Charles A. Beard
Today is the 147th anniversary of the birth of Charles A. Beard (27 November 1874–01 September 1948), who was born on this date in 1874.
Happy Birthday Charles!
Richard Hofstadter, in his book The Progressive Historians: Turner, Beard, Perrington, identified Beard as one of the three major progressive historians, that is to say, historians of what is often called the Progressive Era (1896–1916), along with Frederick Jackson Turner (whom we discussed recently) and V. L. Parrington.
Beard wrote several major works on American History, including, inter alia, History of the United States (1921), The Rise of American Civilization (1930), An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (1946), and was best known for the latter work. Many of his books name his wife, Mary Beard, as co-author.
It has often been the case that major American historians giving a Presidential address to the American Historical Society have laid out their approach and their principles in an explicit way that has not appeared in their other published works. This was the case with Beard, who delivered such an address, “Written History as an Act of Faith” at Urbana on 28 December 1933 (later published in the American Historical Review 39, no. 2, p. 219–231). Here is the final paragraph from that presentation:
“To sum up contemporary thought in historiography, any written history involves the selection of a topic and an arbitrary delimitation of its borders — cutting off connections with the universal. Within the borders arbitrarily established, there is a selection and organization of facts by the processes of thought. This selection and organization — a single act — will be controlled by the historian’s frame of reference composed of things deemed necessary and of things deemed desirable. The frame may be a narrow class, sectional, national, or group conception of history, clear and frank or confused and half conscious, or it may be a large, generous conception, clarified by association with the great spirits of all ages. Whatever its nature the frame is inexorably there, in the mind. And in the frame only three broad conceptions of all history as actuality are possible. History is chaos and every attempt to interpret it otherwise is an illusion. History moves around in a kind of cycle. History moves in a line, straight or spiral, and in some direction. The historian may seek to escape these issues by silence or by a confession of avoidance or he may face them boldly, aware of the intellectual and moral perils inherent in any decision — in his act of faith.”
Beard in this address takes an Olympian perspective on the field of history, taking up in turn several major approaches, which he calls history as past actuality, history as record, history as specific knowledge, and history as thought. Beard seeks to synthesize these several approaches in the following definition of history:
“…it is history as thought, not as actuality, record, or specific knowledge, that is really meant when the term history is used m its widest and most general significance. It is thought about past actuality, instructed and delimited by history as record and knowledge — record and knowledge authenticated by criticism and ordered with the help of the scientific method. This is the final, positive, inescapable definition. It contains all the exactness that is possible and all the bewildering problems inherent in the nature of thought and the relation of the thinker to the thing thought about.”
Being an historian rather than a philosopher, he does not show us the nuts and bolts of how exactly the synthesis proposed by his definition is supposed to take place. Beard explicitly cites Croce, but there are also strong echoes of Collingwood in the idea of history as thought (though in 1933 Collingwood’s philosophy of history was probably largely unknown in the US).