Carl L. Becker
Carl Lotus Becker (September 7, 1873 – April 10, 1945) was an American historian.
He was born in Waterloo, Iowa. He enrolled at the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 1893 as an undergraduate, and while there gradually gained an interest in studying history. Remaining on for graduate work, Becker studied under Frederick Jackson Turner, who became his doctoral adviser there.1 Becker got his Ph.D. in 1907. He was John Wendell Anderson Professor of History in the Department of History at Cornell University from 1917 to 1941. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1923.2
Becker died in Ithaca, New York.
He is best known for The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers (1932), four lectures on The Enlightenment delivered at Yale University. His assertion—that philosophies in the "Age of Reason" relied far more upon Christian assumptions than they cared to admit—has been influential, but has also been much attacked, notably by Peter Gay. Interest in the book is partly explained by this passage (p. 47):
In the thirteenth century the key words would no doubt be God, sin, grace, salvation, heaven and the like; in the nineteenth century, matter, fact, matter-of-fact, evolution, progress; in the twentieth century, relativity, process, adjustment, function, complex. In the eighteenth century the words without which no enlightened person could reach a restful conclusion were nature, natural law, first cause, reason, sentiment, humanity, perfectibility […].
This isolation of vocabularies of the epoch chimes with much later work, even if the rest of the book is essayistic in approach. Johnson Kent Wright writes
Becker wrote as a principled liberal […]. Yet in some respects The Heavenly City presents an almost uncanny anticipation of the "postmodern" reading of the eighteenth century.—"The Pre-Postmodernism of Carl Becker", p. 162, in Postmodernism and the Enlightenment (2001), Daniel Gordon editor
- Political Parties in the Province of New York from 1766-75 (1908)
- The Beginnings of the American People (1915)
- The Eve of the Revolution (1918)
- The United States: An Experiment in Democracy (1920)
- The Declaration of Independence—A Study in the History of Political Ideas (1922, 1942)
- Our Great Experiment in Democracy (1924)
- The Spirit of '76 (with G.M. Clark and W.E. Dodd) (1926)
- Modern History (1931)
- The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers (1932)
- Every Man His Own Historian (1935)
- Progress and Power (1936)
- Story of Civilization (with Frederic Duncalf) (1938)
- Modern Democracy (1941)
- New Liberties for Old (1941)
- Cornell University: Founders and the Founding (1943)
- How New Will the Better World Be?—A Discussion of Post-War Reconstruction (1944)
- Freedom and Responsibility in the American Way of Life (1945)
- Freedom of Speech and Press
- "History is the memory of things said and done."
- "The significance of man is that he is insignificant and is aware of it."
- "Freedom and responsibility." This saying, from a 1943 lecture, has been frequently misquoted.3 When Cornell memorialized Becker by naming a residential college in his honor, the university commissioned a large stone placard to be affixed to the building's entryway reading "FREEDOM WITH RESPONSIBILITY".3
- Carl L. Becker, "Frederick Jackson Turner," in Everyman His Own Historian: Essays on History and Politics, (Quadrangle Books, 1966), pp. 191-232.
- "Book of Members, 1780-2010: Chapter B". American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved May 29, 2011.
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