In 1934, Charles Beard’s presidential address to the American His­ torical Association (AHA) fanned a simmering controversy among historians and social scientists by embracing the philosophy of histori­ cal relativism.1 Beard defined history as “contemporary thought about the past....an act of choice, conviction, and interpretation respecting values.”2 During the next few years, Beard attempted to clarify his philosophical assumptions with a rudimentary epistemology called re­ alistic dialectics.3 His excursion into dialectics provoked an intense philosophical debate among historians and social scientists, but in the 1930s Beard was already swimming against the intellectual tide. He was challenging historians’ attachment to scientific history, the preva­ lence of moral and philosophical absolutism among academic philoso­ phers, and a nascent fascination with behavioralism in the social sci­ ences that only grew stronger after his death in 1948.4

Two Problems of Realistic Dialectics

Critics have focused on two problems in Beard’s conception of realistic dialectics. First, philosophers and historians frequently argue that Beard’s historical relativism is incompatible with his method of economic interpretation. To resolve the perceived dilemma, scholars have constructed an early Beard (1901-1933) and a later Beard (19341948), which claims that Beard abandoned the method of economic interpretation after 1933. Max Lemer introduced the idea of two Beards in a 1948 eulogy with his claim that Beard “managed to move from a theory of economic determinism all the way over to the easy and

amorphous theory of ‘multiple causation’.”5 In 1954, Whitaker T. Deininger advanced the same thesis in a highly influential essay which argues that Beard’s historical relativism “represented a significant change in the scholar who had written an Economic Interpretation o f the Constitution o f the United States (1913).”6 Shortly thereafter, Elias Berg published an engaging and detailed analysis of Beard’s method­ ological statements and concludes “that economic explanations were less frequent in his later works” and that this change “was probably also due to his relativistic ideas.”7 Notably, Richard Hoftstadter weaves the “two Beards” thesis into the very fabric of his intellectual biogra­ phy to explain Beard’s AHA presidential address as the climax to “a long and leisurely retreat from the economic interpretation of history into historical eclecticism.”8 American intellectual historians now rou­ tinely accept Hofstadter’s well-honed narrative that “in the early and middle 1930s Beard underwent an intellectual conversion from a firm adherence to the economic interpretation of history to a form of his­ torical relativism that proved impossible to square with his earlier views.”9