The Pragmatic Revolt in American History: Carl Becker and Charles Beard

By Cushing Strout | Go to book overview

CHAPTER THREE
Written History as an Act of Faith

CHARLES BEARD first became famous for a particular interpretation of a historical event, the framing of the Constitution of the United States, and his consequent career was a bold and comprehensive effort to apply an economic interpretation of history to the whole story of the American past. Yet despite this commitment to a special version of historical truth, he had, like pera persistent habit of raising skeptical questions about the authenticity of historical knowledge. His doubts made him an ally of Becker in the revolt against scientific history; ultimately they compelled revision of the economic interpretation itself. Lacking Becker's Socratic irony and subtlety, Beard was a passionate man who, to use his own analogy, found himself at home in the prophetic role of Jeremiah against the Philistines. He had a deep need for some organizing vision of the historical process as a whole, moving toward some luminous goal, and so for him the historian, instead of being a keeper of Mr. Everyman's useful myths about the past, was the prophet of a brave new world. After a provisional acceptance of Becker's relativism Beard hoped to go beyond him, to give the historian a more stable place to stand. Yet in the end Beard, too, was inhibited and crippled by the failure to emancipate himself from the very tradition he attacked.

It is not so surprising as it may first appear that a historian who believed in the historical truth of economic determinism came eventually to feel the force of a skeptical historical relativism. The New History had, of course, implied that if modern historians are interested in economic history, it is because they live in an age of factories and machines. From this point of view the theory of

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