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Beard, Charles Austin

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Significance: One of the most widely read scholars of the twentieth century, Beard claimed that the Constitution was a political document and that the justices, individuals with faults and personal feelings, could err in their interpretations.


Born the son of a North Carolina Unionist Quaker who had fled to Indiana during the Civil War (1861-1865), Beard graduated from DePauw University in 1898. In 1900 he married Mary Ritter of Indianapolis, before moving to Oxford, England, to work with a socialist to found a worker's college. In 1902 Beard returned to the United States to complete a Ph.D. degree at Columbia University and join the faculty. Beard published historical works and texts primarily concerned with economic interpretations of U.S. history. In The Rise of American Civilization (1927), he criticized the Founders as merchant-creditors who were more concerned about protecting their own interests than the rights of others. His other works, including The Supreme Court and the Constitution (1912) and An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (1913), were criticized for implying that the Founders were motivated by class interests. Beard praised, for example, the Jackson-appointed judges on the Supreme Court because they “broke down the historic safeguards thrown around property rights by the letter of the Constitution and the jurisprudence of John Marshall.” Modern historians classify Beard, along with Oliver Wendell Holmes and John Dewey, as among the more prominent intellectual and cultural elite reformers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century who called for legislative and judicial reforms designed to protect the poor and limit the abuses of big business.