Richard (Rick) Beeman, 1942-2016

Richard (Rick) Beeman

Richard (Rick) Beeman

My friend Wayne Bodle, another alumnus of the University of Pennsylvania Department of History, wrote to me yesterday with some remembrances of an emeritus Professor, Richard Beeman, who died Monday of complications from ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease.) He has agreed to let me share them with you, and we both invite any of you who knew Rick to share your memories too–whether you are “Old Pennsters” (as Richard Dunn calls us) or not.

Here are Wayne’s memories of Rick, which go back almost as far as Rick’s “freshman year” as a professor in 1968–

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.

Thanks, Wayne.  I’ll share some of my memories in the comments below later–gotta get to class!–but I hope I won’t be the first.  Yesterday on Twitter, Andrew Lipman shared this clip from one of Beeman’s appearances on the Daily Show with John Stewart, which I thought captures a slightly more subdued and deferential side of the man.

I’m about as different a historian from Rick Beeman as you can get and still be in the same profession, but I too have my pocket copy of the U.S. Constitution always at the ready.


19 thoughts on “Richard (Rick) Beeman, 1942-2016

  1. I didn’t know him well, but I have fond memories of Richard Beeman. As well as being a fine scholar, he seemed to be a very kind man, always willing to help younger scholars. In my memories, it seems he laughed and smiled often.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks, Ann. Your modest edit of my abbreviation-filled, short-handed e-mail made the memory appear a lot more coherent than I thought it was or could be. Just one chronological tweak, again based on my garbled note to you, for which, apologies. Rick’s deanship in the CAS came in the summer of 1991, and I got to teach his Freshman Seminar on the American Revolution that fall. I doubt whether I would be teaching that subject (or anything else, anywhere, for that matter) now, except for that fortunate stroke. Linda Kerber spent the fall of 1987 at Penn as a senior fellow in Mike Zuckerman’s “Transformation of Philadelphia Project,” and that’s where I met her. It certainly became the transformation of ME project in a whole bunch of ways! (I think Merril sat in on the project that year, too, but I can’t exactly remember).


    • I was there in the Fall, Wayne, and also met Linda Kerber then. I gave birth to my older daughter that February, so I wasn’t around for the spring. And speaking of kind men, Wayne, you’re definitely at the top–and helped me out more than once.


    • Sorry about that–will correct. But how could you use the Foner 1997 book in a seminar you taught in the fall of 1991? Surely I must have that wrong too–let me know.


      • The first edition of the Foner was in 1990, so it was as literally new as it was interpretively new when I used it. Interestingly, though, the first part, “Eras of the American Past,” had essays all authored by men, save for Linda, and (however new) as traditionalist as you could please in periodization terms. Part II, “Major Themes in American Experience,” was very differently organized and way more diversified in authorial terms. (Although I’m harvesting this data online from the 1997 edition, cited above). So kind of like time lapse photography of change coming, differentially, over the practice of the discipline.


  3. When I got to Penn as a grad student, Rick was legendary among undergrads. He gave lectures as Patrick Henry and Jonathan Edwards, in costume. You could tell he genuinely loved his job. As a first year, I took what I believe was his last grad seminar, on the historiography of the American Revolution. I’ll admit, there was a little tension when the class began–Rick was a bowtie-wearing unapologetically conservative and traditional scholar. Though it was 2005, many books on the syllabus were from the 1960s and 1970s, and “Women and Indians” were given just a single week to share awkwardly. Certainly we gave Rick some pushback for his fustiness. Yet he charmed us and won us over, in part by being a gifted raconteur with many choice anecdotes and sly comments about the scholars we were reading. The reading may not have always been to my taste, but I walked away from Beeman’s seminar with a deeper appreciation for many historiographic classics. (Turns out there was a lot to learn from reading scholarship from the 60s!) From then on, whenever I spotted him on campus I was delighted to see him: he had a nice energy and positivity that wasn’t exactly typical among senior faculty. I am going to miss him.


  4. Andrew, that syllabus must have been only lightly revised from when I took that class in the fall of 1990. Back then (although it was shocking to us students even then), it was 12 weeks of white men’s political history, and then one week entitled “Blacks, women, and Indians.” So at least over the next 15 years, Rick singled out African American history as its own thing?

    I also TA’d for Rick in the fall of 1990 in his intro to U.S. history (1607-1865 or so), as a first-year grad student only 3 months beyond my B.A. He gave us loads of authority to make up our own supplementary readings of primary sources (in “Course Packs” as they used to be known.) I personally found the Jonathan Edwards cringeworthy, but as you say, it was a hit with the kids.

    Best Beeman story ever: Steven Conn (of Ohio State and lately Miami University) was a fellow TA for that class, and then went on to TA for Walter Licht in the modern U.S. survey course. Steve was such a gifted and thoughtful teacher that he had students follow him from the early class into his sections in the modern U.S. class. For those of you who don’t know Walter, he’s a labor historian, whereas Rick was the last of the Whig political historians. One of the students who had been with Steve all year came up to him sometime midway through the second semester with a stricken look. The kid said, “I don’t know what happened! At the end of last semester everything seemed to be going so well!?!”

    Rick was a Whig historian in another sense: as Merril D. Smith notes above, he was a very affable, smiley, cheerful person. I think that’s why he remained so youthful, even boyish.


    • Now I’m not trusting my own memory and wondering if indeed “blacks” were crammed into that one week in 2005. Because now that I think about it I doubt there was a whole week devoted to African American history. Eeek. Still, Steve Conn’s story about the survey students going from Beeman to Licht is amazing! And while I never saw his reenactments, I gotta say I admire any professor willing to be such a ham. I think ultimately that’s why the kids loved it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I hate to offer a third comment, especially when I’m in the main post, but Andrew’s reference to “ham” jars loose a story that has to be told. One semester Rick allowed maybe a half-dozen “Philadelphia Center” dissertation fellows and others to observe his American Revolution undergraduate (lecture) class, for curiosity sake, and for ideas for syllabi or hopefully job interviews. He was teaching in one of those elongated lateral rooms upstairs in Bennett Hall, across from the current Center. There was an old wooden table in front of the board, with a lectern on it, which he never used. One of the wooden legs of the table was separating from the top–you could see the twisted nails between the two pieces of wood. Rick came in (not in costume) and went into an over-the-top dramaturgic account of Ebenezer Macintosh leading the mob against Thomas Hutchinston’s House in Boston in 1765. (He wasn’t all-whig, all-the-time). He paced around the table, and occasionally sat against its front, leaning back into it. You could see the nails pulling loose from the tabletop. You could hear them squeak and groan (at least I thought I could). You could see the sophomore in the front row, three feet in front of the prof., wide-eyed, waiting for the impending disaster. The whole class was growing increasingly restive, but transfixed by the events in Boston. The North and South End rioters were drinking Hutchinston’s Madiera, and smoking his Havannah segars, just prior to torching the whole house. The class observers were wondering, did Rick have this table especially engineered and milled for this exercise, or are we really going to have to call 911? Somehow the class ended in one piece. George III sacked another Prime Minister, calling back William Pitt as Lord Chatham, I think. Life went on. Second best Beeman story ever.

        Don’t try this in your classroom.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Great story! I bet that’s one those u’grads, now in their 40s and 50s, recall now & tell their own kids about their legendary college days–


  5. I was really saddened to hear this news. Beeman wasn’t one of my advisors, but he shaped my grad experience in the 1990s in all sorts of ways–I TAed for him twice, did an independent study on the Revolution with him (he didn’t teach any actual grad seminars the whole time I was there, I don’t think), and interim directed the Philadelphia/McNeil Center for a year when I was around.

    The Revolution course was frustratingly traditional–I sat in on his undergrad lectures and then did outside readings and wrote a big paper on Gordon Wood vs. Joyce Appleby on republicanism and liberalism or something like that. Turned me right off of that historiographical clusterfork. It was especially frustrating because I had really loved The Evolution of the Southern Backcountry, and was moving towards a topic closely related to that, but by the ’90s Beeman had kind of backed away from the anthropological/cultural stuff he had worked on with Isaac and settled into a comfortable (for him) political/intellectual/institutional approach.

    I learned a lot about teaching from Beeman, both positive and negative lessons. He was really good about managing TAs… we had weekly meetings that were substantive and supportive, and he gave us pretty free rein over the reading list for the sections, even though he didn’t do anything to change his lectures–he was comfortable having the discussions be almost a kind of counternarrative to his part of the course. (And I definitely heard that Steve Conn story at least once… I may have recycled it myself a couple of times.) Beeman’s hamminess was also mostly restrained… he maybe did Edwards once (and I thought he got him all wrong, honestly… too fire and brimstone/modernist in his presentation). But we had fun at one point in a lecture on class, politics, and deference having the TAs shout him down and install Billy Smith as the lecturer for that class. So I didn’t always (or often) agree with Beeman’s take on history, and when he took the deanship it made sense given my understanding of his career trajectory… but his energy, enthusiasm for history, and generally positive support for graduate students (even though he seemed to strongly prefer teaching undergrads) made a real difference in my actual experiences of grad school.

    Beeman also told a great story about the way the job market worked in the ’60s. He was working on his dissertation, and Daniel Boorstin called Beeman into his office. “Rick, have you thought about where you’d like to teach?”
    “Well, all things being equal, I think I’d really like to go back to California and find a position there.”
    “Rick, when it comes to early American history, all things are never equal in California. There’s a job at the University of Pennsylvania, and I think you should take it.”


    • Thanks for your great stories here, Randolf.

      I forgot that Rick was a California surfer dude–he definitely retained that look long after moving to Philadelphia! He would have fit in perfectly at Berkeley, but then, that’s not the only thing Boorstin was wrong about, eh? (My grad students & I just read Past Imperfect by Peter Hoffer, so just last week I was thinking a lot about Daniel Boorstin, someone who just doesn’t come up a lot in my intellectual life except when I read that book.)


  6. As someone who did not know Beeman, I’m loving these stories. And I wonder if we’ve lost a bit of the theatrical approach to lecturing that he appears to have had. I certainly don’t ham it up in the classroom, and I don’t think any of my colleagues do either….(Not meaning to change the subject, but just an observation.) I don’t think we’re as idiosyncratic either.


  7. Beeman’s dramaturgic turn, it should be noted, was modest and modulated in scope in the larger scheme of his teaching and public exposition of history, although described by all observers, including an appreciative obituary today in the _Philadelphia Inquirer_. At the opening seminar of the McNeil Center this afternoon, the paper presenter, Kathy Brown, his colleague at Penn, noted that Rick moderated her first paper at the old Philadelphia Center, perhaps twenty-five years ago, with care and precision. He was neither aloof nor immune to the flow and ebb of “new” histories that shaped his years in the academy. In 1977 he made an early and nuanced effort to summarize and evaluate the explosion of “community studies” that launched the “New Social History” tsunami of that decade [_American Quarterly_, 29 (Autumn 1977), 422-443]. Seven years later his _Evolution of the Southern Backcountry_, a product of his scholarly connection with Rhys Isaac, as Randolph Scully notes above, took that mostly northeastern subgenre and methodology into the interior Virginia-Carolina borderland frontier. All that said, political and constitutional history were his genuine calling. The _Inquirer_ obituary reports that there will be a memorial service for Rick on Monday, September 26, at the National Constitution Center, of which he was a trustee, at 525 Arch Street, Philadelphia, at 5:30 p.m.


  8. I have such fond memories of Rick when I was putting together our documentary “Liberty & Slavery: The Paradox of America’s Founding Fathers’. He was so gracious to us with his encyclopedic knowledge of America’s founding era. We shot 43 interviews for the documentary and Rick’s ended up being my favorite. Not only was he vital to the story but when another location for his interview fell through, he offered up his own house for the interview. Of course, he was brilliant in the interview. He was indeed a very likable and accomplished man.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Its Christmas Day, December 25th, 2018. I am in Bradenton, Florida with my companion dog, Otto, sitting on the porch in a bundle of ‘long and long’ with a hot cup of Ovaltine in hand. Chilly evenings and wonderfully crisp mornings stimulate many of us here in Florida to adjust our life styles in ways that bring new challenges to knotty knees, not so spry ankles and calves, and, Oh! those stiff vertebrae! Up late on Christmas Eve, roaming the house with my two copies of Rick’s great book, Plain Honest Men, tucked under arm, I decided to do some checking on an unsure detail that would certainly be verified up in Phillie. Long to short, my computer search brought me to the sad discovery of Rick’s obituary which has left me hollow all this night. The morning is less joyous, the Ovaltine less sweet, my heart less enamored by the beauty of this splendid days beginning. Rick and I had many shared interests and when we spoke it was always fun, always diverse, always enlightening, always too short! We never physically met yet we knew each other and knew the order of things. He was both my mentor and friend. Although six years my senior and far more accomplished, we did similar work in different arenas, with the same zest and passion. We shared a similar love of the learning and teaching of history. Well over a decade ago, he learned of one of my presentation aspects and gave me great encouragement to expand and enliven my creative work to motivate middle schoolers to higher levels of participation and enjoyment of ‘learning’, of history, of science. He always knew how to target in on the heart of a problem, to get me on the right track, to lift my spirits, to encourage me to pursue new creative programs, and to stand tall in the face of persecution from various sources. Through my American History Series, I am often rejected by school administrators for my recitation of the Declaration of Independence, The Gettysburg Address, and portions of the Constitution. Much like Rick would do for his students, I go to schools in period costume with realia materials to stimulate my audiences with a taste of ‘the moment’. Rick’s advice and encouragement always got me where I needed to be. For that I have been forever grateful and am so glad I got to express my appreciation to him directly, even if only by phone. Now on this Christ and family focused day, I am remembering him with that special affection of a colleague, with that acceptance and regret over an immutable loss, and the delayed mourning for a friend I may never meet. His writings and his voice have been so valuable, so enriching, so personal, that as I clutch these two books to heart I know we shall still be connected forever. It is a very different Christmas for me this year! Goodbye, my friend!


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