[Author’s note: This essay was intended for Innovation on Tap but was cut for length—and as part of a (losing) debate I had with several editors who did not see Charles Beard as an entrepreneur. I took the position that if Lin-Manuel Miranda is an entrepreneur, attracting a new audience to Broadway by combining the Founding Fathers with rap, then Charles Beard was an entrepreneur by selling a boatload of books to Americans who never thought to measure the creation of the Constitution against economic interest and greed. I continue to believe that intellectual innovation is as important as social or technological innovation, but that belief didn’t do much to get Beard his own chapter in Innovation on Tap.]
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.
Even today, America’s Founding Fathers 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 tend to challenge Americans’ sense of identity.
That makes what Columbia University historian Charles Austin Beard (1874-1948) brought to market in 1913 not just an important innovation, but perhaps the most influential history book ever written in America.