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 in 1893 as an undergraduate, and while there, he gradually gained an interest in studying history. Remaining for graduate work, Becker studied under Frederick Jackson Turner, who became his doctoral adviser there.[1] Becker received 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. Cornell has recognized his work as an educator by naming one of its five new residential colleges the Carl Becker House.


Becker 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 viewsEdit

Interviewed for the pamphlet Writers Take Sides: Letters about the War in Spain from 418 American Authors Becker supported the Spanish Republicans.[3] He also stated his opposition to dictatorship in general.[3]



  • "The temperament, the objects and the methods of a Mussolini, a Hitler, a Stalin represent everything that I most profoundly despise".[3]
  • "Freedom and responsibility." This saying, from a 1943 lecture, has been frequently misquoted.[4] 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".[4]


  1. ^ Carl L. Becker, "Frederick Jackson Turner," in Everyman His Own Historian: Essays on History and Politics. (Quadrangle Books, 1966), pp. 191–232.
  2. ^ "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter B" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved May 29, 2011.
  3. ^ a b c "400 To 1 Against Franco" The Milwaukee Journal, May 17, 1938.
  4. ^ a b

Further readingEdit

  • Breisach, Ernst. "Carl Becker" in Kelly Boyd, ed. Encyclopedia of Historians and Historical Writing, vol 1 (1999) pp 85–86.
  • Smith, Charlotte W. Carl Becker: On History & the Climate of Opinion (1956)
  • Strout, CushingThe Pragmatic Revolt in American History: Carl Becker and Charles Beard (1958)
  • Wilkins, Burleigh T.Carl Becker: A Biographical Study in American Intellectual History (1961)
  • Wilson, Clyde N. Twentieth-Century American Historians (Gale: 1983, Dictionary of Literary Biography, volume 17) pp 57–63
  • Griffes, Milan. The Origin and Development of Carl Becker’s Historiography

External linksEdit