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On Free Speech and War, Charles Beard Was No Trimmer

Charles Austin Beard. (From the George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

Those of us old enough to have employed and even believed the playground retort “it’s a free country” may scoff at the plenteous freedoms of the New America—the onanistic bounty of endless online porn! The right, even duty, of anonyms to insult strangers over the No Place that is the Internet!—but at elite levels, as opposed to over-the-clothesline or at the diner, that “free country” claim has always been a chancy proposition.

In Charles Austin Beard: The Return of the Master Historian of American Imperialism,a praiseworthy new intellectual biography of the “ruggedly independent-minded” Indiana-bred historian, Richard Drake offers an illuminating, even inspiring account of Beard’s courageous defense of free speech during the madness of wartime.

Columbia University professor Beard would later be horsewhipped for his insistence that U.S. participation in the Second World War would regiment American life and imperil freedom of thought, but he was an unabashed hawk during the First World War. In 1916, the Oxford-educated Anglophile Beard supported the intervention-inclined Republican Charles Evans Hughes over incumbent Woodrow Wilson, who won re-election on the slogan “He Kept Us Out of War” and then dragged his countrymen into the European abattoir just one month after reciting the oath of office. 

Yet even as Beard was yelping for “a smashing victory which will carry the soldiers of the Allies to the streets of Berlin,” he sacrificed his academic career on the Voltairean principle of disapproving what someone says but defending to the death—or at least the unemployment line—his right to say it.

Beard took his stand on behalf of two outspoken Columbians against the war.

One of the martyrs bore the defiantly American appellation of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Dana, his grandfathers being the authors of “Paul Revere’s Ride” and Two Years Before the Mast. The other, professor of psychology James McKeen Cattell, was a Robert La Follette-style Progressive who condemned “a Wall Street war” and denounced conscription as un-American.

Columbia President Nicholas Murray Butler was sorely vexed by this pair of pacifists. Butler was also among those calling for the expulsion of La Follette from the Senate: “Why, you might just as well put poison in the food of every boy that goes to his transport as to permit that man to talk as he does.”

Dana and Cattell, by hewing to the La Follettian line, were endeavoring to “nullify the national will,” stormed Butler, and thus were unworthy of a Columbia paycheck. In October 1917, he fired them.

Their dismissal won the immediate approbation of The New York Times, which lectured its readers that “academic freedom is a pitiful thing by the side of the freedom of United States democracy.”

What was the cracking of two eggheads when Uncle Sam was making the world safe for democracy? The story was barely a footnote.

Until a week later, when Beard, a national figure due to his iconoclastic Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (1913), resigned in protest of the treatment of Dana and Cattell. “As you are aware,” he wrote Butler, “I was among the first to urge a declaration of war by the United States, and I believe that we should now press forward with all our might to a just conclusion.”

But “thousands of my countrymen,” among them Dana and Cattell, “do not share this view,” and “[t]heir opinions cannot be changed by curses or bludgeons.”

This startling act of the famous historian, who was beloved by his students and widely read by the general public, occasioned a brief and lively debate over the limits, or even existence, of academic freedom.

The New York Times ran a particularly disgusting campaign of vilification against Beard, consistent with its ignoble tradition of traducing dissenters.

This curious episode, writes Drake, contained “an irony too refined and subtle” for the likes of Times editorialists to understand: “the fiercely pro-war Beard became the most prominent defender at Columbia of that institution’s two leading pacifists.”

Beard’s heroism grows ever more lustrous in light of our own cowardly and craven age. Is it conceivable that any of the foam-flecked chickenhawks of 2003 would have defended the academic freedom of an antiwar professor? Or that a social-justice Hall Monitor would stand up for a deplorable whom the Zealots of Xir have tweeted to a cross?

To ask the question is to answer it.

Charles Beard’s “ideal vision,” writes Drake, was of “America as a workers’ republic,” in which we “till our own garden” and remain neutral in foreign quarrels. He was something of a left-wing version of a John Quincy Adams nationalist, and those not zombified by the Maddows and Hannitys will find in his vast writings an abundant harvest. Read him before he is memory-holed.

Bill Kauffman is the author of eleven books, among them Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette and Ain’t my America. He also wrote the screenplay for the feature film Copperhead.

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