Charles Beard: A Conference Recap

In spite of the unrestful Beardian ghost recently invoked by Saul Cornell, with which I introduced the topic of the Charles Beard, Economic Interpretation and History Conference here a few months ago, not every participant was convinced, going in, that Beard was really worth the trouble of a two-day international conference. By the end, we were able to say that whatever we thought of Beard himself, his work could certainly provoke plenty of insight and discussion. It would be wrong to say the event was a celebration of Beard, or held in his honour. Instead, like his vision of history, it was characterised more by conflict than consensus–at least, if friendly scholarly disagreement really counts as conflict.

The two days were split more or less along chronological lines, the first focusing on Beard’s own life and times. Between talks on his missed connection with English working class Ruskinian pastoralism, his place at the conjunction of multiple non-Marxist materialist traditions, and his position in a Progressive or a putative “Old American” canon (alongside, respectively, Robert LaFollette and F. Scott Fitzgerald), Beard’s political, intellectual, and institutional background was brought to life in newly complex and contradictory ways. At the same time, accounts of Beard’s powerful use of law as an epistemic lens, and his place in the later history of American legal sociology, drew insights at the interdisciplinary edge of history. Indeed, we were reminded, Beard spent more time as a political scientist than a historian–at least one participant was led to wonder, perhaps he was good at everything except history?

Uncovering the incoherence and tensions within the Progressive label of the early twentieth century on the first day shed a novel comparative light on the ideologies of the late-eighteenth on the second. Agrarian and industrialist, nostalgic and optimistic, rural and cosmopolitan, radical and conservative, our image of Beard himself seemed to embody many of the tensions of the American founding. At the same time, what he missed by way of slavery, Native Americans, and gender (in spite of Mary Beard’s later contributions) were crucial gaps in the picture. By using Beard and his century-old book as our prism, we were able to explore the complex, reflexive ways historical contexts and narratives inform and constitute each other. You could almost say, without the 1910s we would have had a different 1780s.

Of course, our own decade shapes what Beard would have called our “frame of reference.” As Harmsworth Professor Gary Gerstle pointed out, approaching Beard now is timely in light of our renewed attention to the economic basis of politics and society. Beard’s interest in the international also points towards current trends in historiography. Several papers picked up on the variations in Beard’s account of international relations (and its distortion in the later work of the Wisconsin School internationalists), including his concern with foreign capital and commerce at the founding and in the later course of American empire. The nature of American “civilization,” and tensions over the idea of exceptionalism, was central both for Beard and for our analysis of his work.

Jack Rakove, in his Monday evening keynote speech, offered a contrast between the impact of Beard’s Economic Interpretation and Max Farrand’s records of the Constitutional Convention published two years earlier. Through the latter, he remarked, we can get a much more complete view not just of James Madison’s political thought, but the very process of his political thinking. Finally, Woody Holton’s barnstorming Tuesday keynote took the comic form of a letter from “Chuck” Beard’s editor. Some of the referees reports had been pretty negative, it had to be said. But things weren’t all bad. Often, the criticisms actually strengthened the underlying premise that power and economic interests mattered. The manuscript would need some fairly major revisions, but (thought the editor) An Economic Interpretation might just turn out to be an important book. It might even be remembered as far off as 2013.

2 responses

  1. A somewhat overlooked aspect of the controversy created by Beard’s efforts to establish the biases of those who crafted the constitution is the general attitude at the time of what constituted private versus societal property. Thomas Paine addressed these issues in his essay ‘Agrarian Justice’ in which he argues that the ownership of land is a privilege requiring a payment of ground rent to society. He may have drawn this insight from Turgot directly, but it is more likely it came from his discussions with Benjamin Franklin, who embraced the Physiocratic ideals of Quesnay and Turgot. Frederick Jackson Turner understood that from the very beginning land speculation was a primary economic activity of the colonials. To profit without actually producing is, unfortunately, well documented in all of human history. And, in the creation of law landed interests were and are a powerful influence over laws establishing property rights and how property is taxed.

  2. Pingback: Digest of American History Journal Literature for Fall-Winter 2013 | American History Librarian


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