Q&A with Richard Beeman

Richard Beeman

Candace diCarlo

Historian Richard Beeman’s professional life can be divided into three chapters of academic success. The first was as a teacher and academic scholar: He joined the Penn faculty in 1968 as an assistant professor of history, was promoted to associate professor in 1973 and became a full professor in 1982.

Chapter Two saw Beeman serve as a department chair, a dean and an administrator. He chaired the Department of History from 1986 to 1987 and again from 1988 to 1991. He served as associate dean of the School of Arts and Sciences (SAS) from 1991 to 1995, worked as deputy dean of SAS from 1998 to 2003, and as dean of the College from 1998 to 2003.

In Chapter Three, Beeman returned to his scholarly work. But this time he chose to write for a wider audience, what he calls “that elusive, intelligent general public.”

Chapters One and Two of the Beeman story officially ended on July 1, when he retired after 43 years on the Penn faculty.

Now it’s time for him to begin Chapter Four, in which Beeman plans to expand his role as a public historian, and have some fun.

“I’m anxious to move on to the fourth,” he says. “I want to do more traveling. I want to spend more time in the summer in Maine. I want to spend more time in the winter in the Florida Keys, which is a very funky but wonderful place where I can do some of the things I love to do: kayaking, swimming, sailing and so on.”

The Current caught up with Beeman in College Hall and conversed about 18th century American history, the behavior of the current Congress, and how he missed the 1960s student revolution by three months and the sexual revolution by 15 minutes.

Q. You attended Cal Berkeley in the early 1960s. Were you involved at all in the student activism and protest movements?
A. I was an undergraduate at the University of California at Berkeley from 1960 to June of 1964. Berkeley at that time was politically a very active place that had a reputation even then as a left-wing university, but there was a kind of cheerful spirit about it. Even though liberals and conservatives would engage in debates, it was good-natured. Three months after I graduated, Mario Savio and the Free Speech Movement launched the student revolution not only in America, but really in some senses around the world. So I missed the student revolution by three months. Then, in December of 1964, I got married as a 22 year old. By my calculations, I missed the sexual revolution by 15 minutes. I’m of an age and generation that I narrowly missed two important cultural revolutions. I watched them from afar, somewhat curiously, but I didn’t actually take part in them.

Q. You studied history as an undergrad at Berkeley, as a master’s student at William & Mary and as a Ph.D. student at the University of Chicago. It is safe to say you’ve always been a history buff?
A. William & Mary was just one year, but it was one year that changed my life. I had been accepted to all of the California law schools and until just a month or two before my graduation, I thought I was heading to law school. At the last minute I decided that maybe this history thing might actually be something that I could do for a living, so I went and got a master’s degree at William & Mary. One of my Berkeley professors managed to get me in after all the deadlines had passed. It was at William & Mary that I decided to spend the rest of my life writing about 18th century American history. Then I went on to a very rigorous, very serious Ph.D. program at the University of Chicago. For a young person who had spent his whole life in California, those four years in Chicago were tough. I wasn’t used to Chicago winters at all. Chicago was also a politically active place, but I had my nose to the grindstone. I had a fun and lively career as an undergraduate at the University of California. I did not miss out on any of the social opportunities offered at Berkeley. Although I had been a reasonably good student, by the time I reached Chicago I knew that I had a lot of catching up to do in terms of developing a serious knowledge of American history. So I became a much less fun person, but I really do owe my years at Chicago to my very rigorous training.

Q. Was there something at William & Mary that piqued your interest in history, like a particular class or an influential professor?
A. Well I was in Colonial Williamsburg, a restored 18th century Virginia town. Within the first week, my thesis advisor, who was a wonderful teacher and mentor, said, ‘You have to pick a thesis topic.’ Quite naturally I picked a thesis topic focusing on 18th century history. Really my first four books were devoted to the subject of 18th century Virginia history. So that’s what Williamsburg did for me. It was wonderful, because it’s a rich and interesting history. 

Q. You came to Penn straight out of graduate school?
A. Straight out of graduate school. I had the good fortune, or ill fortune, of studying under quite a famous, if controversial, historian, a man who’s passed away now by the name of Daniel Boorstin. He was a very influential man in the profession. This was also a time when the job market for academic jobs was much better than it is today. Long about November of 1967—I got my Ph.D. in June of ’68—he called me into his office and said, ‘Tell me, Rick, where would you like to teach?’ And I said, ‘Well, Professor Boorstin, of course I’d like to teach at the best university possible, but all things being equal, I’d really like to go back to California.’ And I really did. I wanted to go back to, like, the University of California at Santa Cruz and start surfing again. Professor Boorstin, when he heard my response, shook his head sadly and took out of the breast pocket of his suit jacket a letter from a very distinguished historian at Penn, a man named Thomas Cochran, and he said, ‘Rick, for a historian of 18th century America, all things are never equal in California. I don’t think you can go back to California. I think you should go talk to these folks at the University of Pennsylvania.’ And within a week, I was on a plane flying to Philadelphia.

Richard Beeman

Candace diCarlo

Richard Beeman spent 43 years in Penn's history department teaching students about the American Revolution and Constitution. Beeman, the author of the 2009 book "Plain, Honest Men," no longer teaches, but is still keenly interested in helping people understand 18th century American history.


Q. Did you have a favorite class to teach during your 40-plus years here?
A. When I was hired, I had never spent a minute in front of a class of undergraduates. The University of Chicago was primarily a graduate institution; there were no teaching assistants. My first moment of teaching at Penn was when I stood behind a lectern before about 100 undergraduates and taught them the course that I taught virtually every year that I was at Penn: the course on the American Revolution and Constitution. That is the subject that has been my great love as a scholar and it’s been the most satisfying course that I’ve taught as a teacher at Penn. And I never have gotten tired of it; I hope that I have gotten better at it over the years. I think I’ve learned more about the subject over the course of those years. But that was certainly my favorite class. The other course into which I put a lot of energy and effort for about 36 or 37 of those 43 years was the American history survey course. When I came to Penn, there had been an older professor who had taught the survey course probably for 30 or 40 years, and literally one day in front of the class, he had a stroke, which eventually killed him, and they literally carried him out with his boots on. From that moment on, I stepped in and I was the one faculty member at Penn who taught the American history survey course. You asked me earlier why I wanted to retire, well I didn’t want to be carried out with my boots on. There are too many other things that I want to do in life before they carry me out with my boots on.

Q. Your 2009 book, ‘Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution,’ details the drafting of the Constitution in the summer of 1787. What were your motivations for writing the book?
A. This is a subject about which I have wanted to write since I was a graduate student. I’ve always been fascinated by that gathering in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787. I waited more than 40 years to begin work on that book because I wanted to be sure that I had something new to say, but also because I’d reached a stage in my career where I didn’t want to write just for other professors or graduate students. I really did want to write for a wider audience. Of all the books I’ve written, it was by far the most enjoyable to write. It was also the most challenging to write because it was a different kind of writing, really crafting what I hope was a compelling story. The main storyline of that book is how these thinking politicians—they weren’t political philosophers, they were politicians just like politicians today, although they were gifted with a really powerful intellect and they were as interested in thinking as in politicking—came together in less than four months’ time and crafted this remarkable document.

Q. Has it been difficult transitioning from academic writing to writing for a more mainstream audience?
A. I’ve always loved history and I love writing about history, but sometimes it’s hard work, maybe even drudgery. Writing the sorts of books that I’m writing now is fun. It’s not 100 percent fun; like any piece of writing, you have to work hard at it, you have to revise it, you have to craft it. But I really do feel that the creative challenges of telling a story are immensely rewarding. I have never in my entire career enjoyed writing history as much as I’m enjoying it today.

Q. In his New York Times review of ‘Plain, Honest Men,’ Walter Isaacson wrote that the founding fathers, when drafting the Constitution, showed that they could be compromisers. ‘Compromise’ seems to be a four-letter word in today’s politics. What were some of the compromises the founding fathers had to make?
A. Some of the compromises we can look back and be proud of; some of those compromises we can’t be very proud of. The three-fifths compromise, by which slaves were counted as three-fifths of a person, is not something any of us would applaud them for today. But they really did go through that whole summer knowing that if they were going to get something done, they had to find ways to reach agreement.
 I wrote this book, as it turns out, at an opportune time because people seem very interested in the Constitution these days. I often joke that I can thank the Tea Party for really drumming up a lot of business for me because everybody’s so interested in the Constitution. [On a recent] Saturday night, I spoke at Independence Hall to the 100 chiefs of staff of the 100 United States senators, and the topic of my talk was: How come these founding fathers of 1787 were able to get so much done in less than four months’ time when our Congress today doesn’t seem to get anything done? I was afraid they might take offense at this comparison, but actually they welcomed it. It was a successful evening. The message of the book does have some real relevance for all of us today, but for our political leaders in particular. It’s not clear that they’re learning the lesson, but …

Q. What do you think the founding fathers would think of today’s political climate?
A. Honestly, I think that if James Madison, often thought of as the father of the Constitution—he’s not the sole figure behind the Constitution but he’s an important actor in the drama—if James Madison, lying in his grave, heard or somehow miraculously saw the behavior of Congress, for example, during the debt ceiling debate, he’d be spinning in his grave. They would be not merely depressed, but disconsolate that our current political environment is precisely the opposite of what those founding fathers sought to foster in their own political culture. Now mind you, if either John Boehner or Harry Reid were of the same stature and character of George Washington, maybe we wouldn’t be in the fix that we’re in. But I don’t see any George Washingtons on the scene in our Congress today.

Q. ‘Plain, Honest Men’ also touches on the founding fathers and slavery. How do you reconcile the fact that America’s forefathers did honorable things, yet some owned slaves and supported the institution of slavery?
A. The founding fathers failed to deal adequately with what I call in the book ‘the paradox at the nation’s core.’ A nation founded in July of 1776 on the principle that all men were created equal and founded on principles of liberty had failed to do away with the fundamental contradiction to all of the things they said they believed in by perpetuating the institution of slavery.
The downside of compromise is that represented at the convention were at least five states that were committed to the perpetuation of slavery, and two states—South Carolina and Georgia—that were not only committed to its maintenance, but to its extension. In my view, probably 80 percent of the delegates to the Constitution Convention would have been happy if they could have found a way to do away with the institution of slavery, and failing that, they would have been pleased if they could have put in place a set of institutions and processes that would have led to its eventual elimination. But the fact of the matter is that the delegates from South Carolina and Georgia, who were committed to its expansion, threatened to walk out of the convention.
The greatest tragedy of the Constitutional Convention, a convention that in most other respects is marked by triumph, is the fact that the delegates not only from the North but from the upper South didn’t care enough about the state of the people bound up in that institution to stand up to the South Carolinians and the Georgians. The South Carolina and Georgia delegates basically threatened to walk out of the convention if they didn’t get their way on a number of key issues relating to slavery. Although I didn’t write this in the book—I think I should have—the other delegates probably should have said, ‘Go ahead, walk out, we can get along without you.’ And I think the South Carolinians and the Georgians would have come crawling back. That doesn’t mean that the delegates were prepared to abolish slavery in 1787, but they could have done more to minimize the evil.

If James Madison ... heard or somehow miraculously saw the behavior of Congress, for example, during the debt ceiling debate, he’d be spinning in his grave.”

Q. Your most recent book is ‘The Penguin Guide to the United States Constitution.’ What does it entail?
A. Since I wrote ‘Plain, Honest Men,’ I’ve put together a brief book aimed primarily at high school civics classes and college freshmen in government classes that basically helps people understand what the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution mean. I’ve written some essays describing the process by which those two amazing documents were created, but I also have done a very extensive annotation of the documents. I hope that when people argue about what a particular clause in the Constitution actually means, they might turn to that book and get some enlightenment.

Q. You are on the Board of Trustees of the National Constitution Center. How are you involved with the center?
A. During the time I was dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, I was doing some teaching but not much history writing because I was spending most of my time sitting in meetings. Those were the years in which the National Constitution Center was being planned and I got very directly involved in the planning for the building. Working with the CEO of the Constitution Center at that time, I also played a pretty important role in creating the content—not actually nailing together the exhibits but helping to choose the content for the exhibits. That was a different kind of teaching opportunity. I knew that I would be helping to reach hundreds of thousands of people rather than just my students at Penn. I was enormously pleased and gratified when the Constitution Center opened on July 4, 2003. Since that time, I’ve played a pretty active role in overseeing a lot of their programs. That’s part of this next chapter in my life, what I guess you’d called a public historian trying to do things at the Constitution Center to reach a wider audience.

Q. I understand that you often dress up as a founding father and give tours of the Constitution Center.
A. In terms of my career as a teacher at Penn, I am famous, or infamous, as a teacher who dresses up in costumes and portrays the historical characters that I’m lecturing about. I have a lecture that I do dressed as Jonathan Edwards, the New England Great Awakening minister in the 18th century. I have a lecture that I do dressed as Tom Paine, the revolutionary pamphleteer. And perhaps most outrageously, I have a performance that I do dressed in full buckskin and a coonskin cap as Davy Crockett. Shortly after 9/11, I had to change my costume a bit because I’d get dressed up and I’d march across campus carrying a musket. But after 9/11, with new security concerns, I had to be more careful about walking across campus carrying my musket.
I’ve been doing that in the classroom at Penn, but I’ve also continued doing it to groups, mainly of schoolteachers, at the Constitution Center. These teachers have more to teach me about teaching than I do about how to teach them, but one point that I make to them is that anything you do to make history come alive and anything you do to potentially make a fool of yourself in front of your students is going to make you much more popular with your students. The teachers, I think, really have enjoyed those performances as well.

Q. Do you have a favorite founding father (besides Ben Franklin)?
A. I get asked that question all the time. It’s a tough question to answer. I’m going to answer the question this way: This is the kind of weird thing that history professors do, they ask themselves, ‘What historical figures would you most like to have dinner with?’ I’d like to arrange a dinner party with Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. Franklin not only for the breadth of his intellectual curiosity, but for his extraordinary wit and good humor. Jefferson, who I think wouldn’t be as nearly as much fun as Franklin, for the breadth and depth of his intellect. I think these are the two most intellectually interesting of the founding fathers.

Q. You’ve been a guest on ‘The Daily Show with Jon Stewart’ twice. How was the experience?
A. The first thing I would say about both of my experiences on ‘The Daily Show’ was that as I walked off the stage each time, I felt that I’d had an out-of-body experience. I didn’t remember a thing I had said, I had no sense of the passage of time, and I was in a state of utter terror during the entire seven-and-a-half minutes. It was only after seeing myself when the show actually aired that I calmed down a little bit and felt that I had avoided making a complete idiot of myself.

Q. How is Jon Stewart personally?
A. Jon Stewart himself is not only a very funny man, but he’s very smart and serious. Of course he makes jokes, but he really deeply cares about the state of the American polity and is also really interested in American history. The first time I was booked on his show, he was the one to make the decision to book me because he’d read ‘Plain, Honest Men’ and thought it was an interesting book. I don’t know whether I’ve seen the last of Jon Stewart, but I suspect that perhaps I have not. As long as the Tea Party keeps misbehaving, he’s likely to ask me back.

Q. You mentioned that part of the reason you decided to retire was to move on to the next chapter of your life. Were there any other reasons you decided to step aside?
A. During the years that I served as the dean, I really did see that our faculty was not going to grow in the School of Arts and Sciences. It was not going to grow significantly. I saw a lot of my senior colleagues not retiring and I think we have an obligation, if we can afford to do so, to make way for younger scholars to come into the University and make their careers.

Q. What do you plan to do in your retirement?
A. What I’m most looking forward to in retirement is being able to get up in the morning and, instead of racing to work, spend an extra 45 minutes with a second or third cup of tea and The New York Times, and then go outside and throw the Frisbee to my dog, and then, while I’m still in my sweatpants or my running shorts, going up to my computer and writing for three or four hours.
Although during about every hour on the hour, my dog [Abigail Adams] will come up to me with a Frisbee in her mouth and make me take her outside again and throw the Frisbee some more, which is good for the dog and it’s good for my brain. Then I’ll usually do some serious form of physical exercise. I used to run marathons, but because I used to run marathons, I don’t have any knees anymore, so now I do power walks, and I bike, and I kayak and I swim. A day does not go by that I don’t do some serious exercise. Then it’s back to the computer to do more writing. So I think I’ve got a nice mixture of work and play.

Originally published on October 13, 2011