Position

AHA President, 1931

Institution

Cornell University

From the American Historical Review 50:4 (July 1945)

Carl Lotus Becker (September 7, 1873–April 10, 1945). The first contribution to the American Historical Review from the pen of Carl Lotus Becker appeared in the October issue in 1899, the last, a perfectly characteristic little note, in the April issue this year. Between those years the graduate student of 1899 had become one of the most distinguished American scholars in the field of history. His death in Ithaca, New York, on April 10, at a time when he was busy with scholarly projects, came as a shock and leaves a sense of great loss. Professor Becker had long struggled with ill health, but surgical interference a few years ago had given him complete relief and restored health. His death after a few days’ illness followed an intestinal infection and renal failure. Professor Becker was born near Waterloo, Iowa, September 7, 1873. In one of his best pieces of writing, called in the first edition The United States: An Experiment in Democracy, he tells of his boyhood in a German-American farm community and reflects on the making of Americans. He went for a year to nearby Cornell College in Mt. Vernon, Iowa. Then he transferred to the University of Wisconsin just as Frederick Jackson Turner and Charles H. Haskins were rising to leadership. Once under Turner’s influence, the shy, retiring Iowa boy had no other ambition but to study and write history. The urge in him to research, to write, to perfect his power of expression was always greater than his urge to teach. But to students with perceptive minds he was a great teacher. He did not want to make converts or disciples or tell anybody what to do or how to think after any pattern except one of their own choosing. By his own emancipation he liberated the minds of others. His was a philosophy of freedom. “I have no faith,” he once wrote, “in the philosophy of abolishing oppression by oppressing oppressors. I have no faith in the infallibility of any man, or of any group of men, or of the doctrines or dogmas of any man or group of men, except in so far as they can stand the test of free criticism and analysis. I agree with Pascal that ‘thought makes the dignity of man’; and I believe therefore that all the great and permanently valuable achievements of civilization have been won by the free play of intelligence in opposition to, or in spite of, the pressure of mass emotion and the effort of organized authority to enforce conformity in conduct and opinion.” His graduate work was done partly at Wisconsin and partly at Columbia, where he pursued both American and European history. His doctorate was taken at Wisconsin in 1907. During his academic career he published more in American history but taught chiefly European history with a special interest in eighteenth century thought and the French Revolution. It was in this area that he stimulated the interest of his graduate students, if one may speak in connection with Becker of anything so narrowing as an area. He would have objected to being labeled as any kind of historian, but it is true that whether he wrote of Europe or America he wrote about ideas and thinkers and trends of thought. Each topic he touched seemed under the magic of his pen to become clear and comprehensible and worth while. He seemed in person and in print above the turmoil of the conflicts, past or present, that stirred other men. Sometimes he seemed a twentieth century philosophe. To Justice O. W. Holmes’s question as to what he thought of the human race, Becker replied drily, “Mr. Justice, I wish them well.” But the seeming aloofness fell away when things he felt vital were at stake. The reader of his essays in the Yale Review published as New Liberties for Old can see that plainly, for successive essays show his deepening sense of the peril threatening everything he held worth while in his own land and in the world’s civilization. Professor Becker taught in Pennsylvania State College, in Dartmouth, for fourteen years in Kansas University, briefly in the University of Minnesota, and then in Cornell University. On his retirement he took on the task of writing the history of Cornell, of which one volume appeared before his death. Many honors came to him, including membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and in the American Philosophical Society. He was President of the American Historical Association in 1931 and the recipient of honorary degrees from several great universities. His wife, a son in the armed services, and a grandson survive him.

 

Bibliography

Beginnings of the American people, by Carl Lotus Becker. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1915.

The United States; an experiment in democracy, by Carl Becker. New York and London: Harper, 1920; Reprint with a new introduction by Michael G. Kammen. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 2001.

The Declaration of independence, a study in the history of political ideas, by Carl Becker. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1922; Reprint, Birmingham, Ala.: Palladium Press, 2002.

The struggle for independence. Part 1: The eve of the revolution, by Carl Becker. Part 2: Washington and his comrades in arms, by George M. Wrong. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1926.

The spirit of ’76 and other essays, by Carl Becker, J. M. Clark, William E. Dodd. Washington: Robert Brookings graduate school of economics and government, 1927.

The heavenly city of the eighteenth century philosophers, by Carl L. Becker. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1932; Reprint, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991.

Modern history; the rise of a democratic, scientific, and industrialized civilization, by Carl L. Becker. New York: Silver Burdett, 1933.

Everyman his own historian; essays on history and politics, by Carl L. Becker. New York: F. S. Crofts, 1935.

The world of today: how national and international difficulties endanger the peace of the world, by Carl Becker. New York: Silver Burdett., c1938.

Story of civilization, showing how, from earliest times, men have increased their knowledge and mastery of the world, and thereby changed their ways in living in it, by Carl L. Becker and Frederic Duncalf. New York: Silver Burdett, 1940.

How new will the better world be? A discussion of post-war reconstruction, by Carl L. Becker. 1st ed. New York: A.A. Knopf, 1944.

Safeguarding civil liberty today; the Edward L. Bernays lectures of 1944 given at Cornell university by Carl L. Becker [and others] and an address by Edmund Ezra Day. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1945.

Progress and power. Introduction by Leo Gershoy. 1st Borzoi ed. New York: A. A. Knopf, 1949.

“What is the good of history?” Selected letters of Carl L. Becker, 1900-1945, edited with an introd. by Michael Kammen. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1973.

The eve of the revolution: a chronicle of the breach with England, by Carl Becker. Toronto: Glasgow, Brook; New York: United States Publishers Association, 1977.

Freedom and responsibility in the American way of life: five lectures delivered on the William W. Cook Foundation at the University of Michigan, December 1944, by Carl L. Becker; with an introductory essay by George H. Sabine. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980.