Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Charles Beard: Historian Entrepreneur

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.[1]  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 fraught activity 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.[2]

Beard was born in 1874 near Knightstown, Indiana, to the town’s prosperous banker and newspaper publisher.  Graduating from DePauw College, he spent four years studying in Europe before returning to New York City to earn his doctorate at Columbia University in 1904.  There, Beard served as professor of politics, where he proved himself a gifted teacher and prolific author.  He was part of what would come to be called the Columbia School of the New History which looked to “apply the current lessons of the Industrial Revolution, experimental science, finance capitalism and materialist factors to history rather than depend upon the ineffectual idealistic conceptions held by the Bancroft school.”[3] 
This was a swipe taken at George Bancroft (1800-1891), often called the Father of American History.  It was Bancroft’s ten volume series, History of the United States, From the Discovery of the American Continent (1854-1878), that established America's interpretation of its own pre-eminent place in Western Civilization.  Simply put, Bancroft believed that the Founding Fathers had created an exceptional nation, one whose destiny was to lead and enlighten the world under the guidance of a Divine Providence. 
Beard and his associates at Columbia were less interested in exceptional global leadership and more in fixing the excesses of modern American capitalism by applying the practical lessons of the past.  

Like most entrepreneurs, Beard’s radical innovation was less a brand-new idea than an old idea adapted to a new setting.  His raw materials included a 1903 text, The Economic Interpretation of History, which argued that economic conditions were the foundation of life, and a 1911 work, Social Forces in American History, which defined the American Revolution as the economic struggle of colonial merchants.  Beard then studied the property and security holdings of the members of America's Constitutional Convention, concluding--in what he called "the shock of my life"--that the Constitution was essentially an economic document and that most members of the Convention were "immediately, directly, and personally interested in, and derived economic advantages from, the establishment of the new system.  Instead of exercising disinterested virtue, as Bancroft had taught, the Founding Fathers demonstrated selfish class interests and used their political positions to battle for economic and social gain.[4][5] 
The birth of America turned out to be not so much a revolt against tyranny blessed by Providence, but rather “a welding of economic interests that cut through state boundaries.”[6]  Manufacturers, land speculators, creditors, and merchants were at work here vying not for grand principles but for land, credit, tariffs, and profit.  In other words, Beard believed, the business of America really was business.
This finding on the part of Beard and the Columbia School of the New History was an unexpectedly harsh appraisal of a group of beloved Founders that had attained mythical status in the prior century.  “The Constitution . . . was the work of a consolidated group of interests which preferred themselves to either the people or the States,” one review explained Beard, and “the Constitution placed the dollar above the man.”[7]  Individuals like Washington and Hamilton were politician and speculator alike; they measured their work in Philadelphia as carefully against the depreciated value of Continental currencies and the price of land beyond the Alleghenies as they did in the welfare of their countrymen.
Beard’s work came at the same time muckrakers were exposing government graft, industrial malfeasance, and the underlying motivations of corporate icons like John D. Rockefeller.  Many Americans still remembered the scandals of the Grant administration, which included a series of embarrassing cases of insider speculation, profiteering, and corruption by Grant’s cabinet and political appointees in the years following the Civil War.  The world was about to plunge into WWI, a senseless war driven by a lust for territory and material gain.  With such a backdrop, Beard’s thesis gained increasing and eventually enthusiastic support.  
Modern historian Gordon Wood wrote that An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States
came to represent and dominate an entire generation’s thinking about history and especially about the origins of the Constitution . . . Beard and others of his generation came to conceive of ideas as rationalizations, as masks obscuring the underlying interests and drives that actually determined social behavior . . . Beard, like many of his contemporaries, sought to bring to the fore “those realistic features of economic conflict, stress and strain” that previous historians had ignored.[8] 
By revealing the Founding Fathers’ true interests and drives, Beard and his colleagues believed that Americans might have a usable past, one that they could look to for wisdom if not inspiration.
Beard was an intellectual entrepreneur who flaunted convention. Historian C. Vann Woodward wrote that Beard “laughed aside academic rules, overrode the barriers between disciplines, invaded preserves of other specialists and mixed politics with economics and wit with both.”[9]  He invited controversy and, wrote Woodward, “Since oftener than not he took the unpopular side, his books were regularly greeted with savage reviews.”[10] 
Ever the rebel, Beard resigned from Columbia in 1917 for what he perceived as interference by the trustees in the free speech of faculty members.[11] 

Beginning in the 1950s, Beard’s work came under increasing attack from a variety of historians, some of whom challenged his sources and others of whom were simply skeptical of a world where motivations were purely economic.  Gordon Wood concluded that “it is nearly impossible to identify the supporters or opponents of the Constitution with specific economic interests from the historical record,” and that the “quarrel was fundamentally one between aristocracy and democracy.”[12]  This interpretation did not exactly return the Founding Fathers to their pedestals, but it did return the framing of the Constitution to the realm of ideas and ideals, and not simply narrow economic interests. 
In the last century, Beard has been savaged but never vanquished.  In 2003, Robert McGuire published To Form a More Perfect Union, an analysis of the influences on the Constitution using modern economic methodology and statistical analysis.  By examining the broad, complex sample of financial interests and votes that Beard readily admitted he did not, McGuire concluded that an economic interpretation of the Constitution is valid, and that the pursuit of self-interest can, in fact, explain its design.[13]  There was a kind of cost-benefit analysis applied by each of the delegates, McGuire believes, and “both broadly and narrowly defined economic interests had large significant influences on the ratification votes of the delegates.”[14]  Consequently, Beard asked the right question even if he did not have all the tools to reach a definitive conclusion.
To a modern American voter who just elected a real estate developer to be his or her next President, the notion that politics flows from disinterested virtue seems quaint.  Yet, like Beard, the ghost of George Bancroft has never been entirely vanquished, either.  The talk of an "exceptional America" was woven into the 2016 elections as much as, one supposes, the talk of business conflicts of interest will be woven into the first year of the Trump administration.  For this kind of dramatic political tension, we have Bancroft's historical optimism and Beard's intellectual innovation to thank.
An Economic Interpretation was only the tip of Beard’s enormous output.  With his wife, Mary, he produced in 1927 a monumental synthesis of the history of the United States entitled The Rise of American Civilization, adding two more volumes in 1939 and 1942.  In all, Beard authored or co-authored forty-nine history books that sold over eleven million copies during his lifetime.[15]  Royalties insulated him from the need to seek an academic appointment after departing Columbia.  For many years, Beard and his wife operated a dairy farm in rural Connecticut, writing together and entertaining a long line of distinguished guests.  It was a peaceful refuge from a debate that still rages today.




[1] For examples see “What Would Our Founding Fathers Think of America Today?” Americans for Prosperity, Texas, http://americansforprosperity.org/texas/article/what-would-our-founding-fathers-think-of-america-today/, 2015.  Also John Hawkins, “13 Things That Would Make The Founding Fathers Turn Over In Their Graves,” Townhall.com, http://townhall.com/columnists/johnhawkins/2013/09/28/13-things-about-america-that-would-make-the-founding-fathers-turn-over-in-their-graves-n1711949/page/full, 2015.
[2] Wood, Gordon, Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different, New York: Penguin Press, 2006, Loc. 127.  
[3] Harvey Wish, The American Historian: A Social-Intellectual History of the Writing of the American Past, Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press 1983 [rpt: Oxford University Press, 1960], 265.
[4] Harvey Wish, The American Historian: A Social-Intellectual History of the Writing of the American Past, Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press 1983 [rpt: Oxford University Press, 1960], 272.
[5] Harvey Wish, The American Historian: A Social-Intellectual History of the Writing of the American Past, Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press 1983 [rpt: Oxford University Press, 1960], 274.
[6] Joseph Silvia, “The Debate Over an Economic Interpretation of the Constitution: Where Had Beard Taken Us and Where Are We After McGuire’s ‘New’ Interpretation?, September 2007, http://works.bepress.com/joseph_silvia/2/, 2.
[7] “The Constitution: Professor Beard’s Startling Theory as to Influences Affecting Origin of That Famous Document,” The New York Times, November 23, 1913.
[8] Wood, Gordon, Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different, New York: Penguin Press, 2006, Loc. 127.  
[9] C. Vann Woodward, “The Impact Was Great,” The New York Times, September 5, 1954.
[10] C. Vann Woodward, “The Impact Was Great,” The New York Times, September 5, 1954.
[11] C. Vann Woodward, “The Impact Was Great,” The New York Times, September 5, 1954.
[12] Joseph Silvia, “The Debate Over an Economic Interpretation of the Constitution: Where Had Beard Taken Us and Where Are We After McGuire’s ‘New’ Interpretation?, September 2007, http://works.bepress.com/joseph_silvia/2/, 6.
[13] Joseph Silvia, “The Debate Over an Economic Interpretation of the Constitution: Where Had Beard Taken Us and Where Are We After McGuire’s ‘New’ Interpretation?, September 2007, http://works.bepress.com/joseph_silvia/2/, 10.
[14] Joseph Silvia, “The Debate Over an Economic Interpretation of the Constitution: Where Had Beard Taken Us and Where Are We After McGuire’s ‘New’ Interpretation?, September 2007, http://works.bepress.com/joseph_silvia/2/, 11.
[15] Harvey Wish, The American Historian: A Social-Intellectual History of the Writing of the American Past, Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press 1983 [rpt: Oxford University Press, 1960], 291.