Thursday, October 8, 2020

Charles Beard: Historian Entrepreneur


[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.[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 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.[2]


Beard was born in 1874 near Knightstown, Indiana, to a prosperous banker and newspaper publisher.  Graduating from DePauw College, Beard spent four years studying in Europe before returning to New York City to earn his doctorate at Columbia University in 1904.  There, he served as a professor of politics, where he proved himself a gifted teacher and prolific author. 

Beard came to champion “new history,” which sought to apply lessons from the Industrial Revolution, experimental science, and finance capitalism to history “rather than depend upon the ineffectual idealistic conceptions held by the Bancroft school.”[3] 

The Bancroft school referred to George Bancroft, often called the Father of American History.  It was Bancroft’s belief that America’s Founding Fathers had created an exceptional nation whose destiny was to lead and enlighten the world under the guidance of a Divine Providence. 

Beard and his associates were more interested in a history that was practical, useful, and helpful in fixing the excesses of modern America.

Particularly influential for Beard was a 1903 text, The Economic Interpretation of History, which recognized 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.

“The Shock of My Life”

Like many entrepreneurs, Beard’s radical innovation was less a brand-new idea than an old idea reapplied to a new landscape.  When he studied the property and security holdings of the members of America’s Constitutional Convention, Beard had what he called “the shock of my life.”[4] 

The Constitution, he found, was less a set of idealistic political beliefs and more a document about economics—who got what, and how much.  Most members of the Convention were, Beard believed, “immediately, directly, and personally interested in, and derived economic advantages from, the establishment of the new system.”[5]  Instead of exercising disinterested virtue, as Bancroft had taught, the Founding Fathers demonstrated selfish class interests and battled for their own economic and social gain.

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 that muckrakers were exposing government graft, industrial malfeasance, and the true motivations of corporate icons like John D. Rockefeller.  Many 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.  With such a backdrop, Beard’s thesis gained increasing and enthusiastic support.  

Modern historian Gordon Wood, who came to disagree with the Beard hypothesis, 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 with a thick hide who flaunted convention. As reviewer C. Vann Woodward put it, 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] 

Beard resigned from Columbia in 1917 for what he perceived as interference by the trustees in the free speech of faculty members. Later he took on Franklin Roosevelt’s foreign policy, which cost him many friends.[11] 

Under Attack

Beginning in the 1950s, Beard’s work came under attack from a variety of historians, some of whom challenged his sources, others of whom found him too emotionally invested in the New School tenants to provide a fair analysis, 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, he believed, the “quarrel was fundamentally one between aristocracy and democracy.”[12]  This interpretation of facts did not place the Founding Fathers back on their pedestals exactly, but it did return the framing of the Constitution to the realm of ideas and ideals, and not simply narrow economic interests. 

However, sometimes innovation just won’t go away.  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 sound answer.

To a modern observer—and to American voters who elected a real estate developer to be their President—the idea that economics has a profound influence on politics seems so obvious as to be almost quaint.

 The reaction to Beard’s work, however, is a good reminder of how pervasive the idea of American political and intellectual exceptionalism was throughout much of the country’s history.  The notion that the Constitution was a kind of economic “pivot” that helped protect property rights better than the feeble Articles of Confederation, was as disruptive an innovation as America had entertained in its first 150 years.  And, when it did not square with the nation’s more noble aspirations, it sparked heated debate.

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 fascinating 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.

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