Let’s get to know Charles Beard, whose intellectual connection to 1619 principal Nikole Hannah-Jones may tar him with some people, but whose story still has much to teach us. Born in 1874, Beard was perhaps the most influential American historian of the first half of the 20th century. We’re obliged to segment his heyday in this fashion because a historian’s work is famously ephemeral. Beard’s most notable work, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States, prompted much academic pearl-clutching upon its release in 1913, before forming the spine of an historical consensus that lasted more than 40 years. By the 1960s, his views on colonial America were quickly falling from grace.
This waning/waxing of historical reputations, among historical figures and the academics who study them, is de rigueur. Views are routinely raised up, then built upon or debunked as new scholarship amplifies or moots competing points of view. I’d have thought the ongoing 1619 controversies would, by now, have summoned more mention of Beard, whose work similarly challenged an existing consensus re. America’s revolutionary period. It remains to be seen whether The 1619 Project — a multimedia series from The New York Times Magazine that re-examines the legacy of slavery in the United States — will experience a similar evolution. The NYT published its 1619 package in book form back in November.
This much already seems clear: No work of U.S. history has ever been so swiftly, widely and cynically politicized. Right-wingers especially have perceived electoral advantage in portraying this work of pop scholarship as a “radical left-wing” cousin to another all-purpose bogeyman, Critical Race Theory. Even the Trotskyites who manage the World Socialist Web Site have joined the fray, on the side of Trumpists, Republican state legislators, and Fox News. This potent propagandistic cocktail (whipped up by such strange bedfellows) has resulted in spitting-mad parents showing up at school committee meetings eager to wage cultural warfare. Just in time for the mid-term elections. We should emphasize that otherwise reputable historians have also objected to aspects of The 1619 Project, while carefully praising the ambitious sweep of it. That such distinguished mainstream scholars as Sean Wilentz and Gordon Wood have seen fit to kick up such a public fuss illustrates still more politicization — from the normally left-leaning ivory tower.
But what exactly is everyone so angry about? The story of Beard’s rise and fall should help us understand what’s really going on here.
Between 1865 and the First World War, historical consensus bathed America’s founding — and the so-called framers themselves — in extraordinarily gauzy light. Beard’s scholarship changed all that, for a time. An Economic Interpretation introduced the jolting idea that our patrician colonial forebears, in particular, acted not merely out of high-minded Enlightenment principals, but in their economic self-interest as well.
To cite just one example: Beard’s scholarship reminded us that many founders were active land speculators, including George Washington. We all know the British tripled taxes following the French and Indian War, in order to pay for said war: the taxation without representation we’ve all read about. To avoid another costly military conflict, Parliament also barred land speculation in the west or “back” country, across a “Proclamation Line” designed to separate colonials from indigenous peoples. The founding class, all of them wealthy white men, objected to the massive tax increase, the famous Stamp Act of 1765. But they also took great exception to this hamstringing of their land-speculation activities.
Beard’s work, like The 1619 Project, landed like a bombshell. The founders had never before been presented to the American public as hewing to such work-a-day, bourgeois imperatives. Eventually the demonstrable truth and rigor of Beard’s perspective, vetted over the course of decades, gained significant purchase. It became central to the U.S. historical canon. Indeed, its more clear-eyed, humanistic take on the founders and their motivations also allowed future American academics, politicians and citizens to see Washington, Jefferson and Hamilton et al. more as men of flesh, blood and standard human foibles, and less as flawless, heroic icons chiseled from marble.
This shift in American historiography, this trend in writing about the revolutionary period less sentimentally, has been slow-moving. Or rather, such a process doesn’t always bend in one direction, without interruption, toward objectivity or justice. Beard’s work fell from significant favor starting in the 1950s, when a gathering Cold War induced a great many Americans — academics, politicians, bureaucrats and citizens — to band together ideologically before a looming Red menace. In the face of what was perceived to be an existential threat, many felt our historical consensus required more spotless founders to rally around. Beard’s scholarship didn’t fit so well under that sort of jingoist cultural rubric, as that of Hannah-Jones does not today.
The views of historian William Archibald Dunning, a colleague of Beard’s at Columbia, similarly found early favor, only to be shorn of it. Sort of.
Dunning and a group of like-minded academics (all of them white males) are mainly responsible for scholarly legitimization of the pro-Confederate “Lost Cause” narrative, which, according to Dunning himself, portrayed the failure of post-Civil War Reconstruction as stemming not from revanchist bids to reacquire power, but rather from the “scandalous misrule of the carpet-baggers and negroes,” brought on by the enfranchisement of African-American men. It took another African-American man, W.E.B. Du Bois, author of Black Reconstruction in America (1935), to successfully challenge what became known as The Dunning School consensus, which “ascribed the faults and failures of Reconstruction to Negro ignorance and corruption,” Du Bois wrote. Today, Du Bois’ account is considered a far more reliable interpretation of the era: that of an imperfect, largely noble, but ultimately failed effort to build a multiracial democracy in the post-war South.
Dunning’s work has since faded from academic relevance. However, the fraught removal of Confederate statues from public display, even in 2021, shows how embedded his Lost Cause narrative remains. Just as Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis remain central to Civil War and Reconstruction narratives, America’s “founders and framers” — these well-to-do white guys presented to us today mainly in written form, but also cast in iron — remain our colonial flash points, the poles around which all this scholarship, this ever-shifting consensus, even select jurisprudence, tend to gravitate.
Yet even these poles are impermanent. In the pre-Civil War period, when Americans referred to “the founders”, they meant 17th century figures like John Smith, William Penn and John Winthrop. Abraham Lincoln almost single-handedly elevated 18th century colonials to the august standing we recognize today. He did so by casting the Declaration of Independence, not the Constitution, as the nation’s defining document. Lincoln was, of course, desperately trying to hold his country together during a civil war. Having suspended habeas corpus early in the conflict and issued the Emancipation Proclamation, in 1863, he had already crossed the constitutional Rubicon. It made sense that he would concentrate on the ideals spelled out in Jefferson’s Declaration, as opposed to the Constitution he was selectively ignoring . He was also trying to win re-election, in 1864. Calls for unity don’t get any more politicized than that.
One can draw a pretty straight line from Lincoln, through Beard, to an idea like originalism, a political principle masquerading as jurisprudence increasingly followed by right-wing judges and anti-government Republicans today. In short, those who follow this judicial “philosophy” believe the U.S. Constitution should be interpreted only in a way consistent with how it would have been understood, or was intended to be understood, at the time it was written. Here again, our 18th century founders and framers are raised up and enlisted to fight modern political battles. Never mind that originalism, as a doctrine, was hatched by segregationists during the 1960s — as a means to weaken an administrative state moving rapidly toward desegregation.
Here’s the takeaway: In spite of Beard, we continue to struggle with exactly how to treat founders and framers: as icons touched by divine providence, or as ordinary men acting in extraordinary times, sometimes in their own self-interest and sometimes with what late-18th century men called public virtue. “Americans today tend to think of the Constitution of 1787 in exalted moral terms,” writes historian Noah Feldman. “But the history is otherwise: The original Constitution was a complex political compromise grounded in perceived practical necessity, not moral clarity.”
Feldman is a Beardian. So is colonial scholar Woody Holton, who argues that Americans should work harder to treat founders and framers as we do other humans. Yes, colonial times were very different times. But it’s not anachronistic to recognize colonials as imperfect and political, capable of acting, by turn, in the public interest and their own interest. The 1619 Project has a specific point of view — it presents the sweep of U.S. history through the lens of chattel slavery — but it treats U.S. history in this unsentimental fashion. That’s why the howls of protests have been so very loud.
Someone like Jefferson, Holton argues, should be rightly hailed for his “heroics”: writing the Declaration of Independence, executing the Louisiana Purchase, founding the University of Virginia. But framing him as a “hero” per se? Such simplistic presentation doesn’t help us understand Jefferson or that period or this country any better. It’s a political label, ultimately. Because we can agree there’s nothing at all heroic about slave-holding, something Jefferson himself acknowledged time and again (not at all anachronistically), while never freeing anyone who wasn’t, ahem, related to him.
Holton believes we should determinedly reserve our admiration for historical “heroics”, not necessarily for the “heroes” we associate with said heroics. Parsing founders and framers in this way isn’t so complicated, he maintains. We cut this sort of calculated slack to nearly all the human beings with whom we interact each and every day. As did colonial Americans. We are, all of us, then and now, complicated and dichotomous and contradictory in myriad ways. We’re all of us imperfect, but also capable of heroics — even someone like Professor Dunning. As historian Eric Foner has argued, the Dunning School and its interpretation of Reconstruction helped provide moral and historical cover for the Jim Crow system well into the 20th century. Yet Dunning should not be treated as some pariah: He was also an eminent scholar on the history of political thought. His trilogy — A History of Political Theories: Ancient and Medieval (1902), From Luther to Montesquieu (1905), and From Rousseau to Spencer (1920) — remains the “industry standard”, as it were. Indeed, Holton’s approach is neatly bipartisan: It allows us to keep reading the Dunning work that matters, while ignoring and/or chastising the rest. No cancellation required.
Despite Beard’s fall from canonical prominence, aspects of his arguments still inform the ever-evolving historical consensus. In time, aspects of The 1619 Project may do the same. Most of its critics have not even read or listened to it. Even if unruly parents at Virginia school board meetings have not, you, dear reader, should go consume it for yourselves. Many of the essays have been converted to podcast form: Don’t miss Wesley Morris’ trenchant, enlightening take on African-American influence in the entertainment realm. It explains, among other things, the long- and still-controversial blackface tradition better than anything I’d heard or read. Anywhere.
Controversies relating to The 1619 Project are really questions as to whether patriotism and/or love of country can coexist beside shame and/or ambivalence toward specific historical actions taken by Americans and their government. The current debate — over 1619, over CRT, over what is “fit” to be taught in American classrooms — is really a debate between people who insist on hero-worshipping the past, and those who see no need for that.
Historian Gordon Wood has publicly taken The 1619 Project to task for its lack of nuance: its contention, for example, that American revolutionaries fought the British in order to maintain the institution of slavery. It’s true that few colonial New Englanders, for example, opposed British rule in order to maintain the institution of slavery. Nikole Hannah-Jones, the primary of author behind The 1619 Project, has admitted to this clumsy, blanket assertion — despite the fact that, for most colonial southerners, the maintenance of slavery was indeed central to their revolutionary motivations.
In my view, her initial assertion was more right than wrong: The Constitution of 1787 would never have been ratified by all 13 states without the document’s implicit federal backing of slavery: its “three-fifths” provision, whereby slaves were counted as three-fifths of a person for purposes of political representation; its 20-year preservation of the slave trade; its fugitive slave clause, which required all citizens in all states, north and south, to support slavery by returning escapees.
Yet Wood’s critique goes further than that, in part because there are turf issues at play here, as well. Mainstream historians were genuinely taken aback that 1619 was entirely produced, as a sort of popular history, without their input. See here the peevish letter they wrote to the NYT Magazine. Holton believes that Wood and his comrades additionally object to 1619 for temporal, political reasons that Professor Beard would quickly recognize:
“The fundamental critique for him [Wood] is, we need some things that we share,” Holton explained on Ezra Klein’s podcast on October. “A friend of mine pointed out that if you really want people to unite, Gordon, don’t try to unite us around a tiny minority of us — that is, wealthy white men — when half of us are women, and a fifth of us then and slightly fewer now are African-American, and many more than a fifth are people of color. Forget about the ethics, forget about the truth. Just as a practical standpoint, to fix a group of people who are so unrepresentative of the rest of us and tell everybody else, This is who you’re going to unite around? Come on.”
It’s not a historian’s job to take the current temperature of a country before researching then holding forth on its past. Cold War ideology should not have discredited Beard’s ideas, any more than today’s need for unity — caused by rampant Trumpism, or polarization or growing inequality amongst the citizenry — should discredit or disqualify The 1619 Project.
What’s more, no one — not the Trotskyites, not Wood & Wilentz, nor any of those Fox-scripted parents at school board meetings — has explained to me why The 1619 Project cannot and should not be vetted for its insights and utility over time, like any other historical scholarship that takes issue with the canon. The fact that it was written entirely by African-Americans? That’s one explanation for its immediate, hostile reception. That many 1619 authors were not “historians” per se but mere journalists provides another. Such outsider status clearly hurt reception inside academia.
Everywhere else in the larger culture, however, pushback to 1619 has been explicitly ideological, offered, as was the case with Beard’s Cold War critics, in the guise of so-called unity and patriotism.
Unfortunately for critics of 1619, there is nothing unpatriotic in the sober articulation of this country’s achievements beside its failures, the heroics of our framers alongside their demonstrable foibles. Washington led the Continental Army, served as our first president and selflessly refused a lifetime appointment to that office. He also made a fortune stealing backcountry land from indigenous peoples, owned 300 fellow human beings, and didn’t manumit a single one upon his death. The accuracy of all these data points is not contested. If patriotism means that certain aspects of that history cannot be taught beside the rest, then love of country is nothing more than ideology. Patriotism should represent more than that. Shouldn’t it?