We lost another esteemed member of the early American history community last week. After an extended illness, Richard Beeman, the John Welsh Centennial Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania, passed away. I learned about Rick’s passing from Dan Richter‘s e-mail to the McNeil Center for Early American Studies community.
Here is a taste of that e-mail:
I have the sad responsibility to report that my colleague Richard Beeman, John Welsh Centennial Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania, has passed away after a long illness. Rick taught wildly popular courses at Penn for more than forty years and was Dean of the College for over a decade. The impressive body of scholarship he left us includes, among many other works, The Evolution of the Southern Backcountry (1984) and The Varieties of Political Experience in Eighteenth-Century America (Early American Studies series, 2004). More recently he gained a wide general readership for Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution (2009); and Our Lives, Our Fortunes and Our Sacred Honor: The Forging of American Independence, 1774-1776 (2013). The McNeil Center community owes him a particular debt of gratitude for his key role in our institution’s early years, including the period during the 1980s when he served as Director. He will be greatly missed by all who knew him.
I didn’t know Rick Beeman well. We often exchanged pleasantries during the couple of years I spent at the McNeil Center and he was always kind to me as a young scholar. A few years ago we chatted at Mount Vernon during the George Washington Book Prize gala. Rick was on the jury and I am grateful that he saw fit to select my Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? as one of the three finalists for that award.
I think I read The Evolution of the Southern Backcountry two or three times during my dissertation research. I was writing about rural hinterlands in the mid-Atlantic and found Rick’s treatment of a small region in early America to be a helpful model for my own work on southern New Jersey. And then there was the time Rick was invited on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart to debunk the erroneous claims of David Barton.
Those who came through the history graduate program at Penn knew him well. Over at Historiann, historian Wayne Bodle shares some reflections:
Rick came to Penn in the fabled fall of 1968, straight out of the U. of Chicago. He genially, and not confrontationally, recognized himself to be a traditionalist of a certain order. When Mike Zuckerman was reading chapters of my Valley Forge project (as an in-progress National Park Service report), and telling me it could be a dissertation, he ran one chapter by Rick one summer. (Rick was a summer Maine vacationer, as you doubtless know). The feedback, via Mike, was that it was not how Rick would have done, or advised, it, but yeah, he could be a second or third reader. He ended up being a second reader.
When I went to see him (up in the old Philadelphia Center for Early American Studies building at 38th and Walnut, long before it became the McNeil Center) about this I said what does it need? He said what do *you* think it needs? I said a historiographical introductory chapter. He said that’s what I think, now go do it. So I went and did it, although the first sentence said that the historiography of Valley Forge begins with the fact that there really was no historiography, per se, of Valley Forge.
Rick loaned me his seminar at Penn in the fall of 1991 (again from Maine, when his deanship came to him from out of the blue). He said “I’ve ordered about six books–” (this was in mid-August), “you don’t have to use any of them, but if you do, you’ll need to order some more.” He pointed out that his take on the Revolution was old-school high politics, and he more than welcomed my approaching it differently, which I did. He even acknowledged that military history was out of his bailiwick.
By this time I had met and actually worked with Linda Kerber, so I began the syllabus with her essay ‘the Revolutionary Generation’. I tried to use ‘generation’ as an analytic theme for the course.
Rick later, as a member of the committee, made a real effort to get me a major book prize for The Valley Forge Winter (2002), all the time warning that it was an outside shot, as his fellow committeemen were even more traditionalist than he was, and he was coming around, at least on the military part.
It was a generous prize, but his effort meant even more. He wrote a bunch of letters for me. I never had him for an actual class.