Author’s Note: Can an historian be entrepreneurial? I make the case below that Charles Beard forced Americans to think very differently about their Founding Fathers--just as Lin-Manuel Miranda would a century later. And Beard sold a lot of books, just as Miranda sold a lot of tickets, both creating a legion of new customers. Disruptive ideas and new customers: in a knowledge economy, I count this as entrepreneurship. So, while Beard is not as clear-cut an example as Miranda (whom I profiled here), I nonetheless offer him as an early-20th-century American entrepreneur--and one with particular relevance to America's recent election.
One of the more controversial political ideas in early twentieth-century America was a novel interpretation of the Founding Fathers offered by Columbia University historian Charles Austin Beard (1874–1948).
In a nation whose sense of identity comes not from geography, ethnicity, or religion but from a set of ideals, history is a high-stakes proposition and the American Founding Fathers still sit in influential positions. Twenty first-century citizens wonder, for example, what Jefferson and Hamilton might think of our national debt, campaign finance laws, and healthcare reform. Would Washington endorse military activity in the Middle East? Would Madison allow handguns on the streets of Manhattan? Invoking the voices of 250 years ago is a business fraught with peril because challenging America’s Founders tends to challenge Americans’ sense of identity.
That makes what Charles Beard brought to market in 1913 not just an important innovation, but perhaps the most influential history book ever written in America.