“Charles Beard at 100”: A Roundtable Recap

Charles Beard on the cover of Life Magazine (17 Jan 1944)On October 14, Columbia University’s Center for American Studies sponsored the “Charles Beard at 100” roundtable to commemorate the centennial of Beard’s An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States. The event, organized by Columbia Historian and Director of the American Studies program Casey Blake, featured Eric Foner (Columbia), Jan Lewis (Rutgers), and David Waldstreicher (Temple) as panelists, with Herb Sloan (Barnard) as moderator. The following blog post synthesizes some of the main themes of the roundtable. I hope that many of the excellent points raised by the panelists can serve as a basis for discussion here on The Junto.

Casey Blake opened the roundtable with some historical context for the publication of Economic Interpretation, noting that the early twentieth century was a period in which Americans were determined to challenge analytical categories that had been inherited from previous generations. Beard, Blake explained, sought to reconcile the reigning ideologies that separated constitutionalism from the history of political economy. Eric Foner added that Beard changed the way people wrote history by introducing to the disciplinary canon a well-argued monograph, rather than the sweeping narratives that characterized history writing at this time. Quoting historian Richard Hofstadter, Foner noted that Economic Interpretation was considered “the first truly exciting monograph in the history of American historiography.”[1]

This context was important fodder for Herb Sloan’s first question: “One hundred years after [Economic Interpretation’s] publication, what keeps this book alive?” The panelists agreed that Beard’s staying power emerged from the book’s relevance. Foner noted that Economic Interpretation raised questions that remain central to the ways historians think about the past, including discussions of power, who rules, and what those in power represent. David Waldstreicher argued that Beard invited historians to challenge the myths of the founding era. Jan Lewis examined the character of historical scholarship in a “post-Beard world,” and observed that it is now impossible to study the past without being attentive to economic, social, and political interests.

When Sloan asked, “What in the content of the book still passes muster with historians?” the panelists mentioned the “ambivalence” of Beard’s analysis. Foner summed it up nicely: “What survives [about Beard’s argument] depends on what you think he says.” This question led to a discussion about whether historians should read Economic Interpretation as a cynical reflection of Progressive-era ideologies, or as an exposé that reveals the founders were not always acting in the best interests of the people. Sloan then inquired, “What is it that [Beard] left out that you would like to see discussed in the shaping of the Constitution?” Lewis and Waldstreicher both pushed for larger conversations concerning how ideas and culture affect politics. Foner mentioned the absence of slavery in Economic Interpretation, and mused how it could have been possible for Beard to write an economic account of slavery’s centrality to the Constitution. Yet he noted that for historians in the early twentieth century, writing about slavery was simply not of much interest.

During the Q&A, a member of the audience asked whether the panelists believed historians were writing in a “Neo-Beardian moment.” Lewis suggested that the field has turned towards a “new imperial history” that situates trade, capitalism, and other interests in an Atlantic World context. Mentioning Alan Taylor’s work on slavery as an example, she praised recent scholarship that has engaged with the question of racial and gendered “interests.”  As a graduate student, I found this discussion to be the most engaging. It was interesting to see how hints of Beard’s Economic Interpretation may influence junior scholars in ways that are not always readily apparent. It called attention to the narrative and interpretive threads that have emerged in the past century of historical research.

One hundred years after its publication, Economic Interpretation enjoys a staying power arguably unknown to any other historical monograph of the twentieth century. In 1913, Beard shocked the American public with his assertion that the founders were not “demi-gods,” but self-interested, powerful individuals with vested economic interests. Although historians have since expanded, challenged, and refuted many of Beard’s claims, perhaps  we can take from Beard’s historiographical legacy the importance of arguments that push the boundaries of how we study and interpret the past. Looking for new routes through familiar historical terrain, turning a critical eye to discussions of “universality” or “inevitability,” and asking new questions of our source material are some ways that we can carry Economic Interpretation forward. Perhaps The Junto will be here in another hundred years echoing Herb Sloan’s query: “What keeps this book alive?”

[1] Richard Hofstadter, The Progressive Historians: Turner, Beard, Parrington (London: Jonathan Cape Ltd., 1968).

One response

  1. Beard’s work followed a spate of popular, debunking “True History” biographies of the founders at the tail end of the nineteenth century (e.g., S. G. Fisher). So the penchant for de-mythification in the wake of the Whig historians was already underway by the time Beard wrote Economic Interpretation. However, there is no urge among the general public to smash the myths of the founders. That urge does exist in academia and may account in some small part for its continued popularity.

    But I think it’s staying power is largely historiographical. It was, indeed, the first “paradigm-shifting” modern monograph in early American history and from the time of its publication through the early 1960s, most historians writing on the period were either furthering or refuting Beard’s thesis (mostly the latter). Because Economic Interpretation framed the debate in the field for half a century, it is still necessary that historians engage with the work, if only to be able to understand fully the work that came after it.

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