Charles A. Beard/Citable Version

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Charles Austin Beard (November 27, 1874 - September 1, 1948) was, along with Frederick Jackson Turner, one of the most influential American historians of the early 20th century. He published hundreds of monographs, textbooks and interpretive studies in both history and political science. He graduated from DePauw College in Indiana 1898, where he met and eventually married Mary Ritter Beard, his lifelong collaborator and coauthor. She was an early specialist in women's history

Progressive historiography

As a leader of the "Progressive School" of historiography, he introduced themes of economic self-interest and economic conflict regarding the adoption of the Constitution and the transformations caused by the Civil War. Thus he emphasized the long-term conflict among industrialists in the Northeast, farmers in the Midwest, and planters in the South that he saw as the cause of the American Civil War. His study of the financial interests of the drafters of the United States Constitution (An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution) was radical in 1913, since he proposed that the U.S. Constitution was less a matter of political values and more a product of economic interests of the founding fathers. That is, he saw ideology as a minor byproduct of economic interests. Beard's interpretation held sway for 40 years until Robert Brown (1954) revealed its contradictions and Forrest McDonald (1958) showed that Charles Beard had misinterpreted the economic interests involved in writing the Constitution. Instead of two interests, landed and mercantile, which conflicted, there were over 30 identifiable interests that forced the delegates to bargain.

Beard's most influential book was the wide-ranging and bestselling The Rise of American Civilization (1927) and its two sequels, America in Midpassage (1939), and The American Spirit (1943), written with Mary Beard.

Dealing with Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, disciples of Beard such as Howard Beale and C. Vann Woodward focused on greed and economic causation and emphasized the centrality of corruption. They argued that the rhetoric of equal rights was a smokescreen hiding their true motivation, which was promoting the interests of industrialists in the Northeast. The basic flaw was the assumption that there was a unified business policy. Scholars in the 1950s and 1960s demonstrated that businessmen were widely divergent on monetary or tariff policy. While Pennsylvania businessmen wanted high tariffs, those in other states did not; the railroads were hurt by the tariffs on steel, which they purchased in large quantity. (Hofstadter 1979) Forrest McDonald Beard's economic approach lost favor in the history profession after 1950 as conservative scholars demonstrated the serious flaws in Beard's research, and attention turned away from economic causation. [1]

After resigning from Columbia University in protest at pro-war actions in 1917, he helped to found the New School for Social Research in New York. He advised on reconstructing Tokyo after the earthquake of 1923. Although enormously influential through his massive writings, he did not have graduate students or build a school of historiography.

Isolationist foreign policy

Starting as a leading liberal supporter of the New Deal, Beard in the late 1930s turned against Franklin Delano Roosevelt's aggressive foreign policy. Beard promoted "American Continentalism," arguing that the U.S. had no vital stake in Europe, and that a foreign war would threaten dictatorship at home. Beard was thus one of the leading proponents of isolationism. After the war, Beard's last work (President Roosevelt and the Coming of the War, 1948) blamed Roosevelt for lying to the American people and tricking them into war. It generated angry controversy as internationalists denounced Beard as an apologist for isolationism. As a result, Beard's reputation collapsed among liberal historians who previously had admired him. His whole interpretation of history came under widespread attack, though a few leading historians such as Beale and Woodward clung to the Beardian interpretation of American history. After 1990 Beard's foreign policy views became popular with supporters of paleoconservatism, such as Pat Buchanan. Beard's stress on economic causation influenced the "Wisconsin school" of New Left historians William Appleman Williams, Gabriel Kolko, and James Weinstein.

Political scientist

In the field of political science, Beard was elected president of the American Political Science Association. He was best known for his studies of the Constitution, and for his creation of bureaus of municipal research and his studies of public administration in cities, including a famous study of Tokyo, The Administration and Politics of Tokyo, (1923).


  1. Hofstadter 1969

See also