Charles A. Beard was a major figure in the development of political science in the United States: He played a leading role in reorienting the study of American government from the description of formal institutional structures to a realistic analysis of how things actually operated; he was one of the Progressive Era’s foremost experts on municipal government; and he was a pioneer in placing the study of public administration upon a scientific, empirical basis. He looms even larger in the development of American historical scholarship. His application of the economic interpretation to American history was at the time an immensely liberating intellectual force; he was the leading spokesman for—and outstanding practitioner of—a “new history” that would broaden the scope of study of the past beyond politics to include the full range of human experience; and he did much to sensitize historians to the role played by their personal values and biases in shaping their interpretations.
Nor was Beard’s influence limited to the academy. He reached, through his books and articles, a larger popular audience than probably any other American scholar of his time. As an activist in support of a wide range of causes, he achieved major status. A 1938 survey taken by The New Republic of liberal-left-wing intellectuals ranked Beard second only to the economist and social philosopher Thorstein Veblen among those whose work had most influenced their own thinking. Shortly after Beard’s death, a poll of educators, editors, and public figures gave first place to The Rise of American Civilization as the book that best explained American democracy. Even hostile critics acknowledged that Beard had been the twentieth century’s “most powerful single figure in the teaching of American history.”