At the time of his death in 1948, Charles Beard was the most famous historian in America. His books sold in the millions of copies. In his best-known work, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (1913), he argued that the material interests of the founding fathers explained their key decisions at the constitutional convention of 1787. In subsequent books about other phases of American history, he repeated his insistence that money and politics never could be separated. More than any other single factor, their indissoluble union accounted for the crucial turning-points in the nation's past and present. Beard's economic interpretation held the field for a generation and still commands a significant following. Where and how this most influential of all twentieth-century American historians acquired his understanding of history remains inadequately understood.
To the question of where Beard discovered the economic interpretation of history, his wife, Mary Ritter Beard, offered some authoritative answers in her memoir of him, The Making of Charles A. Beard. Following a rural boyhood in Indiana and a turn at local journalism, he attended nearby DePauw University. While in college and taking a course on practical sociology, he visited Jane Addams's Hull House in Chicago, a city where the extremes of poverty and luxury shocked him. The contrast between the rich and the poor, she observed, "made a deep and lasting imprint on his mind and influenced his future activities." (1) Only after going to Oxford as a graduate student in 1898, however, did Beard begin to develop a historical understanding of the economic forces that shaped politics and culture. Although he met many outstanding scholars at Oxford, the author who influenced him the most was the art historian and social critic John Ruskin, formerly an Oxford professor but by then retired and in his dotage. According to Mary, Ruskin gave her husband his first real understanding of how the world worked and for whose benefit. She wrote, "Beard regarded Ruskin's philosophy as set forth in his small book, Unto This Last, as an acme of wisdom and usually had it in his hand or pocket as a bracer." (2) He had read the book while still in college, but his life experiences in England fully brought home its lessons to him. As Beardianism begins in Ruskinism, it becomes necessary here to examine this singularly influential book in his young life.
Originally published in 1862, Unto This Last took its place in a long line of anti-modernist British preachments dating back to William Wordsworth's preface to Lyrical Ballads and which also included Thomas Carlyle's Past and Present. To this tradition of cultural conservatism, Ruskin brought distinctive rhetorical gifts and the particular insights of the most important art historian of the age. He thought that a calamitous disorder afflicted the modern world, where genuine art and even basic decency could lead only a fugitive existence. A life-long Tory, Ruskin ruled out socialism as a solution for the problems of industrial society. He saw nothing wrong with wealth in and of itself: "Any given accumulation of commercial wealth may be indicative, on the one hand, of faithful industries, progressive energies, and productive ingenuities; or, on the other, it may be indicative of mortal luxury, merciless tyranny, ruinous chicane." (3) The rich and the poor had a perpetual relationship in history, and in a good society both sides would act from a sense of justice, charity, and love. Not socialism, but Christianity offers man safe passage out of the quagmire in which he now finds himself, bereft and friendless: "until the time come, and the kingdom, when Christ's gift of bread and bequest of peace shall be Unto this last as unto thee." (4)
Beard found in Ruskin's book not only a compelling interpretation of modern social problems, but also a call to action. With another American, Walter Vrooman, he founded Ruskin Hall as a college of the people, a workmen's university. The historian Harold Pollins writes, "The idea was to educate working men in order to achieve social change."' (5) In an article that Beard wrote in 1936 for The New Republic, he explained how Ruskin College acquired its name. The organizational meeting had taken place in his own rooms at 11 Grove Street in Oxford. Referring to himself, Beard wrote, "An American 'from the wilds of Indiana' who had read Ruskin in the library of 'a freshwater college' proposed that the new institution be called 'Ruskin Hall.'" (6) The debate that ensued among the founders involved a discussion of Unto This Last: "That was the book that furnished a frame of reference for the...