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Who Is Charles a. Beard?

By Christian Petersen
Updated May 23, 2024
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Charles A. Beard was an American born in 1874. He gained fame as a historian and political scientist and analyst. During the first half of the 20th century, he published hundreds of papers, textbooks, and articles, including one of the most famous and influential books on early American history ever published, The Rise of the American Civilization. His ideas challenged many of the prevailing opinions about the founding of the United States, and later, his views on American involvement in the Second World War would lead to the decline of his career.

Having received his doctorate from Columbia University 1904, Charles A. Beard began his career as a university professor at the same institution. His tenure at Columbia lasted only 13 years, but during this time, he published many pieces of scholarly work, including one of his most well known and controversial books, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution. The premise of this work was that the many of founding fathers of the United States were driven primarily by their economic interests and that these interests influenced their votes and work on the United States Constitution. The work created a great deal of controversy but was well respected by most scholars, although this sentiment faded in later years.

Beard resigned from Columbia in 1917, amidst controversy over his views regarding the leadership of the university and their perceived interference with his promotion of American involvement in the First World War, which he ardently advocated. Beard became an independent scholar, unaffiliated with any established institution. He helped start The New School, a faculty-run institution located in New York's Greenwich Village. Later, he worked from his home in Connecticut.

During this period, Beard continued to publish extensively, producing textbooks, monographs, articles for popular and scholarly periodicals and other works. It was during this time that he published The Rise of the American Civilization, in 1927, and two subsequent sequel volumes, all co-written with his wife, Mary, with whom he collaborated on many other works as well. He became one of America's best known and respected historians and political scientists during this time and was at different times elected president of the American History Association and the American Political Science Association.

By the dawn of the Second World War, Beard's ideas about the place of the United States in world affairs had reversed themselves, and he vigorously opposed America's involvement. He publicly railed against President Roosevelt's decision to involve the United States in the war, claiming that it could lead to a dictatorship taking control of the country. He continued to rail against American involvement, even after the end of the war and accused President Roosevelt of lying to the American people to trick the general populace into supporting American involvement. This led to the decline of his career and a repudiation of many of his other ideas as public opinion turned against him. He died in 1948.

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