The Rise of American Civilization

by Charles A. Beard and Mary R. Beard. New York: The Macmillan Co. 1927. 8vo. viii+824 + 828 pp. Illus. 2 vols. $12.50.
HISTORY has differentiated into monographs and panoramas. The former supply the studio properties for the latter, and are susceptible of an indefinite number of combinations. The monograph writer is supposed to be first of all a seeker after truth, a researcher, though he may succumb at times to the superior attraction of novelty and sensation. The panoramist seeks effects, which may owe their force to a plausibility akin to truth, or may be true in a general and relative way, but are primarily intended to impress a social or political lesson upon the beholder. The present volumes are of the latter type. What H. G. Wells has tried to do for the history of mankind, Doctor and Mrs. Beard have tried to do for the history of the American nation.
Broadly the authors have interpreted their subject well. They have painted a panorama with lights and shades, and coloring and perspectives, sufficiently different from those with which we are familiar to stimulate interest and hold attention. When we isolate the novel elements in their composition the two that stand out most prominently are the determination of our history by minorities and the determination of minorities by property motives. The Communist minority ruling Russia and the Fascist minority ruling Italy are infringing a Yankee patent. A minority fomented and fought the American Revolution, drafted and adopted the Federal Constitution, made abolition and secession vital national issues, elected Lincoln, committed the country to civil war, and so on down to the World War, which, to say the least, was never expressly authorized by the electorate. Apparently government of the people, by the people, and for the people, like Christian perfection, is an ideal we honor by passive rather than active assent.
Although the New Englanders, according to a contemporary Tory, were the ones who ‘persuaded the rest of the colonies that the (British) Government is going to make absolute slaves of them,’ only about one sixth of the qualified voters of Boston, the very centre of this agitation, took the trouble to cast their ballots at the elections held during the critical decade that ended with the Battle of Lexington. Again, when the war with the mother country, fought by a minority, was over, and a federal constitution, drafted by a convention that was technically acting ultra vires, was submitted to the people, ’according to a cautious reckoning probably one sixth (of the voting population) — namely, one hundred thousand — favored the ratification of the new form of government.’ Passing on seventy years, when Lincoln was chosen president ‘the two Democratic factions alone, to say nothing of Bell’s six hundred thousand followers, outnumbered the Republicans.’ In other words, proportional representation might have prevented the Rebellion — and have left us with an unsolved slavery question.
Turning to the other thesis, that the aggressive or alert minorities that have determined the course of our national history were motivated by property interests, we come to a theme that is interwoven with the whole argument of the book. Fourteen years ago Professor Beard initiated the studies in American history that have led up to the present volumes with an analysis of the economic influences responsible for the adoption of the Constitution. He has now extended his survey, from the same observation point, to embrace our entire national evolution. It is less inspiring to conceive the acquisition and defense of wealth as the primum mobile of that evolution than to think of our development as a nation as a flowering — the authors would say ‘ foliation ’ — of our inherent virtue under the smile of a benignant Providence; but such is the fashion of our sophisticated age.
We must not leave the reader with the impression, however, that the more sordid polarizations of society are the only topics touched upon in these volumes. The authors make excursions into the fields of culture, education, art, literature, religion, social reform, the labor movement. Indeed, this comprehensiveness invites occasional lapses, excusable in any but the omniscient, as when we are told: ‘The novelist. Irving, wrote a substantial biography of George Washington and then, turning aside from ponderous tradition, composed a humorous history of the New York Knickerbockers.’
Mechanically the work is an attractive piece of bookmaking. Its story is borne along, perhaps. upon an almost too fluent flow of words, but the style is agreeable. If we may be pardoned the repetition, it is a panorama, which will not always bear the microscopic scrutiny that may be safely bestowed upon an easel painting; but it has creative features that make it more than mere portrayal of accepted data and opinions.