Charles Austin Beard: The Historian as American Nationalist


Charles A. Beard (1874-1948) was a central figure in the American historical profession in the first half of this century. Born into a substantial Midwestern family in Indiana, he studied at Spiceland Academy, a Quaker institution. He spent 1898-1902 at Oxford University. He returned to the United States and by 1904 had earned a PhD in History at Columbia University. In 1913 his An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution was published, followed by his Economic Aspects of Jeffersonian Democracy in 1915.

Beard’s early writings reflected his involvement in the political vision of the Progressive movement, of which more shortly. In 1917, after US entry in World War I (which Beard supported), he resigned from Columbia University in protest over restrictions on academic freedom, which the wartime climate made possible. He betook himself to a dairy farm in Connecticut, which he ran successfully.

After the war, Beard wrote many essays, a general history of the United States, and several books which attempted to deal with the economic crisis which began in 1929. He was a power to be reckoned with, even if his ideas were deemed controversial by some, and liberals and Progressives loved him – until he came to question the wisdom of Franklin Roosevelt in the field of foreign policy. In 1968, the arch-Establishment historian Richard Hofstadter called Beard’s reputation "an imposing ruin": "The east wing, inspired by historical relativism… is entirely neglected. The west wing, dedicated to continental isolationism, looks like a late and relatively hasty addition; a jerry-built affair, now a tattered shambles, it is nonetheless occupied from time to time by transient and raucous tenants, of whom, one is sure, the original owner would have disapproved."1 Very literary.

As one of those raucous tenants, I have to say that, if I were a betting man, I would bet that twenty or fifty years from now – if there is an American civilization whose inmates even care to study their own history – more people will read Charles Beard than Richard Hofstadter.


Beard’s early reputation rested on his book on the Constitutional Convention. The Constitution itself and the Courts that interpreted it seemed, eighty some years ago, to be bastions of conservatism bent on maintaining an unjust economic order. Progressives welcomed Beard’s work as reducing the Constitution’s authority by showing that the founders had economic motives just like everyone else. Beard’s critics considered him a vile Marxist. Forrest MacDonald, perhaps the best of the commentators on the Constitution – and Beard’s view of it, accepts that there were economic motivations at work, but finds Beard guilty of gross oversimplification and misunderstanding of the actual politics of 1787.

New Left historian William Appleman Williams – on whom Beard had an obvious important influence – wrote that Beard was chiefly influenced by James Madison, Brooks Adams, and Marx as regards the relationship of politics and economics. Beard’s influence does not stop with Williams. The late Murray Rothbard – libertarian economist and historian – always acknowledged a debt to Beard.

Beard’s method, then, transcended the intentions of the Progressive moment. I think it is on best display in his book on Jeffersonian Democracy. Political figures have economic interests and motives and will act on them when they can. There is nothing in that which requires the help of Marx. This common sense approach, which dispenses with the clumsy apparatus which Marx welded together out of incompatible spare parts, can be found in the Scottish Enlightenment, the American founders, and early British and French liberalism. Williams writes that "Economic determinism is an open-ended system of causal analysis. Marxism, as generally understood and as used by the critics of Beard, is a closed system of utopian prophecy."2


Of course, a sound view of economic theory would prevent various errors in applying the common-sense strategy of looking for economic motives, where they exist. I cannot say that Beard’s economic ideas ever rose above the notion that extensive state regulation might be needed to offset problems allegedly built into the market economy. His works of the early 1930s, such as The Open Door at Home (1934), look towards an American corporatism and avoidance of foreign war. Williams writes that Beard’s The Idea of National Interest (1934) said of foreign policy that "(1) it is intimately connected with domestic affairs, (2) empires are not built in fits of absent-mindedness, and (3) expansion does not in and of itself solve problems, and often complicates and deepens them."3

His concern over the direction of US foreign policy moved Beard into cooperation with the anti-New Deal Old Right and it is this, which – contrary to Hofstadter – makes his later work so interesting and important. Like a lot of other people, Beard reacted badly to FDR’s turn toward activist foreign policy in 1937. In 1939 Beard wrote Giddy Minds and Foreign Quarrels, which revealed his new concern. The title came from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, in which the young king is advised, "Be it thy course , to busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels, that action, hence borne out, may waste the memory of the formers days." In this short book [87 pp.], Beard reviewed the claims made for economic imperialism in 1898 in the name of the Open Door (the "inner doctrine," as I like to call it, which was never a big secret). He concluded that the undertaking had been enormously expensive for the nation and profitable to only a few people.

Beard also had a go at what I call the "outer doctrine" – purely ideological constructs grounded, it seemed, on not much at all. He paints an unkind picture of American "internationalism": "The lines of the Wilsonian creed of world interventionism and adventurism are in substance: Imperialism is bad (well, partly); every nation must have a nice constitutional government, more or less like ours; if any government dislikes the settlement made at Versailles it must put up its guns and sit down with its well-armed neighbors for a ‘friendly’ conference; trade barriers are to be lowered and that will make everybody round the globe prosperous (almost, if not entirely); backward peoples are to be kept in order but otherwise treated nicely, as wards; the old history, full of troubles, is to be closed; brethren, and presumably sisters, are to dwell together in unity; everything in the world is to be managed as decorously as a Baptist convention presided over by the Honorable Cordell Hull; if not, we propose to fight disturbers everywhere (well, nearly everywhere)."4

With the addition of a few new clauses – border disputes between oil-producing nations must never be settled by force without Uncle Sam’s permission, racism and ethnic insensitivity will be stamped out at all cost everywhere – we have the creed of several recent administrations.


Beard had the wit to see behind the political labels of his day. He duly noted that the Republican administrations of the 1920s, generally reckoned as "isolationist," had intervened at will: "They turned the Government of the United States into a big drumming agency for pushing the sale of goods and the lending of money abroad, and they talked vociferously about the open doors everywhere, except at home."5 He wrote that FDR’s requests for increased military spending only made sense on the assumption that US leaders intended to participate in the next European war.

In America In Midpassage, vol. I (1939), written with his wife Mary R. Beard, Beard sketched out his understanding of the foreign policy alternatives. One was unilateral imperialism, which he somewhat awkwardly called "imperial isolationism." This was the program of Open Door enthusiasts who wished to avoid commitments to other powers. Another was "collective internationalism" – the Wilsonian program of a concert of imperial powers to keep order and pursue armed philanthropies. A third alternative – to which Beard adhered – was that of the "continental" or "American civilization" school, which wished to defend the United States themselves while avoiding distant quarrels overseas.


Beard lived to see American involved in what he believed was an unnecessary war. The Pacific war had been entirely avoidable in terms of real US interests (propaganda about the China market notwithstanding), but pressure on Japan helped ease the administration’s way into the European war by way of an Asian war. In his last two major works, American Foreign Policy in the Making, 1932-1940 (1946), and President Roosevelt and the Coming of the War, 1941 (1948) sought to nail down the case against FDR’s policy and the duplicitous way in which he pursued it. It was a heroic effort on the part of a great historian at the end of his life. It is easy to forgive his residual Progressivism in light of such an achievement.


A few years ago, I wrote that if the fashion for humanitarian interventions really took hold, we could look forward to seeing US Marines manning soup kitchens and hanging drywall in places like Somalia and Haiti. Now reality seems to have overtaken me. To paraphrase Marx, history repeats itself, first as low comedy and then as mindless farce. I hope the recently reported "concrete bombs" are a joke – otherwise, the matter raises a number of rude questions. (See Karla Solheim, "Smart Bombs or Rocks for Brains?" MOJO Wire, 5 November 1999.

If American planes are really dropping "smart" bombs made of concrete on Iraqi targets, what form do they take? I mean, if they’re just dropping 90 lb. bags of Portland cement out of airplanes, I can’t see what good it would do, even from the standpoint of the Imperial Brain Trust. Create a dust storm? They’ve already got dust in Iraq. So, presumably, the concrete has to be poured in forms and left to set up, in which case, I want to know if they tie steel in it. Do the ironworkers get union-scale for tying the steel? How do you install a laser guidance system in a big-ole piece of tie-beam? It’s like something out of the Monty Python self-defense sketch – "Release the sixteen-tonne weight."

I hope it’s only a hoax, because the philosophical implications are staggering. It will give the poor Marxists something to do. They’ve been a bit beside themselves ever since "their rowdy friends settled down" in the eastern Bloc. I can hear them now: "The latest US tactic against Iraq represents a distillation of the forces and relations of production under late capitalism. It is thus a concretization of suppressed social struggles, which attempts to cement permanently the illusory class-collaboration of the current situation."

And whose "material interests" are served by the use of this interesting material? Is there competitive bidding? Can I pour some concrete slabs in the backyard and ship them up to Washington at the generous 2000% defense mark-up? Or do they get their big concrete chunks out of failed public housing projects? There’s something inspiring in that. My suggestion: break up the Roosevelt memorial and drop that – but not on the Iraqis, they don’t deserve it.

Are there concrete bombs? Have I been taken in by a hoax? Hard to say. The people that run this country are capable of just about anything. Anyway, the symbolism is cosmic: concrete bombs to implement American abstractions!

[1] Richard Hofstadter, The Progressive Historians: Turner, Beard, Parrington (New York, 1968) p. 344.
[2] William Appleman Williams, "A Note on Charles Beard’s Search for a General Theory of Causation" in History as a Way of Learning (New York, 1973), p. 176.
[3] William Appleman Williams, "Charles Austin Beard: The Intellectual as Tory-Radical" in Harvey Goldberg, ed., American Radicals (New York, 1957), p. 305.
[4] Charles A. Beard, Giddy Minds and Foreign Quarrels (New York, 1939), pp. 24-25.
[5] Ibid., 26.