Article abstract: More than any other twentieth century scholar, Beard shaped how Americans viewed their past.
Charles Austin Beard was born November 27, 1874, on a farm near Knightstown, Indiana, the younger of two sons of William Henry Harrison and Mary J. (Payne) Beard. His Beard forebears were Quakers who had settled in Guilford County, North Carolina. His father, at the start of the Civil War, had moved to Indiana, where he became a successful farmer, building contractor, and land speculator. Although his father was a self-proclaimed religious skeptic, Charles attended Quaker services as a boy and began his formal education in a local Quaker-run school. After he was graduated from Knightstown High School in 1891, his father bought for him and his older brother a local newspaper. In 1895, however, Charles gave up journalism to attend DePauw University. Majoring in history, he finished his undergraduate studies in three years with an impressive academic record, culminating in his election to Phi Beta Kappa. He then went to Oxford University for further study in history. While at DePauw, he had begun to shift from his father’s loyalty to the Republican Party to a sympathy for reform. His awakening sense of social consciousness was reinforced by his experiences in England. In response, Beard played a leading role in establishing at Oxford, in early 1899, a workingmen’s college—named Ruskin Hall after the English artist-reformer John Ruskin—for the training of future working-class leaders.
Except for a brief return trip to the United States to marry his college sweetheart, Mary Ritter, Beard stayed in England until the spring of 1902. From his base in Manchester, he traveled all over the country, promoting the Ruskin Hall movement in talks before workingmen’s and cooperative society groups. The major thrust of those talks—and the theme of his first book, The Industrial Revolution (1901)—was how advancing technology, if properly utilized for public benefit rather than private profit, had the potential for improving the human lot. In 1902, after returning to the United States, he began graduate work at Columbia University. For his Ph.D. dissertation, he completed a study begun while he was at Oxford, on the evolution of the office of justice of the peace in England. He received his degree in 1904 and was kept on as a lecturer in the history department to teach the Western European survey and English history. Three years later, he was appointed an adjunct professor in the department of public law, with the responsibility of inaugurating a new undergraduate program in politics. In 1910, he was promoted to associate professor; five years later, he was awarded a full professorship. A man of prodigious energy, he taught a broad range of different courses, trained a group of Ph.D. students who would go on to make reputations of their own in political science and history, and turned out almost a book a year along with an imposing roster of articles and reviews.
Beard first attracted attention in academic circles when he collaborated with his older colleague James Harvey Robinson in writing a two-volume text, The Development of Modern Europe: An Introduction to the Study of Current History (1907-1908). The attention paid to social, economic, and intellectual developments contrasted strikingly with the narrowly political, dynastic, and military focus of most competing texts; so did the authors’ consciously present-minded approach, aimed at using the past to illuminate contemporary problems. Beard’s 1910 American Government and Politics made a similarly innovative contribution to the teaching of political science by looking beyond the formal institutional structure of the American system to how things actually worked. Repeatedly updated and revised, the work remained for years the standard text for college-level introductory American government courses. Beard’s dual concern with making government more responsive to the popular will and more efficient in its operations led him into involvement with the New York Bureau of Municipal Research, the United States’ first research organization for the improvement of public administration. He served as supervisor of the bureau’s Training School for Public Service (1915-1919) and as bureau director (1919-1920); he was instrumental in the expansion of its activities beyond the municipal level and its resulting reorganization into the National Institute of Public Administration; and he was the primary author of a set of recommendations for a far-reaching reorganization of New York state government that was carried out during the 1920’s.
The debate during the Progressive Era over the legitimacy of judicial review led Beard to undertake a reexamination of the intentions of the framers of the Constitution. In his 1912 book The Supreme Court and the Constitution, he concluded that the framers had intended to give the Supreme Court power to declare acts of Congress unconstitutional because of their anxiety “to safeguard the rights of private property against any levelling tendencies on the part of the propertyless masses.” He amplified upon this theme in his highly controversial An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States, published the following year. The crux of his argument was that the Constitution was “an economic document” aimed at protecting the interests of the monied class in the face of threats from the largely debt-ridden small farmers that constituted local popular majorities. He went on to conclude that the Constitution was pushed through by undemocratic, even “irregular,” means. For supporting evidence, Beard relied heavily upon long-forgotten Treasury Department records for the public securities holdings of those involved in the adoption of the Constitution. The prominence given this data fostered the impression that the framers were primarily motivated by the quest for personal financial gain. There is no question that Beard’s purpose in emphasizing the economic motivation of the framers was to demythologize the Constitution as a bulwark for the defense of the political status quo against reform.
An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States has been sharply attacked by many later historians as simplistic or even simply wrong. Yet the work remains a landmark in the development of American historical scholarship. The volume was the first attempt to apply the prosopographical—or collective biography—approach to a major historical problem. Beard envisaged the book as the first in a series of studies that would apply the economic interpretation to the full span of American history. His 1914 survey Contemporary American History, 1877-1913 traced the political, legal, social, and intellectual changes resulting from the triumph of industrial capitalism in the years after the Civil War. In the following year’s Economic Origins of Jeffersonian Democracy, he pictured the party battles of the 1790’s between the Federalists and their Republican opponents as a continuation of the struggle over the Constitution between “capitalistic and agrarian interests.” The climax of his attempt to apply an overarching economic interpretation to the study of the American past was the two-volume The Rise of American Civilization (1927), which he coauthored with his wife, Mary. The aspect of this work that most impressed professional historians was his treatment of the Civil War as a “second American Revolution,” responsible for the triumph of Northern capitalism over its agrarian rival. Its portrayal of the clash of rival economic interests as the real root of historical change would exercise a pervasive...
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