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.