Charles Beard

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Charles A. Beard

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.

Charles Beard was a leading liberal and probably the most influential single force in providing a liberal interpretation of American history, and an emphasis on material and economic factors as opposed to ideas or religious values. However, in his last decade, he became a bitter opponent of the interventionist foreign policy of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and his attacks on Roosevelt were warmly received by conservatives. Since 1960 his influence on history writing has declined sharply.

Early life

Charles Beard was born on November 27, 1874, at a farm near Knightstown, Indiana.[1]

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. Together, they both entered Columbia University as graduate students.[2]

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.


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.

Bears built on the work of historian Carl Becker, whose History of Political Parties in the Province of New York, 1760-1776 (1909) formulated the Progressive interpretation of the American Revolution. Becker famously said there were two revolutions: one against Britain to obtain home rule, and the other to determine who should rule at home.

Beard in An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (1913) and An Economic Interpretation of Jeffersonian Democracy (1915) extended Becker's thesis down to 1800 in terms of class conflict. To Beard, the Constitution was a counter-revolution, set up by rich bond holders (bonds were "personal property"), in opposition to the farmers and planters (land was "real property.") The Constitution, beard argued, was designed to reverse the radical democratic tendencies unleashed by the Revolution among the common people, especially farmers and debtors (people who owed money to the rich). In 1800, said beard, the farmers and debtors, led by plantation slaveowners, owverthrew the capitalists and established Jeffersonian Democracy. Other historians supported the class-conflict interpretation noting the states confiscated great semifeudal landholdings of Loyalists and gave them out in small parcels to ordinary farmers.

Conservatives, such as William Howard Taft were shocked at the Progressive interpretation because it seem to belittle the Constitution. Scholars, however, adopted it and by 1930 it became the standard interpretation of the era among academic historians, but was largely ignored by lawyers and jurists. Beginning about 1950 revisionist historians demonstrated that the progressive intewrpretation was factually incorrect, led by Charles A. Barker, Philip Crowl, Richard P. McCormick, William Pool, Robert Thomas, John Munroe, Robert E. and B. Kathryn Brown, and above all Forrest McDonald. Robert Brown (1954) revealed its contradictions and Forrest McDonald (1958), using microscopic new research in federal, state and local archives, showed that 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. Controversy raged, but by 1970 the Progressive interpretation of the era was dead. It was largely replaced by the intellectual history approach that stressed the power of ideas, especially republicanism in stimulating the Revolution.[3]

Civil War

in Rise of American Civilization (1927) the Beards 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. 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.[4]

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 legacy of re-interpretation of history had widespread implications. He influenced generations of historians both directly in the classroom as professor as well as with his writings.

As professor, his influence helped shape the future views of Matthew Josephson.

His stress on economic causation influenced the "Wisconsin school" of New Left historians William Appleman Williams, Gabriel Kolko, and James Weinstein. Additionally, Beard's work influenced Howard Zinn.[5]

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).


  • Beard Bibliography
  • Blaser, Kent. "The Rise of American Civilization and the Contemporary Crisis in American Historiography," The History Teacher, Vol. 26, No. 1 (Nov., 1992), pp. 71–90 in JSTOR
  • Barrow, Clyde W. More Than a Historian: The Political and Economic Thought of Charles A. Beard. (2000). excerpt and text search
  • Borning, Bernard C. The Political and Social Thought of Charles A. Beard. University of Washington Press, 1962 online edition
  • Brown, Robert Eldon. Charles Beard and the Constitution: A critical analysis of "An economic interpretation of the Constitution" (1954). A conservative counterattack
  • Cott, Nancy F. A Woman Making History: Mary Ritter Beard through Her Letters. (1991).
  • Dennis, Lawrence J. George S. Counts and Charles A. Beard: Collaborators for Change. State Univ of New York Press. (1990)
  • Egnal, Marc. "The Beards Were Right: Parties in the North, 1840-1860," Civil War History, Vol. 47, 2001
  • Hofstadter, Richard. The Progressive Historians: Turner, Beard, Parrington (1979), negative analysis of Beard's historiography.
  • Kennedy, Thomas C. Charles A. Beard and American Foreign Policy (1975) online edition
  • Forrest McDonald We The People: The Economic Origins of the Constitution (1958), by a leading conservative historian
  • Nore, Ellen. Charles A. Beard: An Intellectual Biography (1983). online edition
  • Radosh, Ronald. Prophets on the Right: Profiles of Conservative Critics of American Globalism (1978), on Beard as isolationist
  • Strout, Cushing. The Pragmatic Revolt in American History: Carl Becker and Charles Beard (1958) online edition

Primary sources

  • online books at
  • Beard, Charles Austin. American Government and Politics (1910), textbook, 772 pages online edition
  • Beard, Charles. An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (1913). excerpt and text search
  • Beard, Charles. Economic Origins of Jeffersonian Democracy, (1915) online edition
  • Beard, Charles and Mary Beard. The Rise of American Civilization (2 vol 1928)
  • Beard, Charles. The Administration and Politics of Tokyo, (1923) online edition
  • Beard, Charles. President Roosevelt and the Coming of the War, 1941: Appearances and Realities (1948)

See also


  1. Knightstown
  2. Making Women's History: The Essential Mary Ritter Beard
  3. See Forrest McDonald "Colliding with the Past," Reviews in American History 25.1 (1997) 13-18
  4. Hofstadter 1969
  5. Howard Zinn Speaks: Collected Speeches, 1963-2009

External links