Richard Drake. Charles Austin Beard: The Return of the Master Historian of American Imperialism. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2018. 336 pp. $42.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-5017-1516-7.
Reviewed by Mathias Fuelling (Temple University)
Published on H-Nationalism (November, 2019)
Commissioned by Evan C. Rothera (University of Arkansas - Fort Smith)
A Requiem for Charles Beard
Pity the fate of Charles Beard. He was the most influential and dominant historian of America in the first half of the twentieth century. He wrote dozens of books, some selling hundreds of thousands of copies, cumulatively putting millions of his books into circulation by the time of his death in 1948. He was president of both the American Historical Association and the American Political Science Association. He founded Ruskin Hall, now Ruskin College, at Oxford University, begun as a school for the working class and now dedicated to continuing adult education. He also helped found the New School for Social Research in New York City. His co-author on many of his books was his wife, Mary Ritter Beard, who in her own right was a pioneer in the creation and furtherance of women’s history and women’s suffrage in America. He was also one of the most prominent critics of American foreign policy under Woodrow Wilson and FDR, with a national reputation as an iconoclastic political pundit.
Yet today Beard is almost entirely forgotten. His books go unread, collecting dust on university library shelves. He is seldom mentioned even by historians of the United States, let alone cited. He is most well known today for his positive mention in Peter Novick’s 1988 That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession due to his stance against the Rankean idea of pure historical objectivity. On an anecdotal basis, my graduate school colleagues in American history have either never heard of him or have never read him. One noted that he only knew about Beard due to a prize being named after him.
Richard Drake has written what is at turns a both stimulating and frustrating intellectual biography in the goal of bringing Beard back into serious historical consideration, in his aptly titled Charles Austin Beard: The Return of the Master Historian of American Imperialism. Writing about Beard is an interesting departure for Drake. He was trained as a specialist in modern Italian history and has written three books and established a career in that field over the last four decades. Drake’s turn to American history is comparatively recent, with his only other work on the subject being the 2013 The Education of an Anti-Imperialist: Robert La Follette and U.S. Expansion. Drake unapologetically aligns himself with Beard and the larger isolationist movement that opposed FDR and his administration’s move to get involved in WWII and the greater American-led international order after WWII. Drake argues that Beard and the isolationists were right to see these events as leading to the United States becoming a world empire, which would have an inevitable corrupting influence that would doom the country to overextension, decadence, and decline. Drake portrays Beard as the last major dissident intellectual to what he calls the bipartisan political consensus to American empire and a continual war economy.
Drake’s book is a pure intellectual biography. The reader learns all there is to know about Beard’s writings and thought and political engagements, but about Beard the man there is hardly anything. Beard comes across in Drake’s account as a kind of disembodied brain, a being of pure thought existing through books and letters and editorials, but of the flesh-and-blood man there is no sign. Those seeking Beard the man, not just Beard the historian and intellectual will have to look elsewhere. This is not just a usual, by-the-numbers intellectual biography, but also a fiery prosecutorial case against Beard’s detractors and contemporary intellectual opponents, an equally fiery promotion of and apologia for Beard. The main focus of the book is Beard’s historical and political advocacy for nonintervention and his later denunciation of FDR’s decision to involve the United States in WWII. The latter seven chapters, out of a total of eleven, are concerned with Beard’s writings and intellectual engagement with isolationism in the 1930s and against the United States becoming involved in WWII. Drake aligns himself with the isolationists of the period and views the US involvement in WWII as a tragic mistake that set the country on the road to becoming an empire. This is a personal history for Drake and it shows.
Drake has done an admirable and impressive amount of research. He has pored over Beard’s writings in extreme detail, covering all of his books, essays, editorials, and letters. He has also done much archival work in hunting down Beard’s relationships with various politicians, intellectuals, and friends. He has uncovered new and vital findings regarding Beard’s intellectual life, particularly his growing friendship and collaboration with Herbert Hoover in the latter 1930s due to their shared opposition to FDR and potential US involvement in another war (pp. 165-84). It will serve as the most reliable narrative of Beard’s intellectual and political engagements in the 1930s and 1940s for many years to come.
I do wish that Drake had done more to show the intellectual relationship between Beard and his wife, Mary, who was also his co-author on numerous books. She appears in Drake’s account as just a supportive figure, someone that Charles Beard leans on in times of trouble, and who strives nobly to carry on and promote his legacy after his death. Yet Mary as her own person is missing, which is disappointing given that she was the most important intellectual influence and partner in Charles’s life. Her absence is glaring in contrast to Drake’s highly thorough work on every other intellectual influence on Charles. In death as in life, sadly, Mary has been relegated to the shadows.
Drake does excel on the other hand at showing that while Beard thought of himself as a member of the Left politically, he was not a Marxist, and formulated his economic approach to the study of history through an alternative intellectual path. Drake’s research on Beard’s early intellectual engagement with classical British social thought, particularly John Ruskin, is fascinating reading. Drake shows that Beard’s greatest intellectual achievements came through the study not just of Ruskin, but also of Thomas Carlyle, Brooks Adams, and the great Italian realist theorists Gaetano Mosca, Vilfredo Pareto, and Roberto Michels. An irony is that the greatest inspirations for his isolationist thought came through a deep engagement with European theoretical work, making him an outlier of sorts in the American historical profession of the time with its inward intellectual focus but internationalist political commitments.
Drake’s best work in the book lies in his showing Beard’s intellectual integrity as well as his ability to change his mind in the face of new evidence and arguments. Beard did not begin as an isolationist but developed into one over the 1920s as he reevaluated his positions regarding Woodrow Wilson and American involvement in WWI. Drake shows how Beard obsessively tracked then new findings on the workings of the armaments industry in America, as well as reading the latest works on imperialism and early histories of the war. Sticking to his empirical principles and emphasis on economic factors, Beard came to conclude that he had been wrong in his earlier support for Wilson and the war, and that WWI was really a war pushed by arms manufacturers and politicians who believed in imperialism. Beard was no crank in his isolationist views but justified them in historical scholarship and a lifetime of theorizing on the nature of empire. Drake sees Beard as a model that future historians must bring back and follow. In this aspect, at least, Drake succeeds and many readers will surely come away, as I did, with a desire to read Beard.
Drake’s passion is to be commended, and it is refreshing to read a book in which the author’s engagement and commitment shines through. However, this passion often gets the better of him. Drake is guilty of the same tendency that he holds against historians of FDR, that of canonizing his subject as a saint. Beard never comes in for criticism by Drake. Any misstep or potential point of contention in Beard’s writings and career is justified or explained away. For Drake, Beard could do no wrong and was essentially right on all points and arguments. This puts Drake in strange positions at times and results in questionable language and terminology, such “the American jihad for peace” (p. 109).
Missing from Drake’s account is discussion of Beard’s domestic rather than foreign policy prescriptions. Beard’s positions on race and civil rights would have been helpful to know in light of his anti-imperialist stance. Drake often mentions Beard’s anti-imperialism as being based on his position that imperialism would destroy “American civilization,” but there is little to no explanation of what the term American civilization meant exactly to Beard. Drake is also often prone to blinkered thinking when defending Beard’s isolationist position, citing much outdated and marginal scholarship to back up Beard’s arguments, but never engaging more recent work on the Roosevelt administration’s inner workings in the lead-up to WWII. All this causes me to worry about Drake sacrificing intellectual rigor on the altar of the cause of defending Beard. Drake also comes across as holding odd and idiosyncratic intellectual vendettas against anyone who has ever spoken ill of Beard. In one bizarre example, he offers an extended critique of Philip Roth for his novel The Plot Against America, because it portrays the isolationists in America in the 1930s in a bad light (pp. 96-99). Drake is also hostile toward any intellectuals and historians who support the FDR administration’s decision to get involved in WWII, seeing them as apologists for Stalin and communism, this sentiment again expressed in a bizarre, multipage critique that has little to do with his main narrative (pp. 213-16).
Drake’s book is to be recommended for historians of the interwar period in the United States, the 1930s, and the intellectual history of the United States in the first half of the twentieth century, as well as anyone interested in the range of historiographical thought in American history. Drake breaks new ground in showing Beard’s relationship to European social thought, as well as Beard’s friendship with Herbert Hoover in the later 1930s. This recommendation comes with a grain of salt, however, as the reader should be warned that Drake’s book is also highly idiosyncratic and opinionated, which makes for an exciting read but which some may find off-putting. That said, it will likely remain a standard work for many years to come, one that anyone interested in Charles Beard should not pass over.
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Mathias Fuelling. Review of Drake, Richard, Charles Austin Beard: The Return of the Master Historian of American Imperialism.
H-Nationalism, H-Net Reviews.
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