Beard, Charles

Beard, Charles (Austin)

(1874–1948) historian; born in Knightstown, Ind. Coming from an independent Quaker background, he edited a local newspaper before going on to DePauw University and becoming exposed to progressive thinkers and social reformers of his time. After graduating (1898) he went on to Oxford University, England, where—with money supplied by a Kansas socialist, Mrs. Walter Vrooman—he helped found Ruskin Hall, a college for workers. After marrying Mary Ritter in 1900, he brought her back to Ruskin Hall and continued developing his ideas on improving society, as expressed in his first book, The Industrial Revolution (1901). In 1902 he went to Columbia University to study; he joined the faculty (1904–17) and became one of the leaders in adopting the "new history," a progressive approach to using the past to advance the present. In 1913 he published his seminal work, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States; highly controversial in its day, it argued that America's "founding fathers" had acted more on economic motives than for abstract ideals. In 1917 he resigned from Columbia to protest the treatment of those opposed to America's involvement in World War I. From then on he never held a regular academic appointment—he lived on his writings, investments, and on the income from a dairy farm in Connecticut—but he remained a prominent public figure as a writer and activist, working for reforms in public administration, speaking out on current affairs, and constantly refining his views about the past. He collaborated with his wife, Mary Ritter Beard, on several major books, starting with The Rise of American Civilization (1927), which emphasized economic forces on American history. In the 1930s he somewhat conditionally endorsed Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal domestic policies, but he definitely rejected Roosevelt's foreign policies and ended up with the isolationists, even charging Roosevelt with having maneuvered Japan into attacking the U.S.A. In his final years he modified his earlier views on the influence of economics on history, and lost some of his standing, but he remains one of the American historians to be reckoned with.
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