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

By Cushing Strout | Go to book overview

CHAPTER EIGHT
Point of Departure

A GREAT MAN, as Justice Holmes pointed out, represents "a strategic point in the campaign of history, and part of his greatness consists in his being there."1Carl Becker and Charles Beard earned a distinguished place in American thought by their leadership in the revolt against the dogmas of scientific history. It was part of their greatness that they recognized the need in America to rethink the philosophy of history in the light of modern tendencies of thought, as philosophers and historians in Europe had for some time been doing. Whether or not Becker and Beard were successful in establishing a new basis for historical knowledge, they served their cause with courage and style. From an abstract point of view it is easy to emphasize their limitations. As philosophers they posed more problems than they could solve, and their ideas seem fragmentary and unsystematic by comparison with those of the great thinkers. Even as historians they had marked shortcomings. Becker was at his best within the narrow limits of the interpretive essay, and his mind hovered closely over a few ideas and a small territory of history. Beard's range was astonishing, encompassing the whole career of American civilization, yet his reach inevitably exceeded his grasp, the rigidity of his economic interpretation compelling later revision of many of his conclusions. But, in a more concrete perspective, to point to their limitations is only to define their

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1
John Marshall, The Mind and Faith of Justice Holmes, ed. Max Lerner ( Boston, 1943), p. 383.

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