Charles Beard and the Open Door Empire

“The next thing to do,” Puck, 1898.

Marc-William Palen
University of Exeter

The following is an excerpt from my chapter, “The Open Door Empire,” in the newly published A Companion to U.S. Foreign Relations: Colonial Era to the Present, ed. by Christopher Dietrich (2 Vos., Wiley-Blackwell, 2020), Vol. 1: 271-287.

Secretary of State John Hay enunciated President William McKinley’s Open Door policy with a series of two “Open Door Notes,” the first in 1899 and the second in 1900. In them, Hay outlined the Republican administration’s desire for equal access to markets currently beyond the country’s economic purview, particularly the European-controlled markets of China. The Open Door Empire as a theoretical mode of analysis, however, would not take shape until the 1930s. By the 1970s, the Open Door imperial thesis – that by the late nineteenth century a bipartisan consensus had arisen in support of prying open the world’s markets for the benefit of US trade and investment through a liberal imperial policy of free trade — would become the dominant historical framework for understanding US imperial economic expansion from the country’s founding to the Vietnam War, a position of prominence that it still maintains today. And yet the historical frame of the Open Door Empire has not remained static. It has undergone a great deal of revision and criticism. Changes within both the global economy and the historical profession have redefined the Open Door’s scale and scope over the course of its long and rich historiographical journey.

The theory of the Open Door Empire went through its most sizeable transformation between its unveiling in the 1930s and its radical New Left reformation beginning in the late 1950s. Charles Beard, the most influential of Progressive scholars, was the first to popularize a working theory of the Open Door Empire as an analytical concept (Borning 1962; Nore 1983; Hofstadter 1968, 167-346; Berg 1957; Braeman 1981; Schmunk 1957; Strout 1958). Beard’s Open Door Empire made its contentious debut in the early 1930s with the publication of his twin works The Idea of National Interest (1934) and The Open Door at Home (1934). For Beard, the Open Door arose amid great politico-ideological conflict over American foreign policy that pitted US free traders against their protectionist rivals. Owing to the subsequent neo-Marxist rise of the New Left’s “Wisconsin School” of foreign relations history (so named because of its origins within the history department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison), Beard’s conflict-oriented interpretation of the Open Door Empire was thereafter reconfigured into one of bipartisan consensus (Kennedy 1975; Bacevich 2002; Craig 2001; Brands 1998). The Wisconsin School’s radical reworking of Beard’s Open Door thesis from the 1950s to the 1970s, begun with the publication of W. A. Williams’s The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (1959), has since established itself as the new economic orthodoxy in its uncovering of America’s formal and informal Open Door Empire.

The Open Door with a Beard: Agrarian Statecraft vs. Industrialist Statecraft

Charles Austin Beard (1874-1948).

The Open Door’s imperial framework owes much to the ideological beliefs of its leading intellectual creators, from Charles Beard to the Wisconsin School. An economic determinist, Beard was no Marxist, although social democratic undertones can certainly be found throughout his critiques of U.S. Open Door imperialism. His moderate socialism, however, was a far cry from Marxism’s capitalist condemnation. Ever the contrarian to scholarly trends, Beard was critical of both Marxism and classical liberalism (Beard 1934, 102-105, 134, chap. 6). In 1957, two years before Tragedy of American Diplomacy was published, W. A. Williams speculated upon Beard’s penchant for moderate non-Marxian socialism: “It is possible to argue that an American socialism, structured around political and civil liberties and centralizing none but the economic power necessary to plan and administer balanced economic growth, leaving other property untouched, would have won Beard’s support” (Williams 1969, 306).

Beard’s own intellectual critique of the American Open Door Empire grew instead out of his turn-of-the-century transatlantic university studies. Having grown up in Indiana, Beard took a formative course at DePauw University with Professor James Riley Weaver, a diehard Republican and protectionist. In Weaver’s course, Beard read Karl Marx and Edward Bellamy alongside Adam Smith and J. S. Mill. He also came into first contact with the writings of the German Historical School, a nineteenth-century intellectual movement formed in Germany to counter the ideas and policies derived from classical liberal political economy. In contrast to the natural laws of the classical school, the German Historical School instead prescribed an empirical use of history to inform economic policies. The German Historical School’s reading of history led them to emphasize the supreme importance of a creating a strong nation state through economic nationalism in the name of social progress, in contrast to the laissez faire, pro-free-trade teachings popularized by British political economists like Adam Smith and David Ricardo. (Nore 1983, 11-12).

Beard’s encounters with intellectual critiques of laissez faire and free trade continued during his sojourn at Oxford from 1898 to 1902 when Frederick York Powell, Oxford’s Regius Professor of History, took Beard under his wing. Powell, an upper-class conservative, took an immediate liking to young Beard. Powell, in turn, had close ties to the Oxford Historical School, an English offshoot of the German Historical School, which was at that time also making inroads at the economics and history departments at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School; the University of Wisconsin-Madison; Columbia University; Harvard University; and the Johns Hopkins University. Like its German counterpart, the Oxford Historical School sought to challenge the precepts of classical liberalism, then commonly known as the Manchester School. Under Powell’s tutelage, Beard delved into the promises and perils—the transformations and injustices—surrounding English industrialization (Braeman 1981, 169-70). His formal university education concluded as a graduate student at Columbia University (1902-1904), under the tutelage of Edwin Seligman, another American disciple of the German Historical School. As Beard biographer Ellen Nore observes, these intellectuals “turned the young scholar away from dry descriptions of institutional development, abstract and economic forces in history” towards “a concern for practical governmental administration.” Also during this time he learned about economic materialism largely sans the Marxism through his encounters with the German Historical School. His activist spirit and critiques of both Marxism and classical liberal political economy manifested themselves within his later theories surrounding the Open Door Empire (Nore 1983, 30-34; Beard 1935, 146-47).

By the early 1930s, Beard’s criticisms of both the Manchester School of classical liberalism and Marxism helped shape his theory of the Open Door Empire, alongside his ideal “continentalist” alternative. Beard defined Open Door imperialism as “a misleading formula of that diplomacy which ostensibly seeks the welfare of the United States by pushing and holding doors open in all parts of the world with all engines of government, ranging from polite coercion to the use of arms” (Beard 1935, vii). In his continentalist prescription, Beard contended that “the so-called surpluses are not inexorable products of nature. . . . One of the hopes for resolving the crisis created by the alleged surpluses and for eliminating the perils to national security created by the outward thrusts of private interests seeking impossible markets for them lies in an efficient distribution of wealth within the United States.” His other policy-oriented solution was to create a Foreign Trade Authority to limit and control international trade, and thereby efficiently regulate price and quantities (Beard 1935, 223, 287-294). In advocating his German Historical School-inspired “continentalist” ideal state — an isolationist, economically independent American Zollverein, with a minimal, highly regulated system of international trade — Beard was denouncing both the laissez faire teachings of classical liberalism and the Marxist call for elaborate state control of all modes of production.

For Beard, the Open Door Empire arose out of intense politico-ideological conflict that climaxed in the 1890s. In The Open Door at Home, Beard laid out what he saw as two conflicting foreign policy traditions throughout American history, representing two oppositional classes and seeking two different expansionist paths in the name of the national interest. By the 1890s, these conflicting expansionist programs led to the conception of Open Door imperialism.

The first more anti-imperial expansionist program was what Beard called “agrarian statecraft.” Its area of interest was, of course, agriculture,

with attachments of exporting and importing merchants dealing in goods and capital, as contrasted with reliance on industry, finance, and commerce primarily. It is intra-nationalist, and anti-imperialist: it favors the annexation of contiguous unoccupied territory which can be defended without a large naval establishment . . . it advocates free trade, tariff for revenue, or moderate tariffs . . . for peace among nations, and for international goodwill arising from a reciprocity of trading interests (Beard 1934, 70).

According to Beard, this agrarian-focused anti-imperial form of U.S. expansion was more non-interventionist in outlook, and most closely associated with the Democratic Party and Jeffersonianism, with an emphasis on laissez faire policies and a desire for continental territorial expansion for the sake of the national interest, kick-started by President Thomas Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase (1803). For Beard, US continental expansion thus had not been imperial in nature, with the territories eventually incorporated as equal members. Despite opposition from advocates of industrial statecraft, agrarian statecraft remained on display throughout much of the nineteenth century, especially whenever Jeffersonian Democrats occupied the White House.

Although agrarian statecraft was powerful throughout much of the nineteenth century, Beard argued that its free-trade, anti-imperial influence began to wane considerably after the onset of the first global economic depression (Long Depression, c. 1873-1896), whereupon protectionism for American industries prevailed alongside a more promotional and imperial-minded tradition that he called “industrialist statecraft.” Beginning with Republican William McKinley’s 1897 presidential election, agrarian statecraft was overshadowed by industrial statecraft (Beard 1934, 87).

According to Beard, American “industrialist statecraft” centered upon finance, commerce, and industry. It emerged when the tradition of the Hamiltonians and Federalist-Whig-Republicans became closely aligned with American imperial expansion and, by the turn of the nineteenth century, with formal colonialism. The “industrialist conception,” Beard wrote, was “simple. American industry, under the regime of technology, is producing more commodities than the American people can use or consume, and the ‘surplus’ must be exported. The accumulations of capital in private hands in the United States are larger than can be employed advantageously at home, that is, profitably, so that there is a ‘surplus’ for exportation.” This thesis, he argued, “runs like a powerful motif” from the Republican administration of William McKinley (1897-1901) to that of Herbert Hoover (1929-1933) (Beard 1935, 37).

Beard’s American Open Door imperial thesis thus arose from his exploration of these two economic ideologies up until the point at which he was writing in the early 1930s. The “forceful quest for an escape from ‘overproduction’” had led to the governmental promotion and protection of “all such economic activities” in the name of the national interest, employing “all the engines of state.” US industries, owing to new advances in technology, were producing more than could be consumed or used; private capital, in turn, accumulated more than could be invested domestically. The resulting surplus in goods and capital needed to be exported. And so “it searches out at public expense trade opportunities in all parts of the world, brings pressure to bear upon foreign governments to induce them to buy American goods,” Beard wrote. Such industrialist imperial market expansion was then supplemented by demonstrable discrimination of imports by way of “elaborate tariff legislation.” Industrialist statecraft’s protectionist imperial demand for new markets, Beard observed, remained a potent political force on behalf of “the national interest so conceived” (Beard 1935, 38, 41, 43, 44).

Beard fleshed out in The Idea of National Interest how the Open Door policy came about at the turn of the century largely owing to the prevalence of industrialist statesmen. John Hay, as the author of the Open Door Notes, laid it out when, according to Beard, he “perilously proclaimed the American attitude in the policy of ‘the open door,’ meaning an equal opportunity for American commerce in that tempestuous area. No other alternative seemed possible to Hay at the moment. . . . With the Philippines in the rear, Hay forced open the door” to China “to a house aflame.” Foreign markets thereafter became “indispensable” to the prosperity of American industries. “The promotion of export business in manufactured commodities was a policy as definite as the protection of domestic industry against foreign competition by high tariffs,” Beard reiterated. “The promotion of export business by the Government, whether it proceeded on theories or with reference to practical exigencies was in fact a bid for political support at home. . . . In short, domestic politics and economics enter into foreign policy and influence its course” (Beard 1935, 102-103, 107, 116).

In sum, for Beard the Open Door Empire came about largely as a turn-of-the-century imperial manifestation of Federalist-Whig-Republican “industrialist statecraft,” in contrast to the more anti-imperial and non-interventionist policies of the Jeffersonian agrarians. Beard also recognized that the Open Door, while calling for equal access in foreign markets, did not mean free trade. Although it was by no means a centerpiece of his study, he made clear that the Open Door Empire at the turn of the century was happening under the auspices of Republican protectionists: an important distinction that would mostly disappear, alongside Beard’s emphasis on partisan ideological conflict, within subsequent Wisconsin School studies of the Open Door Empire.

Excerpted from my chapter, “The Open Door Empire,” in the newly published A Companion to U.S. Foreign Relations: Colonial Era to the Present, ed. by Christopher Dietrich (2 Vos., Wiley-Blackwell, 2020), Vol. 1: 271-287.