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Breaking With The Past

September 10, 1902


By the end of the nineteenth-century, most mainstream scholars contended that history should be a scientific enterprise aimed at revealing objective truth. Carl Lotus Becker, who taught European history at KU from 1902 until 1916, was one of the first historians to argue otherwise.

His 1910 essay in the Atlantic Monthly, “Detachment and the Writing of History,” posited that even professionally trained historians faced massive difficulties in their attempts to become sufficiently detached from their own circumstances to render an objective portrayal of a complicated past. “The ‘facts of history’ do not exist for any historian,” he insisted, “until he creates them, and into every fact that he creates some part of his individual experience must enter.”

In 1931, long after he had departed from Lawrence and following his election to the presidency of the American Historical Association, Becker delivered his presidential address, “Every Man His Own Historian,” to the organization. Published in 1933 in the American Historical Review, the essay, perhaps the most influential that he ever wrote, revealed Becker’s return to issues he had raised at KU concerning the notion of objectivity in historical research.

History, he argued, “cannot be reduced to a verifiable set of statistics or formulated in terms of universally valid mathematical formulas. It is rather an imaginative creation, a personal possession which each one of us, Mr. Everyman, fashions out of his individual experience, adapts to his practical or emotional needs, and adorns as well as may be to suit his aesthetic tastes.”

Becker was born on a farm in Black Hawk County, Iowa, in 1873. He enrolled at the University of Wisconsin in 1893, and studied under Frederick Jackson Turner, one of the most famous of the Progressive historians, and received his B.Litt. with honors in history in 1896.

After several short-term positions with Columbia University, Pennsylvania State University, and Dartmouth College, Becker became an assistant professor at KU in 1902. He was responsible for many history courses, including Greek and Roman, Medieval, Renaissance and Reformation, and English history. While at Kansas, Becker also completed his dissertation under the direction of Turner and received his PhD from Wisconsin in 1907.

In 1909, after he had been promoted to professor at Kansas, Becker published his dissertation, The History of Political Parties in the Province of New York, 1760-1776. The book was a meticulous reconstruction of politics in a colony long known for its divisive public affairs. Influenced by Progressive concern about class relations, it soon became a classic and had an enormous impact on the study of the American Revolution. In it, Becker developed the idea that the Revolution needed to be studied as a dual movement: the revolt was an imperial struggle over “home rule,” particularly over what types of rights colonists possessed but it also concerned the distribution of power in the colonies – or as Becker put it in his most famous formulation, “of who should rule at home.”

At Kansas, Becker honed a writing style that became as significant to the profession as any of his research. He laced his essays and letters with literary flourishes and droll wit. In a 1909 letter to Turner he noted that another young historian at Kansas was succeeding well, although he had not yet “mastered the ‘Kansas language,’ which develops steadily at the expense of English.”

The next year he published an essay entitled “Kansas.” Reprinted often, “Kansas” captured the essence of a state peopled by New England immigrants who withstood the battles over slavery during the bloody 1850s and emerged triumphant, the embodiment of the state’s motto: ad astra per aspera. Yet Kansas also seemed parochial to Becker, a place where everyone conformed to certain norms and where “freaks are raised for export only.”

Becker himself left Kansas and KU in 1916, moving first to the University of Minnesota, and then in 1917 to Cornell University, where he became professor of European history and remained until his retirement. During this post-Kansas period, Becker published perhaps the most significant book of his career, The Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideas (1922). Here Becker subjected one of the most critical documents in American history to intensive scrutiny. He explored the language and logic of the Declaration and placed it in the intellectual context of its age.

By the time of his death in Ithaca in 1945, Becker had produced an enormous body of writing, including sixteen books, seventy-five articles, and scores of reviews. Since his death, many historians have offered critical assessments of his work, noting that Becker often repeated himself, that he was inconsistent, and that he, except in his first book, paid little attention to the lives of most eighteenth-century people. Yet he remains a central figure in the development of the nature of historical inquiry, in large measure because his own skepticism about historians’ abilities is an enduring caution to any scholar who believes that he or she can offer an objective portrayal of a complicated past.

(Adapted from Dictionary of American Biography with permission from the publisher.)

Peter C. Mancall

Department of History
University of Southern California

Source Notes

Adapted from the Dictionary of American Biography (New York: 1990) with the permission of the author and the publisher.