Carl Becker 1873-1945
(Full name Carl Lotus Becker) American historian and philosopher.
Becker is known primarily for his ideas concerning the writing of history. He is included prominently among the New or Progressive historians, whose cause he helped further by arguing against the idea of a discernible, objective history. "The past," Becker wrote, "is a kind of screen upon which each generation projects its vision of the future." He maintained that each cultural period possesses a set of examined and unexamined generalizations that are an indication of the greatest aspirations and hopes as well as the weaknesses and fears of the age; this he dubbed the "climate of opinion." Since he considered this climate inescapable, he encouraged historians to recognize their cultural and temporal biases and limitations.
Becker was born on a farm near Waterloo, Iowa. He was recognized as an exceptional student in high school and in 1892 entered Cornell College, a Methodist school at Mt. Vernon, Iowa. After one year he transferred to the University of Wisconsin, where he studied under Frederick Jackson Turner, historian of the American frontier, and where he earned a bachelor's degree and in 1907 a doctorate. During this time he spent one year at Columbia University on a graduate fellowship. Between 1899 and 1901 Becker taught at several colleges and universities, including the University of Kansas and the University of Minnesota. In 1917 he was invited to Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, where he taught until his retirement in 1941. Becker died in 1945.
The first of Becker's works to enjoy wide acclaim was The Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideas (1922). Becker's next great success and his best known book was The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers (1932), in which he put forth the thesis that the philosophes of the Englightenment, with their mix of secular rationalism and religious faith, more closely resembled thinkers of the Middle Ages than they did those of modern times. In 1935 he published Everyman His Own Historian, his presidential address to the American Historical Association. This work, which amounts to a manifesto in favor of the relativist historical view, is considered seminal to this school of modern historians. Relativist historians reject the idea of an objective, wholly knowable past. Becker was also the author of a well-regarded and very successful high school textbook, Modern History: The Rise of a Democratic, Scientific, and Industrialized Civilization (1931).
Becker is generally praised for his abilities as a prose stylist, while often arousing controversy over his approach to writing about history. Some critics contend that his interpretations often came at the expense of ignoring all the contributing factors to historical events. As Max Lerner has noted: "He leaves out of account the whole play of economic and political forces out of which ideas grow. He is so concerned with giving us the climate of opinion that he forgets about the soil of opinion." According to Richard Nelson, Becker's irony and keen sense of style led some fellow historians to dismisss him as "a clever stylist without serious content." Although he has been accused of inconsistency and of failing to reach a real definition of history, he has also been praised for continuing to grapple with the difficulties of his position of historical relativism throughout his life. As James L. Penick, Jr. has written, Becker avoided "the sop of self-deception; even when most resigned, he never ceased to speculate."
The History of Political Parties in the Province of New York, 1760-1776 (history) 1909
The Beginnings of the American People (history) 1915
The Eve of the Revolution: A Chronicle of the Breach with England (history) 1918
The United States: An Experiment in Democracy (history) 1920; also published as Our Great Experiment in Democracy: A History of the United States The Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideas (history) 1922
Modern History: The Rise of a Democratic, Scientific, and Industrialized Civilization (textbook) 1931
The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers (history) 1932
Everyman His Own Historian (history) 1935
Progress and Power (history) 1936
The Story of Civilization (history) 1938
Modern Democracy (history) 1941
New Liberties for Old (history) 1941
Cornell University: Founders and the Founding (history) 1943
How New Will the Better World Be? (history) 1944
Freedom and Responsibility in the American Way of Life (history) 1945
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SOURCE: "Carl Becker: Historian of the Heavenly City," in Ideas Are Weapons, The Viking Press, 1939, pp. 235-43.
[In the following essay, Lerner praises The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers but states that Becker's central argument in this work is weakened by his decision to ignore the economic and social conditions of the period.]
[The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers] is a book so simple, so light, so clear, that one feels didactic in pointing out that it is really a scholarly study in the history of ideas, and a bit ponderous in assessing it (as it must none the less be assessed) a classic. It is cast unmistakably in an enduring mold. Into it a lavish scholarship has been poured, but with a hand so deft as to conceal everything except the significant. Those who seek the tortuous in thought and the magisterial in style will do well to avoid this book. They will be cruelly duped by its effortless clarity and will conclude that what is so smooth in the reading cannot have been weighty in the writing. For Mr. Becker has attained here that final simplicity by which the idea and the word are but phases of each other and move to a seemingly inevitable rhythm. In this book he reveals more fully even than in his previous writing a maturity and a wisdom that flow lightly from his experience but for which the rest of us must sweat. He has achieved that...
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SOURCE: An Introduction to Freedom and Responsibility in the American Way of Life by Carl Lotus Becker. Alfred A. Knopf, 1945, pp. vii-xlii.
[In his introduction to Freedom and Responsibility in the American Way of Life, Sabine notes that Becker consistently questioned democracy, aiming for an "idealism without illusions and a realism without cynicism. '
Carl Becker united in a remarkable way the quality of incisive and critical intelligence with humanity of feeling and action. He had experienced in his own thought all the negative influences of modern scientific and philosophical criticism. He had subjected the intellectual framework of the democracy which he loved to the keenest and coolest analysis and had allowed his wit and irony to play over its illusions and its failures. He had found in the framework of the democratic tradition much that was traditional only, much that reflected the religion and the science and the morals of a day gone by, which could no longer endure the light of a maturer science and a new economy. With rare intellectual sensitivity he responded to all the currents of a changing social situation and a changing social thought, in an age when change was rapid and often destructive and when thought was likely to be directionless and conflicting. Yet his life and his thought were at all times molded by the humane ideals of the democratic tradition which he criticized and...
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SOURCE: "Carl Becker, Skeptic or Humanist?," in The Journal of Modern History, Vol. XVIII, No. 2, June, 1946, pp. 160-62.
[In the following essay, Gottschalk argues that Freedom and Responsibility in the American Way of Life, Becker's final work, shows his lifelong cynicism to be tempered with optimism.]
In several ways [Carl Becker's final work, Freedom and Responsibility in the American Way of Life] resembles his How New Will the Better World Be? (1944). Indeed, as the author's preface indicates, parts of it are borrowed from the earlier work. The essential difference between them is in the focus of attention. Whereas How New Will the Better World Be? was concerned with international affairs and world organization, Freedom and Responsibility in the American Way of Life deals with United States problems and domestic reform.
In both books Becker, as becomes a historian, reveals a wholesome respect for the principle of continuity in history. Each goes far back into history to trace the roots of contemporary problems. Each seems to say: "The past is both dead and living. It is both an incubus and a source of nourishment. He who forgets the past and thinks that the world can start anew is as unrealistic as he who is blind to the future and thinks that everything must be as it always has been." It is in keeping with this attitude that...
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SOURCE: "Carl Becker: The Historian as a Literary Craftsman," in The William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. IX, July, 1952, pp. 291-316.
[In the following essay, Smith shows Becker to have been a writer whose concerns were as much literary as they were historical and philosophical.]
If it be said that politics has nothing to do with literature, or that the form of a document can be appreciated without reference to its content, I do not agree. On the contrary, it is a favorite notion of mine that in literary discourse form and content are but two aspects of the same thing. [Becker, The Declation of Independence]
If what Becker said about historical method was unpalatable to many other historians, the way he said it could arouse only admiration and envy. His philosophy of history might be heresy, his research dangerously submerged, but his gift for writing was everywhere acknowledged. In a period when historians were beginning to condemn themselves roundly for ruining popular interest in history by their bad writing, and were setting committees to study the problem, a scholar who could also write won rapid recognition. Becker's Wisconsin doctoral dissertation was held up to students at Yale "as an illustration of what may be done" [Max Farrand to Becker, Dec. 22, 1909]. When his first book, The Beginnings of the American People, appeared,...
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SOURCE: "The Heavenly City: A Too-ingenious Paradox," in Carl Becker's Heavenly City Revisited, edited by Raymond 0. Rockwood, Cornell, 1958, pp. 141-55.
[In the following essay, Bowen criticizes The Heavenly City for its assumption that contemporary philosophical fashions establish the final validity of beliefs of an earlier age.]
Carl Becker's book about the eighteenth-century Philosophers is nearly as difficult to write about as it is easy to read. The odds are, in the first place, that any commentary will be less lively and less persuasive than the original. To praise it seems superfluous, considering the large number who are already convinced that it is a masterpiece. To find fault with it seems, by the same token, presumptuous or—in view of its many merits—ungracious. The book and its thesis must be taken seriously because of Becker's stature as a historian and because of the tremendous influence his book has had, particularly in America, on thinking about the Enlightenment. Yet too much solemnity might well be dangerous, for it is entirely possible that Becker had his tongue in his cheek a good part of the time. One more than half suspects that in a number of places he was mischievously indulging his well-known taste for paradox and that more-than anything else he was trying to stir people up in order to start them thinking.
This ability of Becker's to overcome...
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SOURCE: "The Heavenly City of Carl Becker," in Carl Becker's Heavenly City Revisited, edited by Raymond 0. Rockwood, Cornell, 1958, pp. 189-207.
[In the following essay, Gershoy provides an overview of The Heavenly City in the context of Becker's earlier and later work, emphasizing Becker's strong belief in democracy.]
Of all of Carl Becker's writings, The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers, if the number of printings is any criterion, is the most admired. Composed rapidly, between the late fall of 1930 and the spring of 1931, it was easily written because the subject matter of those lectures had been in the forefront of his thinking for many years. On a stylistic level, it is Becker at his most delightful, maintaining an easy legato, wearing his learning gracefully and unobtrusively, witty and charmingly urbane. Yet, for all their beguiling literary attractiveness these lectures derived their importance from the thesis that they advance. In them Becker posited and elaborated a heterodox view. The debt of the philosophes to their thirteenth-century predecessors, he contended, was greater than they were aware of. Despite great differences between eighteenth-century and thirteenth-century modes of thought, there were also many significant similarities. The philosophes were less emancipated from the preconceptions of medieval...
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SOURCE: "Carl Becker's Heavenly City," in The Party of Humanity: Essays in the French Enlightenment, Alfred A. Knopf, 1964, pp. 188-210.
[In the following essay, Gay concludes that Becker is ultimately unsuccessful in arguing his central points in The Heavenly City.]
Carl Becker's The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers was published more than a quarter of a century ago. Its urbane examination of the philosophes has had great and lasting influence; few recent books on European intellectual history have been as widely read and as generously received. It is that rare thing, a work of scholarship that is also a work of literature—a masterpiece of persuasion that has done more to shape the current image of the Enlightenment than any other book. Despite the skepticism of some professional historians, its witty formulations have been accepted by a generation of students and borrowed in textbook after textbook.
When Becker delivered his lectures at the Yale Law School in 1931 and when he slightly revised them for publication, he seems to have thought of them as a jeu d'esprit, a collection of aphorisms and paradoxes meant to stimulate and (I suspect) to shock his audience. But, as Terence warned long ago, the fate of books depends upon the capacities of the reader. And the worldly fate of The Heavenly City has been success—unexcelled,...
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SOURCE: "Carl Becker and the Jewel of Consistency," in The Antioch Review, Vol. XXVI, No. 2, Summer, 1966, pp. 235-46.
[In the following essay, Penick examines ideological inconsistencies and conflicts in Becker's works.]
Ours is a culture which once placed a high premium on the ideal of spiritual unity. Authority was centralized in institutions which measured social value against an objective standard. The offices of magistrate and priest alike were prescribed within a divinely ordered universe. Time has been unkind to this ideal. While unity dissolved into pluralism, certainty came under the hammer of relativity on the anvil of probability. Today magistrate and priest alike seek to build a foundation of value on the shifting quagmires of history. Doubtless value should emerge from the total civilization, transmitted over a continuum of time and adapted to changing circumstance, but the enhanced importance of history has raised the question whether what was intended as the source of value has not instead become a justification for policy. And what of the fate of the historian? If he could not, like George Bancroft in an earlier age, mold the past to fit a previously conceived notion of the divine plan, he was no less doomed to warp the past, but with what, and to what end? No doubt many have found themselves providing, in the words of Nelson Aldrich, "systematic rationales for the insights of...
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SOURCE: "Everyman His Own Historian: Carl Becker as Historiographer," in The History Teacher, Vol. 19, No. 1, November, 1985, pp. 101-9.
[In the following essay, Klein discusses Becker's skepticism with respect to the possibility of arriving at an objective view of historical events.]
Fifty-three years ago, Carl Becker delivered his presidential address, titled "Everyman His Own Historian," at the Minneapolis meeting of the American Historical Association. It received a standing ovation and created shock waves in the historical profession that have not yet subsided. Becker was pleased with the approval he received from his colleagues. W. Stull Holt, then at Johns Hopkins, hailed the address as grand and glorious treason and a well deserved sacrilege against the goddess of scientific history; Ferdinand Schevill of the University of Chicago was delighted that Becker had exploded the "hokum of scientific method and historical truth"; Frederick Jackson Turner, who received a published version, called it one of Becker's "characteristically fine piece[s] of writing." Preserved Smith, one of Becker's colleagues at Cornell, wrote that "Everyman" was the best presidential address within memory, and praise came, too, from Charles A. Beard and J. Franklin Jameson. Outside the profession, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., after reading the essay, wrote Becker: "I have heard you called the finest historian in the...
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SOURCE: "Carl Becker," in Mythistory and Other Essays, The University of Chicago Press, 1986, pp. 147-73.
[In the following essay, McNeill presents a personal view of Becker as a teacher and historian.]
Forty-four years have passed since I came here to study history under Carl Becker; and returning to lecture, not to listen, is a little spooky. Memories, filtered and framed by subsequent experience, crowd round; and their vivacity is enhanced by the fact that I chose as my subject three historians who helped to shape my mind and whom I met here at Cornell in three different ways: Becker in the flesh, Toynbee through the first three volumes of A Study in History; and Braudel spectrally, through the writings of one of his mentors, Marc Bloch.
Is it an ill omen that Becker comes first? Turning my thoughts to him is perhaps quixotic in this place where his shade still walks and where living members of the faculty have edited his papers and studied his thought professionally, whereas all I have to go on are some spavined recollections and a recent, repentant look at the corpus of his published work. There is further risk in the fact that by a selective reaction to what he had to say, I may merely succeed in cutting Becker down to my own size, misunderstanding him in my own way just as those who have already written about Carl Lotus Becker seem to me to have done.
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SOURCE: "Carl Becker Revisited: Irony and Progress in History," in Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. XLVIII, No. 2, April-June, 1987, pp. 307-23.
[In the following essay, Nelson sees Becker's irony as a response to the impossibility of entirely accepting or rejecting the idea of social progress.]
Carl Becker's lifelong commitment to ambiguity has not served to make him an influential figure among contemporary historians. It has, however, made him one of the more controversial figures within the Guild. Some historians commend him for this quality. They find his writing to be intentionally paradoxical, full of contraries and oppositions, overturned cliches and circular reasoning, designed to "add 'another dimension of thought' to the initiated" [Milton Klein, "Detachment and the Writing of American History: the Dilemma of Carl Becker" in Perspectives on Early American History, ed. Alden T. Vaughn and George A. Billias]. Others condemn him for slipping into logical fallacies, demonstrating a lack of respect for historical facts, and escaping from commitment into a disappointed liberal's pessimism, otherwise known as historical relativism. The sense of ambiguity that characterizes nearly all of Becker's work is far too sustained and consistent not to be deliberate, and given the subtlety of his thought, too transparent to be the product of simple evasion. Consequently, this clearest of writers...
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Harstad, Peter T. and Gibson, Michael D. "An Iowa-Born Historian and the American Revolution: Carl Becker and the 'Spirit of '76'." The Palimpsest 57, No. 6 (November-December 1976): 174-92.
Examines the effect Becker's early Iowa experiences had on his life and approach to writing history.
Wilkins, Burleigh Taylor. Carl Becker: A Biographical Study in American Intellectual History. Cambridge: The M.I.T. Press and Harvard University Press, 1961, 246 p.
Detailed look at the intellectual and social forces that shaped Becker's relativist view of history.
Braeman, John and Rule, John C. "Carl Becker: 20th Century Philosophe." American Quarterly XIII, No. 1 (Spring 1961): 534-39.
Assessment of Becker as a biographical subject through a review of three book-length studies of his life and work.
Brown, Robert E. Carl Becker on History and the American Revolution. East Lansing: The Spartan Press, 1970, 285 p.
A study of Becker's interpretation of the American Revolution.
Cairns, John C. "Carl Becker: An American Liberal." The Journal of Politics 16, No. 4 (November 1954): 623-44.
Views Becker's liberalism as having its source in a form of against-all-odds optimism and an incessant questioning...
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