Charles Austin Beard, a Racist Historian?

Controversy about Charles Austin Beard began in 1913 when he published An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States. He turned thirty-nine that year. Until then, his books had appeared to widespread praise within the profession and to the benign neglect of the general reading public. A highly successful teacher at Columbia University and a prolific author and reviewer of books on English and American history, he advanced swiftly in the profession. As a sign of his professional promise, the top journal in his field early sought him out to serve on its board of editors.

The normal professional ascent of a talented, energetic and ambitious academic suddenly shifted its trajectory in 1913. It did so sharply in two directions. Socialists and progressive liberals hailed Beard for his realistic analysis of the Constitutional Convention as the birthplace of a national government intended from the beginning to serve as the political adjutant of the country’s economic elites. For the left, Beard became and remained a heroic figure and an avatar for the way critical history should be written. Conservatives, however, never would forgive Beard for his portrayal of the Founding Fathers as an assembly of politicians—however brilliant and learned–acting of necessity in the aggrandizement of the elites who had sent them to Philadelphia in 1787, more or less setting the pattern of American politics ever afterward. For making such an argument and documenting it, he became the most famous and influential historian in the country, but also the most notorious and controversial.

The battles over Beard’s interpretation of the Constitution paled by comparison with the fallout from the part he played during the national debates over American intervention in the Second World War. By then he also was the country’s leading public intellectual. He used his influence to oppose Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s interventionist policy, arguing that this war—like the Great War that preceded it—primarily concerned empire. He based his appeal on the impartial foreign policy traditions enshrined in Washington’s Farewell Address. Forsaking those traditions in favor of supporting the British, French, and Soviet empires in a war that would be the most catastrophic in history seemed to him like the beginning of the end for an authentic American democratic civilization.

Beard despised the Nazis, but he thought that their defeat was only incidental to the chief aim of the United States government, to establish its hegemony over the world economy. As with the Constitutional Convention and all the American wars beginning with the Revolution in 1775, he understood the Second World War at its deepest level as an economic event. The spectacular rise of American government power that then began with the creation of the military-industrial complex would be the chief legacy of the war and make the United States a permanent garrison state on eternal watch for the welfare and augmentation of the corporate capitalist order. Beard did not get everything right about the Second World War, but he clearly saw the direction in which the country was headed.

In September last year, Beard came under attack on yet a third front, his alleged racism. The attack occurred in the pages of The New York Review of Books in an article by one of the country’s most eminent historians, Eric Foner. I wrote the following letter to the editors of that publication.

To the Editors:

In “The Complicity of Textbooks” (NYRB, September 22, 2022), Eric Foner asserts, “Charles and Mary Beard, in a textbook written in the 1920s, pretty much ignored the abolitionist movement, reflecting not only racism, certainly present in their book, but also the ‘Beardian’ understanding of history as a series of struggles between economic classes, with political ideologies being essentially masks for economic self-interest.”

The Beards certainly were not imbued with all the enlightened attitudes of our time toward human equality. As we might expect of most Americans born in the 1870s, it is unlikely that either one of them could pass a strictly graded sensitivity-training-in-the-workplace examination.

Nevertheless, the Beards did well in debates about human equality of their own time. Mary Ritter Beard advanced women’s history as a vital research field. The Rise of American Civilization, the textbook cited by Professor Foner and which she co-wrote with her husband, brought new attention to women’s issues.

Charles Austin Beard, the leading historian and public intellectual of the day, vigorously opposed anti-Semitism in American life. In 1917, he protested the firing in New York City of three left-wing Jewish school teachers—Samuel Schmalhausen, Thomas Mufson, and A. Henry Schneer—who, according to the New York Times, had been sacked for “holding views subversive of good discipline and of undermining good citizenship in the schools.” Beard vouched for these men and protested in a letter cited by the Times that there had been “no little anti-Semitic feeling in the case.” He also became involved in another notorious anti-Semitism episode more than twenty years later, the denial of an appointment for the historian Eric Goldman at Johns Hopkins University despite the unanimous backing from the history department. Beard, a visiting professor there at the time, criticized the decision as a flagrant instance of prejudice.

Beard also attacked anti-Semitism as an evil force worldwide. In the early- and mid-1930s when many in Europe and America cheered Adolf Hitler as a bulwark against Soviet communism, Beard relentlessly attacked the Nazi regime. He condemned the Nazis for their anti-Semitism and racist attitudes generally. Writing for The New Republic in 1933 and 1934, he condemned “the customary Nazi savagery in dealing with the Jews” and protested lectures by Nazi spokesmen trying to influence Americans “for the benefit of Hitler’s propaganda game.” In a 1934 address delivered at the New School for Social Research, Beard portrayed Nazism as “a low diabolical philosophy” responsible for a reign of terror in the heart of Europe. That October, he criticized Roscoe Pound, Dean of the Harvard Law School, for accepting an honorary degree from the University of Berlin. An honor from the Nazis counted against the recipient, in Beard’s moral economy. In a 1936 Foreign Affairs article, he castigated the Nazi system of education for its obsession with racial hygiene and program of crushing “all liberty of instruction and all independent search for truth.”

Did the Beards’ economic interpretation of the Civil War reflect racist motives as Professor Foner states? The Beards hated slavery as an irredeemably evil institution. Their account of slavery begins, “In the bitter annals of the lowly there is no more ghastly chapter than the story of this trade in human flesh.” Slavery comes up for sustained discussion throughout the first volume, always as a tragedy for the country. Among the Civil War-era writers the Beards admired, Ralph Waldo Emerson receives singularly high praise and not only for his penetrating discernment of the connections between property and politics. They also note with evident approval his “resounding blows at slavery as an institution.” They do present the pro-slavery case that the South made for itself, while pointing out that its self-deceptive nature led to the region’s crushing military defeat and long-term economic ruin. They also examine the North’s economic agenda, essentially following the reasoning advanced in brief by Henry Adams—an exemplary historian for them—in his autobiography. Adams synthesized in a single image the ultimate significance of the Civil War as the triumph of Northern economic interests: “The world after 1865 became a bankers’ world.”

The analysis by the Beards, however, cannot be attributed legitimately to racism. They wrote their book during the immediate aftermath of the Great War. Partisans of President Wilson’s interventionist policy in that conflict, they subsequently became disillusioned by the imperialist greed that triumphed at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919.The war to make the world safe for democracy had taught the Beards to discount professions of idealism about freedom as a persuasive explanation of Washington’s wartime policies. To this rule, they did not make an exception for the Civil War. Not racism, but the logic of their conviction about war in general guided them in their interpretation of the Civil War.

Richard Drake
Missoula, Montana

The letter did not find favor with the NYRB editors. This outcome was perhaps understandable. The editors explain on their website that they receive thousands of such letters. Nevertheless, some effort needs to be made to bring fairness and accuracy to the debate about Beard. We owe him that much. He was, after Henry Adams, our greatest historian. His idea about following the money trail for a proper understanding of American imperialism and militarism constitutes a shaft of light in the fog of propaganda enveloping us today. Dismissing Beard as a racist in this day and age can be an effective—though historically irresponsible—means for getting rid of him once and for all. As ever since 1913, canceling Beard would come as a consummation devoutly to be wished by the guardians of our national mythologies.

Richard Drake holds the Lucile Speer Research Chair in Politics and History at the University of Montana. Among his publications are Charles Austin Beard: The Return of the Master Historian of American Imperialism and The Education of an Anti-Imperialist: Robert La Follette and U.S. Expansion.