Oregon State UniversitySpecial Collections & Archives Research Center
History As a Way of Learning: On the Death of the American Historian William A. Williams
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Charles Beard.
Charles Beard.
Image courtesy of McMaster University.

This struggle began with the Progressives. For Charles Beard, the great chronicler of The Rise of American Civilization, America was unique in the world because of its democratic traditions. These Beard saw founded in the agricultural resources of this continent and the use made of them by its English settlers. Thus, according to Beard, was created the perfect economic basis for the unfolding of a democratic political life. But this democracy was increasingly threatened - beginning in the second half of the 19th century - by the growth of heavy industry. Nevertheless, Beard maintained, the democratic traditions would be strong enough to prevent the misuse of economic power. The means to that end he saw in a strong central government, which could defend what might be called the public democratic interest against the anti-social individualism of the capitalists.

In order both to protect this exceptional American democracy and to be able to realize the goal of a democratically centralized and regulated capitalism, committed to full employment - the "Open Door at home" - it was necessary, argued Beard, to preserve the isolation of America from the undemocratic societies of Europe. For him, just by definition, there was no such thing as an American diplomatic history. Diplomatic history was by its very nature thoroughly un-American. And, consistently for Beard, the entrance of the U.S. into the Second World War - already accomplished for practical purposes in 1940 - was a betrayal by Roosevelt of America's democratic principles. All this was to be seen as the dark work of Old World capitalists, who would draw the New World into the machinations of Europe and in this way remove the differences between the two.

This conception of world and self within an isolationist framework had - and not only because of the fame and prestige of Charles Beard - a remarkable influence on the educated public. The result was that it made more difficult the acceptance of Roosevelt's preparations for war. It was essentially the Protestant theologian and political writer Reinhold Niebuhr who provided a congenial counter-paradigm - one that moved dialectically beyond Beard's thesis, keeping its idealism but not the isolationist derivatives.