The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

October 08, 2015

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Charles A. Beard: The Progressive Historian as Inadvertent Conservative

Growing up on the Gulf coast of Florida during the High Cold War had its little compensations. One was a kind of endless warmth. Another was our modest public library whose contents made it possible—within certain limits—to gain a sense of what the public issues of my parents’ generation had been. The collection included pretty much all the works of Charles A. and Mary R. Beard. Brought up by unrepentant Western “isolationists,” I was drawn first to Beard’s critique of Franklin Roosevelt’s foreign policy. I soon worked out that aside from foreign affairs, Beard could easily have been a New Dealer. His domestic “collectivism” raised a few problems for a soon-to-be Goldwater youth, but these were by the way. Beard seemed like the American historian. In a few more years my reading of Beard’s ablest disciple, William Appleman Williams, cured me of the Cold War (and Goldwater).

A Progressive Historian

Charles Austin Beard (1874–1948) was probably the most influential American historian of the twentieth century—and this despite the attacks on Beard’s work that followed his death. Beard was of Quaker and Midwestern background. Born in Indiana, he studied at Spiceland Academy, followed by DePauw University (1895), Oxford University (1898), where he studied labor issues, and Cornell University (1899). He married Mary Ritter, also of Quaker background, in 1900. After another stay at Oxford, he earned his MA (1903) and PhD (1904) at Columbia University, where he immediately began teaching. There Beard’s work reflected the influence of economic historian E. R. A. Seligman and English anti-imperialist John A. Hobson, both taking a rather “economic-determinist” approach to history. Beard also allied himself with James Harvey Robinson’s New History (what we now call “usable history”).

Thus Beard’s career opened at the high-water mark of the Progressive Era. But as Otis L. Graham has shown, Progressivism covered a lot of ground. Eastern Progressives were all about tidy-mindedness, efficiency, and modern management combined, somehow, with mass democracy. They accepted concentrated capital and large corporations, if regulated in the public interest, and identified with Teddy Roosevelt’s “new nationalism” as articulated by journalist Herbert Croly. Western (and sometimes Midwestern) Progressives were more like latter-day Populists. They resisted the corporate order and proposed various one-shot reforms to restore competitive economic conditions. This posture brought them close, rhetorically, to Woodrow Wilson’s New Freedom. But the tensions inside Progressivism’s big tent were such that Croly’s professed ideal of realizing Jeffersonian ends by Hamiltonian means, taken literally, would not be long for this world.[1]

“Economic Determinism”

At the academic level Eastern Progressives understandably rejected “formalism” as it then existed: a tired Americanized Hegelianism in political science, pro-business instrumentalism disguised as formalism in law, and overall a deadening Official Liberalism—conservative, liberal, and republican by turns—safely in the hands of Henry L. May’s “custodians of culture.”[2] Progressive academics wanted to overthrow this “inactionary” complacency. Enrolling the sociologists and the new school of anti-laissez faire economists, they called for a unified and reformist social science. Like other university-based Progressives, Charles Beard took an instrumentalist view of law. On this view, law is not “out there”: it does not exist as natural law, divine law, or even as the timeless gift of selfless, inspired “founders.” Here, Beard’s 1905 pamphlet Politics, which grounded Western European states in conquest, prefigured his later work.

Beard’s first major assault on American inertia came with his Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (1913), which unearthed economic motives behind the Constitution at a time when the semi-official constitutional cult remained fairly well entrenched. Worse, he denied that “the people” had played much of a role in the business. In Beard’s view, the constitutional movement had been a coalition of merchants, manufacturers, land speculators, and creditors, who were out for tariffs, dodgy Western land deals, and riskless income from debts public and private.[3] That some of them also had “higher” motives and intentions Beard never denied, but he believed he had discovered the things the framers most wanted a government to do for them. On these matters, Beard’s use of Madison, Marshall, Hamilton, and others was quite telling.[4] (One could add, broadly speaking, that the framers’ keen interest in particular economic policies was only surpassed by their constant self-praise.)

The new constitution delivered four colossal boons—an unrestricted taxing power, “plenary power” to raise armies and navies, “plenary control” over commerce, and full power over Western lands. Beard saw these as precisely those powers most useful to aspiring American mercantilists.[5] There was a lot of “economic” in there. If Machiavellian foreign policy “realism” had been the framers’ central concern, as many writers maintain, it is odd that the Constitution had to serve up exactly these powers (and in such degree) merely to provide for the common defense. As for the Federalists’ high-toned rhetoric about liberty, it is remarkable how little language bearing on that subject is found in the original, pre-amendment text. In Beard’s view, if the Norman Conquest had led to some long-range public good, that good was nevertheless outside the conquerors’ immediate aims.[6] Why should an American constitutional coup d’état have been any different?

Beard was duly attacked as a “Marxist” and “economic determinist” and the 1950s saw numerous books aimed at refuting his thesis.[7] Perhaps if Beard had presented more of the “literary” evidence available to him and confined statistical materials to footnotes and appendices, his interpretation might have fared better. Instead, his apparent dependence on those fragmentary materials encouraged critics to focus on them rather than the main argument. In any case, Beard continued his “economic” mode of analysis in Economic Origins of Jeffersonian Democracy (1915) and The Economic Basis of Politics (1922), surveying the thought of Aristotle, Madison, Marx, and others—and especially John Taylor of Caroline—where economic motives cut across political life. Addressing critics in the 1935 introduction to his Economic Interpretation, Beard wrote that he had presented in 1913 “‘an economic interpretation’ . . . not ‘the’ economic interpretation” of the Constitution.[8]

Living in Interesting Times

Beard supported American entry into World War I, but resigned from Columbia when the university fired several faculty members for being insufficiently warlike. Beard never again held a regular academic post but continued writing from his successful dairy farm in Connecticut. The postwar years saw Beard busy with urban reform and other issues. His publications were many, including The Rise of American Civilization (1927), which he wrote with Mary. The Depression years found Beard backing a kind of left-wing corporatism in The Open Door at Home (1934) and other works. What retains its value in these writings is Beard’s condemnation of overseas trade likely to bring collision with existing imperial powers and leading the United States into otherwise avoidable wars.

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