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The Minds of
Certain Key Historians

By Henry Steele Commager, 1950

An Excerpt From
“The American Mind: An Interpretation of
American Thought and Character Since the 1880s”

This is Part Four of a Four-Part Excerpt

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four

It is irrelevant to inquire here into the validity of the “Economic Interpretation of the Constitution” or the “Economic Interpretation of Jeffersonian Democracy,” Beard’s earliest important books and, in many ways, his best. If these interpretations were open to criticism, it was not so much because they assigned to economics a decisive place in history as because they excluded history from a controlling place in economics. They were more concerned with cause than consequence. They might be accepted as definitive but could not be regarded as conclusive, for economic motivation was not a conclusion but a point of departure. What was primarily important was not, after all, the motivation of the men who made the Constitution and formulated the policies of Jeffersonian democracy but the consequences of their work. The search for the recondite led, as it so often does, to the neglect of the obvious, and a generation familiar with the economic influences at work in the Federal Convention was inclined to ignore the fact that the Convention had created a Federal Constitution.

Beard himself was subsequently to moderate his historical materialism and to emphasize pluralism in historical causation, and his advance to moderation and qualification can be read even in the magisterial “Rise of American Civilization.” Meantime the doctrines which he had preached were accepted as gospel by enthusiastic disciples, and for a time almost every student who hoped to share the spoils of history enlisted under his banner. There was nothing disloyal about this: the new loyalty did not require any betrayal of older faiths. Turner and his school had been ready enough to acknowledge the role of economics in history, and so, too, McMaster and the social historians; and the antecedents of the economic interpretation were, as Beard point out, both native and respectable.

The economic interpretation was actually as moral – or as amoral – as the political or religious, but for reasons intriguing to the psychologist and illuminating to the historian, it carried connotations of guilt. In this character it suited admirably the temper of the second and third decades of the century. To a generation of materialists, it made clear that the stuff of history was material. To a generation disillusioned by the exploitation and ruthlessness of big business, it discovered that the past, too, had been ravaged by exploitation and greed. To a generation that looked with fishy eyes on the claims of Wilsonian idealism and all but rejoiced in their frustration, it suggested that each generation had made similar claims and that all earlier idealisms had been similarly flawed by selfishness and hypocrisy.

Beard himself was skeptical rather than partisan and, for all his repudiation of the possibility of objectivity, more nearly objective than the run of historians. Where Parrington, for example was frankly partisan and Bowers and Beveridge less openly so, Beard seemed to be above the battle. Yet if it was difficult to discover his sympathies, it was not difficult to discover his antipathies. Few chapters of American history commended themselves to him, few idealisms escaped his skepticism, few characters his irony. He seemed to delight in puncturing popular illusions and exposing the fallacies of accepted historical interpretations. History, as it unrolled in chapter after chapter of his monumental volumes, appeared less splendid than many had supposed, its gilt tarnished, it grand passions frayed. Here was realism, and it was the realism of Dreiser rather than of Howells.

Beard’s animus was, to be sure, patriotic and devout rather than censorious: it was because he believed the United States to be the best of all countries and the Americans the most virtuous of peoples that he was so impatient with imperfections. He was in fact, dissembling his love, even as he kicked his historical characters down the stairs. But this was not always clear. Many readers came from his books with the impression that at last the veil of illusion had been torn aside and they were privileged to look at history divested of its heroics, and heroes of their halos. An age which itself made no great plans found malign satisfaction in the invariable miscarriage of the great plans of the past; an age eager to tear the stuffing out of all shirts was delighted to find that the emperors of the past had no clothes. To his students and disciples, Beard communicated something of his own passionate concern for such truth as could be recovered from the ruins of history. But in those who knew him only through his writings, he encouraged an attitude of iconoclasm and, often, of cynicism.

As Beard grew older, he became fascinated by the metaphysics and epistemology of history. Although no other historian of his time had submitted more facts to an avid public or done more to fix in its mind a pattern of the past, he became, in the thirties, weighed down with the consciousness of the illusiveness of all facts and the subjectivity of all patterns. If he did not, like Henry Adams, repudiate his own handiwork, he did repudiate its controlling formula and, indeed, the propriety of all formulas. Written history, he concluded, was not a science but an “act of faith”; the historian could not know the past; he could only reconstruct such fragments of it as were fortuitously available to him according to some incoherent plan which reflected the inescapable limitations of his own mind. The historian, he felt, was like Newton, who had described himself as “a boy playing on the sea shore, and diverting myself now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me"; and he subscribed to the implication that truth was indeed as changing and elusive as the waves of the ocean. The scientific method, "bequeathed by Ranke and embroidered by a thousand hands," was, Beard insisted, bankrupt, its champions confounded and bewildered.

Slowly it dawned upon them that the human mind and the method employed were not competent to the appointed task, that omniscience was not vouchsafed to mortals. Moreover it was finally realized that if all human affairs were reduced to law, to a kind of terrestrial mechanics, a chief end of the quest, that is, human control over human occurrences and actions, would itself become meaningless. Should mankind discover the law of its total historical unfolding, then it would be imprisoned in its own fate, and powerless to change it; the past, present, and future would be revealed as fixed and beyond the reach of human choice and will. Men and women would be chained to their destiny as the stars and tides are to their routine. The difference between human beings and purely physical objets would lie in their poignant knowledge of their doom and of their helplessness in its prescience. (“Open Door at Home,” pp. 13, 14, Macmillan)

There was virtue in admonishing historians to be conscious of the assumptions that controlled their inquiries and the subjectivity that permeated their findings; there was value in making clear that history was no more a science than economics or sociology and that the hopes and faiths of the Victorians were doomed to frustration. Yet to a large extent Beard was attacking men of straw. “It is almost a confession of inexpiable sin to admit, in academic circles,” he wrote, “that one is not a man of science working in a scientific manner with things open to deterministic and inexorable treatment, to admit that one is more or less a guesser in this vale of tears.” But this was a palpable exaggeration. Few historians pretended to more than a scientific method; few claimed finality for their findings. Even the doughty champion of historical orthodoxy against whom Beard directed his sharpest barbs submitted only that scientific history was a “noble dream”: Beard could quarrel logically only with the adjective.

The real objection to Beard’s historism was not that it repudiated certainty but that it was sterile and, in a literal sense, inconsequential. The doctrine of subjectivity and uncertainty, like the doctrine of economic motivation, was not a conclusion but a point of departure, and everything depended on the route and the destination. That history was subjective, fragmentary, and inconclusive – like almost everything in life – would be readily acknowledged, but if history were to be written at all it was necessary to go on from there. And no more than Henry Adams did Beard appear able to go on and make his philosophy a constructive instrument. Most of those who conned Beard’s own writings in the 1940s were inclined to feel that the demonstration of the subjectivity of history could be carried too far and that Beard had in fact carried it too far. Though denied the consolations of science, they could find satisfaction in recalling the words of Socrates:

That we shall be better and braver and less helpless if we think we ought to enquire, than we should have been if we indulged in the idle fancy that there was no knowing and no use in seeking to know what we do not know; - that is a theme upon which I am ready to fight in word and deed to the utmost of my power.

-The End-

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Editor's Notes

1. “Beard argued that ‘wicked’ politicians and ‘profit-crazed’ bankers do not by themselves cause international wars. In focusing blame on individual scapegoats, the ‘devil theory’ obscured the manner in which decision–makers are dependent upon their economic, political, and social environment: ‘War is not the work of a demon. It is our very own work, for which we prepare unwittingly or not, in ways of peace.’ Politicians embody the will of their constituents just as bankers reflect the demands of the marketplace.” – “Why War? Ideology, Theory, and History” by Keith L. Nelson and Spencer C. Olin, Jr. (1979).

2. A committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, 1912-13, named for Rep. Arsene Pujo of Louisiana, which investigated the “money trust” of Wall Street. The committee’s report contributed to major reforms. The stress of testifying before the committee was said by some to have contributed to the death in 1913 of banker J.P. Morgan. (See “Other People’s Money – And How the Bankers Use It” by Louis Brandeis [1914].)