On this day in 1874, the great historian Charles Austin Beard was born. I think what matters in historians is if they provide us with new ways of viewing the world. Beard was very much this kind of historian. It’s funny, having been born in 1964, I think I came of age in a great time of American hagiography and apologetics. No one seemed terribly interested in taking a cold, hard look at where this nation had come from and what it had become. And then came the time of Reagan. And now to even mention that the United States isn’t the best country that ever has been and ever could be is an act of heresy by those on the right.
As I discussed last year: Charles Beard was a progressive who saw the history of America through the lens of class conflict. This view has fallen out of favor. But his idea applied to the founding of the country seems correct. He argued that there were two revolutions. First, there was the revolution that we all know and love and that is immortalized with singing and a bit of dance in 1776. But there was a second revolution about who should rule. There were those who wanted at least a proto-democracy, as advocated by people like Paine and Madison. And then there were those who wanted a new aristocratic rule, as advocated by people like Adams and Hamilton. I think we can all agree that the results of that revolution are much more a muddle compared to the whole England business.
Beard argued that the original revolution was really all about economics and not much about the ideology that we now tell ourselves. Gerald Horne has done more recent work updating this concept in, The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America. The thesis is that a lot of the American owning class was in a big rush to sever ties with England because of the fear that the mother country was going to outlaw the slave trade. There is no question that this is true; the only question is how big a current it was in the revolution. I think it was fairly big.
That’s the great thing about people like Beard: they expand our minds. That is why conservatives hate them. Open minds question the status quo. And that is what all intellectual activity should be about. We want to improve upon the world. Conservatives want to ossify it.
Happy birthday Charles Beard!