The Rise of American Civilization Critical Essays

Charles A. Beard, Mary Ritter


(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

Here is a brilliant and stimulating survey of the factors composing American civilization from the Indian aborigines to the advent of technocracy, written by a pair of historians who can combine scholarship with a popular presentation, interpret rather than describe, and select the significant moments of half a millennium of existence. It is an epic, not of a hero but of a land and people, a work heroic in the sweep of its conception and its orderly unfolding. Proof of its acceptance by historians of varying schools of thought lies in the fact that the original two-volume edition of 1927, after going through ten reprintings, was revised and enlarged into one volume of 1,717 pages in 1934, followed by many subsequent printings, and sold at a quarter of its original price.

Only the big, clear, and easily read print and the attractive sketches scattered through its pages compensate for the fatigue of holding this three-pound volume. However, having begun the reading of its neatly turned sentences, well chosen quotations, and incisive comments that constantly appear to challenge and illuminate, the user forgets physical discomfort. One reviewer termed it “appallingly learned, stirringly enlightening, and movingly humane.” However, the reader quickly forgets to think critically of its presentation in the interest in what is being presented.

In the Introduction to the college edition, the editors promise a departure from the traditional method of tracing American history from Columbus to Hoover. Only roughly does chronology shape its presentation. It has a wide field to cover. American civilization is made up of social aspects as well as political, intellectual, agricultural, and industrial factors. Basically the authors divide their study into the Agricultural and the Industrial eras. But like the Greek Anaximander, they see history as an ocean throwing out new forms and beings that are swallowed and allowed to reappear.

In the first chapter, the Beards quote many philosophic attitudes toward changes in history. Diverse were the motives of those who came to settle America and establish or change its patterns. Colonizers who wanted to hang onto bits of their homeland and those seeking separation and independence both played their part. Since many of the original settlers were English, the Beards devote the first four chapters to English characteristics and contributions. In this regard, they strike an original note for, unlike many historians, they stress the part played by women. Perhaps Mrs. Beard made it necessary for the index to include eighteen entries for the role of women among pioneers and developers, and their influence appears many more times in tracing the growth of home, education, and religion.

America was no place for slackers or lazy people. From Capt. Smith onward came demands for immigrants not afraid of soiling their hands. And they were rewarded. Workers, say the authors, could make up to $75,000 a year from tobacco crops in the South. By contrast, the “niggardly soil of Massachusetts” was a factor in driving its settlers away to settle Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and points further west.

Another factor in expansion was big families. Cheap land encouraged early marriages. Children became economic assets to work it, and it was a population explosion, rather than a flood of immigrants from Europe, that increased the number of inhabitants. In one of their many interpretive comments, the Beards offer the case of the centenarian, Mary Hazzard of Rhode Island, who, at her death, could count five hundred children, grand children, great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren. Two hundred and five of them, including one granddaughter who “had been a grandmother nearly fifteen years,” attended Mary Hazzard’s funeral.

Other labor was performed by semi-servile whites imported under bond for a term of years and by Negroes sold into chattel slavery. The historians estimate that half the immigrants into America outside of New England before the Revolution were of these two groups.

The attitude of the royal governors was that England’s ruling class should benefit from the colonies. Thus, an attempt was made to force the colonists to buy...

(The entire section is 1737 words.)