Great Scholars of the Declaration: Carl Lotus Becker

Carl Lotus Becker (Source: Cornell University)

Carl Lotus Becker (Source: Cornell University)

Few historians have had more influence on understanding and interpreting the Declaration of Independence than Carl Lotus Becker (1873-1945). Becker’s seminal The Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideas was first published in 1922 but remained in print for decades because of its lucid writing, well-argued interpretation of the document as a study in natural rights (particularly the philosophy of John Locke, who was well known and admired in the American colonies), examination of Jefferson’s literary style, and (perhaps most importantly to both students and college professors) its brevity. Through the miracle of the Internet the 1922 edition of the book is legally available because of lapsed copyright here and here.

            Becker graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1896 where he had studied history with Frederick Jackson Turner, who had made his mark in scholarship with his “frontier thesis” that explained how the settlement of the American West shaped democratic values of equality in the United States. Becker’s doctoral thesis on political movements in New York during the American Revolution established his credentials as an expert on 18th century political thought and the Enlightenment. He eventually became professor of European History at Cornell University, teaching there from 1917 to 1941.

            Historian Robert Hatch wrote:

            His writing is remembered for its lucidity, force, and grace; his interpretations were well argued and stunning in their originality. Becker’s importance as an historian reflects his broad interest in both U.S. and European history as well as his creative if not iconoclastic interpretations.  As a man of letters, Becker repeatedly claimed he was interested in thinking about history rather than being an historian – his interest in historiography was genuine and consistent.

            Although often criticized for his belief in that the subjectivity of historians was the only driving force in historical scholarship, Becker’s interpretation of the Declaration proved to be long-lasting and his belief in the perennial value of natural rights genuine. During World War II when he looked at the rise of totalitarianism, Becker told his fellow historians that democratic values like those declared by Thomas Jefferson have “a life of their own apart from any particular social system or type of civilization.” Anyone who wants to understand the Declaration needs to spend time with the timeless ideas of Carl Lotus Becker.

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