The Economic Interpretation of History as a Way of Understanding American Politics

With the publication in 1913 of An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States, Charles Austin Beard (1874-1948) became one of the most famous, influential, and controversial historians in America.  His book initiated a trend that for two generations became dominant in the way American history was written and taught. The thirty-seven books that he wrote during his legendary career—some of them with his historian wife, Mary Ritter Beard—sold millions of copies. He was esteemed and reviled for arguing that from the country’s beginnings and at every turning point in its history, American politics had to be understood mainly through the motives and world view of economic elites.

The kinetic energy of the historical process in America did not suddenly stop with the Second World War, Beard contended. In the years immediately preceding that conflict, he took a leading role in what became known as the isolationist movement. Beard objected to this label, seeing nothing isolationist about following the advice given by George Washington in his Farewell Address, for the American people to mind their own business. Creating a society of republican virtue at home would be challenge enough for them, without assuming the burden of international responsibilities. Beard judged the Farewell Address to be the most profound statement ever issued about American foreign policy. The mislabeled isolationist movement sought to do no more than to honor the first president’s teaching about how the United States should relate to the rest of the world in a spirit of amity and comity, playing no favorites and resolutely thwarting all attempts to coopt American power and influence for partisan foreign ends.

When the fighting began in 1939, Beard opposed American intervention, claiming that at bottom the conflict had to do on both sides with the acquisition or retention of markets, territories, and resources, just as the First World War had done. The two wars were one war, in his view, with a twenty-year armistice in between. Both wars had imperialist motives. Even after Pearl Harbor, he continued to claim that the war fundamentally concerned not the evil of Hitler—as of December 1941 Stalin, our ally, was the greater criminal by far—but the greed of competing empires. In two classic works written after the war, he denounced the foreign policy of FDR as a masterpiece of deception about a fictitious war for the Four Freedoms, which served as a distraction from the real war for economic empire.

Beard never could accept the vulgate interpretation of the Second World War. In the triumphalist postwar years, he came under mounting attack as an unreliable historian and a man lacking in patriotism. His economic interpretation of history became increasingly marginalized, as consensus historians plighted to the cause of American exceptionalism dominated the field. Beard’s stock as a thinker continued its downward spiral during the Cold War, which he described at its outset as a straightforward imperialist contest between the United States and the Soviet Union. Whichever side won, the world would be subjected to an imperialist order. In no way a Marxist, he conceded that the imperialism practiced by corporate capitalism stood on a higher plane of morality than did the Stalinist variety. Nonetheless, Americans deceived themselves when they imagined the cardinal policies in peace and in war of their leaders to be about anything but imperial control.

Charles Austin Beard: The Return of the Master Historian of American Imperialism offers a fresh interpretation of the origins and development of “Beardianism,” as a way of understanding the connection between economics and politics in American history. The book is especially timely today because of the manifest way in which America’s policies for the maintenance and augmentation of its empire have confirmed his predictions of what the country’s fate would be in the aftermath of the “good war.”

austin beard


About the author of this blog post: Richard Drake holds the Lucile Speer Research Chair in Politics and History at the University of Montana where he teaches European and American history.

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The Economic Interpretation of History as a Way of Understanding American Politics

Ideas and Things

Can we be forgiven for feeling overwhelmed by American culture and politics? Daily we read or more like hear about political polarization, deep ideological divides, a politicized Supreme Court, protests over race and history. Of course, there are histories and context to each issue and conflict, but sometimes what we need is something more fundamental. Behind all these things are ideas.

Intellectual historians have attracted larger and larger audiences that are hungry for explanations about the origins, contexts, and consequences of ideas that seem more powerful than ever. How do we understand a society riddled by profound contradictions—a society that transitioned, most recently, from Barack Obama to Donald Trump?

Ideas matter. A lot. Most people recognize as much. Intellectual history—the study of ideas in the past—thus has a lot to offer people. With my colleague Andrew Hartman, we have co-edited a collection conceived with this basic fact in mind.

We asked the authors to consider the following question: How might the methods of intellectual history shed light on contemporary issues with historical resonance? Their answers, while rigorous, original, and challenging, are eclectic in approach and temperament. For example, to understand the battle for the soul of the Democratic Party between the left and liberals (or supporters of Bernie Sanders and Hilary Clinton, respectfully), Hartman argues we need to grapple with the idea of freedom: “The left’s mission—the reason for its existence—was to expand the idea of political freedom, which was limited and went by the name of liberalism, to include economic freedom, a broadened conception that went by the name of socialism. The route to such freedom was class struggle.”

In another essay, David Sehat helps us locate a position from which to look critically at “originalism” or the idea that seems to capture the politicized nature of the present U.S. Supreme Court better than any other. Sehat explains: “Intellectual historians, like all historians, recognize [the] reality of historical change and growth, which is why they have tended to be some of the strongest critics of originalism. They know that the past is different than the present; that time is corrosive of meanings, arrangements, and cultural ideas at particular moments; that its corrosiveness leaves only remnants from the past that historians must pick over to make sense of now-lost worlds; and that the reconstruction of the past is always, as a result, only provisional and partial. As such there is not, historians have suggested, a set of interpretive rules to be followed by which original meaning will be revealed, since that meaning was contested at the founding and has evolved over the centuries.”

But when we come right down to the most pressing questions of our age, we all want to know “why Trump?”

In her essay tracing the genealogy of conservatism, Liza Szefel wonders in an era that is “post-truth” what good is intellectual history to such a question? She offers an answer: “A line of inquiry gaining traction attempts to move beyond rise and fall narratives to examine conservatism not merely as an ideology, grass roots social movement, or party, but as a sensibility, temperament, and mentality. Casting conservatism as an orientation brings into relief values shared by the left and right.” Indeed, intellectual history uses the tools of social history and cultural history to look at the world—as well as world views—of Trump’s working-class supporters. By doing so, Szefel demonstrates how intellectual history identifies the ideas behind all sorts things, including Donald Trump.


 

About the author of this blog post: Raymond Haberski, Jr. is Professor of History and Director of American Studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. He is the co-author of the upcoming #CornellPress title American Labyrinth: Intellectual History for Complicated Times. Take a closer look and pre-order your copy here.

Ideas and Things