Charles Austin Beard

Charles Austin Beard (1874-1948), American historian and political scientist, was probably the most influential historical scholar of his time. He is best known for his emphasis on the role of economic interests in American history.

Charles A. Beard was born into a well-to-do family on a farm near Knightstown, Ind., on Nov. 27, 1874. He graduated from DePauw University in 1898. His interest in social problems was stimulated by a visit to Chicago's Hull House and subsequent study at Oxford in England, where he came in contact with economic reformers and helped found Ruskin Hall, a workingmen's school. In 1900 he married Mary Ritter, whom he had met at DePauw; they had a daughter and a son.

After taking his doctorate at Columbia University in 1904, Beard taught there until he resigned in 1917 in the midst of a controversy over academic freedom and the right of professors to criticize the government's war policy. After that, except for his participation in the New School for Social Research, he never again held a regular academic post. Financially well-off and the author of highly successful textbooks, Beard worked at his farm in New Milford, Conn. An amazingly prolific writer, he published, alone or with collaborators (particularly his wife), some 60 books and 300 articles. Between world Wars I and II he was nationally and internationally prominent as scholar, adviser, publicist, and polemicist on questions of public administration and various aspects of social and foreign policy.

Beard caused an early sensation with An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (1913), a study of the property holdings of the Founding Fathers; it concluded that they "were, with few exceptions, immediately, directly, and personally interested in, and derived economic advantages from, the establishment of the new system, " and maintained that "the Constitution was essentially an economic document." Viewing American history as a conflict between financial and agrarian interests, Beard carried his analysis further in his Economic Origins of Jeffersonian Democracy (1915) and most brilliantly in his and Mary Beard's The Rise of American Civilization (1927). The latter volume popularized a view of the Civil War as a "Second American Revolution, " in which capitalists carried out against the property interests of slave-holding planters "the most stupendous act of sequestration in the history of Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence." In addition, the Beards charged that the 14th Amendment was planned from the beginning to be a bulwark for the property rights of corporations.

Ever a reformer and a longtime advocate of a planned democratic economy, Beard, in the manner of his teacher and colleague at Columbia, James Harvey Robinson, saw the writing of history as providing tools for progressive social change. By 1933, when he gave his presidential address to the American Historical Association, he was convinced of the radical subjectivity of historical knowledge: "written history" was merely "an act of faith, "and the ideal of objectivity, he later asserted, was only a "noble dream." As his economic determinist viewpoint lost rigidity, he was able to assess the Founding Fathers more traditionally in The Republic (1943).

During the 1930s Beard was a staunch continentalist and isolationist and vigorously opposed American involvement in World War II. His last years were devoted to a highly controversial study of the approach of war, in which he placed heavy blame upon Franklin D. Roosevelt: President Roosevelt and the Coming of the War, 1941 (1948). Since Beard's death on Sept. 1, 1948, his historical methods and characteristic views of American history have been seriously attacked by new generations of historians.


Further Reading on Charles Austin Beard

Some biographical material appears in Mary Beard, The Making of Charles A. Beard: An Interpretation (1955). Beard's career is insightfully discussed and appraised in Richard Hofstadter, The Progressive Historians: Turner, Beard, Parrington (1968), and in Cushing Strout, The Pragmatic Revolt in American History: Carl Becker and Charles Beard (1958). Howard K. Beale, ed., Charles A. Beard: An Appraisal (1954), contains a number of useful assessments.

Additional Biography Sources

Borning, Bernard C., The political and social thought of Charles A. Beard, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1984, 1962.

Nore, Ellen, Charles A. Beard, an intellectual biography, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983.