#1 pp 74–87. in JSTOR
  • Beard, Charles A. President Roosevelt and the Coming of the War 1941 (Transaction Publishers, 1948).
  • AHA Bibliography of the writings of Charles Beard


  • Barrow, Clyde W., More Than a Historian: The Political and Economic Thought of Charles A. Beard (2000)
  • Blaser, Kent. "The rise of American civilization and the contemporary crisis in American historiography." History Teacher (1992) 26#1 pp 71–90. in JSTOR
  • Borning, Bernard C. "The Political Philosophy of Young Charles A. Beard," American Political Science Review (1949) 43#6 pp 1165–1178. in JSTOR
  • 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)
  • Coleman, Peter J. "Beard, McDonald, and Economic Determinism in American Historiography," Business History Review (1960) 34#1 pp. 113–121 in JSTOR
  • Cott, Nancy F., A Woman Making History: Mary Ritter Beard through Her Letters (1991)
  • Cott, Nancy F. "Beard, Mary Ritter" American National Biography Online (2000)
  • Dennis, L. George S. Counts and Charles A. Beard: Collaborators for Change. (SUNY Series in the Philosophy of Education). (State Univ of New York Press, 1990)
  • Egnal, Marc, "The Beards Were Right: Parties in the North, 1840-1860," Civil War History, Vol. 47, 2001
  • Hofstadter, Richard. "Beard and the Constitution: The History of an Idea," American Quarterly (1950) 2#3 pp 195–213. in JSTOR
  • 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
  • Lann, Ann J. Mary Ritter Beard: A Sourcebook (1977)
  • McDonald, Forrest, We The People: The Economic Origins of the Constitution (1958)
  • Nore, Ellen, Charles A. Beard: An Intellectual Biography (1983). online edition
  • Phillips, Clifton J. "The Indiana Education of Charles A. Beard," Indiana Magazine of History (1959) 55#1 pp 1–15. in JSTOR
  • Radosh, Ronald, Prophets on the Right: Profiles of Conservative Critics of American Globalism (1978)
  • Strout, Cushing. The Pragmatic Revolt in American History: Carl Becker and Charles Beard (1958) online edition
  • Williams, William Appleman. "A Note on Charles Austin Beard's Search for a General Theory of Causation," American Historical Review (1956) 62#1 pp 59–80. in JSTOR

External links