I recently completed reading Charles and Mary Beard’s The Rise of American Civilization, which at one time was one of the most influential texts on the subject. The Beards, as is typical with textbooks in general, frequently revised the text, mostly adding to the end to keep that up to date. The version I read ended with the inauguration of Franklin Roosevelt, which is an interesting point for me because this narrative started around that time. Before I get into the subject of “cancellation” (which is somewhat but not entirely anachronistic) I’ll start with a few general impressions.
The first is general impression one gets is that the Beards consider the American nation as above all an economic arrangement, with different propertied groups (and later groups without property) competing for primacy in the system. They’re a little too close to the events to apply this analysis to the Progressive Era (they could have if they had really wanted to) but overall that’s the impression one gets from the way they handle the facts.
The second is that much of the way I was taught American history (at least up to my high school days) followed the Beard idea in many ways. That makes sense, because having grown up at the top of the society, an economic interpretation of the history of the Republic is a congenial one to the winners.
The third is that this interpretation gives a cynical tone to the narrative. It was their idea that this Republic has never had true originalism in Constitutional interpretation, even when the Founding Fathers were alive. They also note that we were good at waiving the rules when it suited us. An example of this was the way the Federal government forced Latin American countries to make good on the debts of failed revolutionaries to American banks even when we wrote the repudiation of Confederate debt into the Constitution!
Today the Beards are out of fashion, or cancelled as we would say these days. Cancellation isn’t anything new, as anyone familiar with damnatio memoriae in Roman history knows. The difference now is in the speed and method of the cancellation. But their idea is definitely isn’t what is being presented to Americans–academic or otherwise–on either side of the political spectrum. The reason for this reflects both the nature of academia and the desires of Americans in how we would like to see ourselves.
As the Beards note, American universities adopted the German model towards the end of the nineteenth century. That model was driven by research: graduate students conducted research in original topics, defended their idea, and by that process human knowledge is advanced. The system was developed for the hard sciences, where such advancement, be it in large or small increments, takes place. That system supposedly displaced the classics based system that the British set up in Colonial times.
That system doesn’t always translate to disciplines outside of the hard sciences very well. It is subject to being driven more by revisionist desires rather than the advance of knowledge. In the case of history–and it has been this way since Herodotus–the narrative of history is frequently based on the ideas of the historians–and the times they lived in–as much if not more than the facts in the period under study.
I said that the whole economic bent of the Beards’ viewpoint–one which they shared with their classical Marxist counterparts (as opposed to the cultural kind we have these days)–got to the point where it didn’t sit well with Americans, so they rejected it. The “point” was World War II. It’s hard to convince a generation to go, fight and in some cases die for a country that is primarily an “economic arrangement.” The Beards themselves saw this kind of backlash during World War I and the push towards teaching “Americanism” in schools, and the wake of World War II, especially with the Cold War, this went on steroids. Americans came to prefer a more “America as an ideal construct,” which went in a number of directions that we now know are seriously at cross-purposes with each other.
Beyond that, an economic view won’t sit well with those who are left behind. One of the major lacunae of the Beard saga is the South after the Civil War, which just about falls off of the radar screen. Southerners had to face the hard question, “How did we get left behind?” Instead of focusing on the weaknesses of their own cultures–planter and Scots-Irish together–they changed the subject to things such as states rights, or their problems with the black people, or whatever. Needless to say those who were on the wrong end of their way liked it even less, which is why we had the civil rights movement sixty years ago and Black Lives Matter today.
It’s interesting to note that one of the Beards’ main detractors was Forrest McDonald, who with Grady McWhiney came up with the “Celtic South” hypothesis, which I have discussed at length on this blog. While that explains many things that the Beards don’t, it doesn’t change the simple fact that those who do not properly apply themselves to economic advancement are eventually going to be left behind, something that bears repeating in these days of uninformed ideology.
Today our discourse is dominated by people who are driven by their own moral vision, which they think is what this country is all about. Sooner or later we’re going to have a reality check which will put a stop to this. The Beards’ economic vision of the United States isn’t one that sits well with many people, but it’s an improvement over what’s being presented now.
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