Charles Beard


Charles Austin Beard (b. November 27, 1874–September 1, 1948) was an influential American historian, political scientist, and one of the foremost voices in progressive historiography. Beard was also a founding member of the New School for Social Research.

Beard’s scholarship centered on foregrounding the role of economic forces in the making of American political institutions, a frame termed the “Beardian” approach. His foremost (and highly controversial) contribution to the field of American historiography, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (1913), argued that the content of the United States Constitution was rooted in the drafting members’ personal financial interests, not political good will. (The book, despite its grounding in the archives, was dubbed “Marxist” propaganda and “economically deterministic” by its detractors.) In the 1920s, Beard began writing extensively with his partner, and feminist historian, Mary Ritter Beard, co-authoring a set of seminal works that also spoke to the role of economic forces in historical change: the History of the United States (2 vols.) (1921), The Rise of American Civilization (1927), and the latter’s two sequels America in Midpassage (1939), and The American Spirit (1943).

The trajectory of Beard’s life was not readily apparent in his early life. He was born in Knightstown, Indiana, to William Henry Beard (a farmer, banker, and real estate developer) and Mary Baker (née Payne). The relatively well-to-do family was of Quaker heritage. Beard first attended a private Quaker school in the area, Spiceland Academy, but midway through was expelled for disciplinary reasons.[1] Thereafter, he transferred to a local public high school, Knightstown High School.  Graduating from Knightstown at age 17, Beard went on to run a weekly local paper his father purchased, the Knightstown Sun, with his brother Clarence. Four years later, the fraternal collaboration fractured. (Clarence, involved in local politics, left for New Castle to found his own paper.) Charles enrolled at DePauw (then Asbury) University in Greencastle, a town about 80 miles east of his home.

It was in University that Beard’s adult life began to crystalize. At DePauw, Beard solidified his interest in history and politics, as well as met Ritter. Continuing his studies, he set off for graduate work at Oxford in 1899. (Ritter stayed in Greencastle, taking a job teaching German at a secondary school.) Like DePauw, Oxford proved influential on Beard’s later professional life, but in different ways. There he co-founded Ruskin Hall, an independent educational institution, named after John Ruskin, the 19th c. English art and social critic known for foregrounding the dignity of labor in his work. This institution offered educational opportunities at Oxford to “workingmen” without the means or experience. The leadership role at Ruskin, combining activism and academics, then both underscored Beard’s interest in not only scholarship, but education, foreshadowing his foundational role at the New School for Social Research.  

But Beard had not settled in Oxford and moved around the next two years. In 1900, he completed a semester of graduate studies at Cornell, married Ritter, and returned to Oxford for more academic work. (Ritter followed months after.) Just a year later, after moving to Manchester and the birth of their first child Miriam, the couple decided to repatriate. Not only did the pair want to raise Miriam in the States, but both had enrolled in PhD programs at Columbia University, with Charles in history and Mary in sociology. Beard finished his doctoral degree in 1904, and was hired on at Columbia, first as a lecturer, and then as a professor. (In 1907, Mary ended her studies without an official degree but with the birth of the Beard’s second child, William.)

Beard remained at Columbia, moving between history and political science. In addition, he became affiliated with the New York Bureau of Municipal Research (BMR), a privately-funded organization with a two-pronged focus: creating a streamlined body of literature on the city and its populations to assist in the promotion of progressive policy, and secondly founding the Training School for Public Service, a vocational school where this knowledge could be studied and internalized by budding civil servants. Beard became the Director of this training school in 1915. (In 1918, he accepted Directorship over BMR.)

In 1917, however, in a slew of questions around academic freedom in the context of the The Great War, the ratification of the Espionage Act, and the firing of faculty on this ground, Beard left Columbia.[2] He was not alone in his protest. James Harvey Robinson, an Americanist historian also at Columbia, likewise resigned. The two—in addition to Herbert Croly, the first editor of the New Republic—helped to found the New School for Social Research. (For more information on the founding, see: “The Founding, 1919”.)

Beard’s continuing interest in history and education showed itself clearly. He headed The New School’s early planning committee and outside an administration role taught a course called Problems in American Government, which, echoing his continuing work at BMR, sought to “deal with the practical methods involved in the developed of an efficient democracy including such matters as administrative organization and methods, civil service and political parties, budget making, …. and the growth of specialized functions such as public health, public works, education, recreation and housing.”[3]

Beard’s tenure at The New School proved short lived, due to clashes in the administration over the school’s direction. In the years following his departure, Beard’s posture as an academic, administrator, and political persona proceeded to develop. He remained active in the Political Science Association, American History Association, BMR, and taught history classes at Brookwood Labor College, in Brooklyn. He also fully developed his position of non-interventionism, as articulated in his final two works: American Foreign Policy in the Making: 1932–1940 (1946) and President Roosevelt and the Coming of War (1948).

Beard passed away September 1, 1948, in New Haven, Connecticut. But his contributions to American historiography have lived on. In the 1950s, Beard’s progressivism met its antithesis, “consensus” history. This historiographical movement—epitomized by the likes of Richard Hofstadter, Allan Nevins, Louis Harzt, and David M. Potter—asserted US history was not driven by (Beardian) conflict (especially, class conflict), but instead a fundamental unity. (The movement proved tacitly linked to celebrations over the US’s liberal democratic roots, in light of the nation’s victories against fascism in the Second World War and its growing economic primacy.) In the 1960s, with protests against the Vietnam War, Beard’s work however found a second life, inspiring a wave of New Left historians (i.e. the “Wisconsin school”), critical of, among many other things, the US’s involvement in the Cold War.

Charles Beard cofounded the New School for Social Research. You can read more about him here.

[1] Philips, Clifton J. “The Indiana Education of Charles A. Beard.” Indiana Magazine of History 55, no. 1 (1959), 4.  Accessed October 5, 2018.  

[2] “Quits Columbia; Assails Trusties: Professor Charles A. Beard Says Narrow Clique is Controlling the University.” The New York Times, October 9, 1917.

[3] New School (New York, N.Y.). The New School for Social Research Preliminary Lectures 1919 Spring. circa 1918. New School course catalogs; Schools of Public Engagement; General course catalogs. New School Archives and Special Collections Digital Archive. Web. 20 Oct 2018.

In the reader

Charles Beard. Communications and External Affairs (CEA). New School Archives and Special Collections Digital Archive. Web. 28 Oct 2014.