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The American historian Charles Austin Beard (1874–1948) in 1900 married Mary Ritter (1876–1958), a fellow Indiana-born DePauw student who became his lifelong intellectual companion and in her own right a pioneering historian of women. Mary followed Charles to Oxford University in 1900 and later enrolled for graduate work at Columbia University (1902), but pressures of child rearing and her growing involvement in Progressive community causes ended her work there. Charles Beard studied British legal institutions for his PhD in political science at Columbia, where he taught history (1904– 1917); there he also wrote textbooks on European history with James Harvey Robinson and joined the New History movement to revitalize historical practice. Members of the New History movement, or Progressive historians, as they were also known, reoriented history toward solving current problems and integrated social, economic, and intellectual subjects into their political narratives. Beard was not only a Progressive but also a political activist seeking reform of government through the application of academic knowledge when he joined the New York Bureau of Municipal Research in 1914. Resigning from Columbia in protest over the dismissal of an antiwar colleague in 1917, Beard became increasingly dissatisfied with conventional academia as too intellectually conservative, and he helped to found the interdisciplinary and Progressive-oriented New School for Social Research (1919).
Though trained as an historian, Beard’s contribution straddled the porous borderland between the politics and history disciplines of the era. He wrote, among other works, American Government and Politics (1910), American City Government (1912), and The Economic Basis of Politics (1922). In 1927 he became president of the American Political Science Association, though historians continued to claim his allegiance, and he served as American Historical Association (AHA) president in 1933. Beard assumed a key role in the AHA’s attempted reform of high school history curricula as part of the Carnegie-funded Commission on the Social Studies in Schools (1929–1934). While working on the commission, he advocated in A Charter for the Social Sciences in the Schools (1932) the integration of the social sciences around Progressive history.
Beard was an avowed exponent of the economic interpretation of history as the study of interest groups, though he was not committed to class analysis in a Marxist sense. His controversial An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution (1913) examined the relationship of economics and politics at the Federal Convention of 1787, showing a clash of landed and mercantile property interests. His study of Treasury records revealed that those favoring the Federalist position held securities likely to be repaid if a federal government with a stronger financial basis were established; in a similar interpretive vein, he also wrote Economic Origins of Jeffersonian Democracy (1915). Empirical studies and a counter-Progressive trend in historiography eventually challenged his account of the Constitution, revealing a much more complex array of economic interests within the Federal Convention. His larger intellectual dominance faded by the 1950s, but in the meantime, he had influenced a generation of scholars from the 1920s. Increasingly he had become a public intellectual, reaching a wide audience through popular history books written with his wife.
Mary Beard not only served as a coworker, but also influenced his intellectual vision. She was herself an activist who worked in the suffrage and trade union movements before World War I. Seeing supposedly “objective” scientific history as biased because historians did not recognize women’s past contributions to human society, she stimulated Charles Beard’s relativist views. These later became a foundation for his presidential address to the AHA, “Written History as an Act of Faith,” which enunciated his “frame of reference” approach to historical knowledge. Mary and Charles collaborated on The Rise of American Civilization (1927), a work that sold more than 130,000 copies in early editions and won wide acclaim along with its successor volumes America in Midpassage (1939) and The American Spirit (1942). The Rise of American Civilization innovatively interpreted the Civil War (1861–1865) and Reconstruction (1865–1877) as a second American Revolution in which the forces of a (Northern) industrial civilization overcame the agrarian South. The volumes together sought to capture a synthetic view of a holistic and unique civilization shaped by American material abundance, thus linking the economic interpretation to cultural and social history. Mary added much social and cultural history thematic material and textual evidence to these works that examined media, urban life, and social reform.
Mary Beard also wrote on her own, most notably Woman as Force in History (1946), in which she argued that women as much as men had shaped society over the course of human social evolution, and she criticized male historians for neglecting to recognize those contributions. The book did not achieve the success that she had hoped for, but later feminist scholars rediscovered its pioneering ideas. Her efforts to stimulate collection of women’s history archives, begun in 1935, added to this legacy concerning her pioneering role.
In their later years the Beards became increasingly alienated from the American mainstream as Charles espoused political isolationism and attacked the foreign policy of Franklin Roosevelt in President Roosevelt and the Coming of the War: A Study in Appearances and Realities, 1941 (1948), but their legacy continued to influence the “consensus” historians of the 1950s, who tried to transcend the Beards’ work.
- Beard, Charles A. 1910. American Government and Politics. New York: Macmillan.
- Beard, Charles A. 1912. American City Government. New York: Century.
- Beard, Charles A. 1913. An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution. New York: Macmillan.
- Beard, Charles A. 1915. Economic Origins of Jeffersonian Democracy. New York: Macmillan.
- Beard, Charles A. 1922. The Economic Basis of Politics. New York: Knopf.
- Beard, Charles A. 1932. A Charter for the Social Sciences in the Schools. New York: Scribner.
- Beard, Charles A. 1948. President Roosevelt and the Coming of the War: A Study in Appearances and Realities, 1941. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Beard, Charles A., and Mary Ritter Beard. 1927. The Rise of American Civilization. New York: Macmillan.
- Beard, Charles A., and Mary Ritter Beard. 1939. America in Midpassage. New York: Macmillan.
- Beard, Charles A., and Mary Ritter Beard. 1942. The American Spirit. New York: Macmillan.
- Beard, Mary Ritter. 1946. Woman as Force in History: A Study in Traditions and Realities. New York: Macmillan.
- Cott, Nancy F. 1991. A Woman Making History: Mary Ritter Beard through Her Letters. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Des Jardins, Julie. 2003. Women and the Historical Enterprise in America: Gender, Race, and the Politics of Memory, 1880–1945. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
- Hofstadter, Richard. 1968. The Progressive Historians: Turner, Beard, Parrington. New York: Knopf.
- Nore, Ellen. 1983. Charles A. Beard: An Intellectual Biography. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.
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