Beginning the "Businessman", Our Glorious National Heritage

Many Historians, One Myth

Or, How Many Beards (er, Ritters) Does It Take to Make George Washington a Businessman?

#BizManBook Research Note #3

A crowd of bearded white men, wearing black hats and holding american flags. (AI art created via DALL-E)

I mentioned in my last post that many of the arguments Sol Bloom’s arguments in his essay “Washington the Businessman” were first published – at enormous and tedious length – in Halsted Lockwood Ritter’s book, Washington as a Business Man (New York: Sears Publishing Company, Inc., 1931).[1]    

Ritter is a curious figure. His moonlighting as an early national historian is not his greatest claim to fame – not by a long shot. An Indiana boy who moved to Miami to make money as a Republican lawyer, he found his way into the judiciary via an appointment from the businessman’s president, Calvin Coolidge. Ritter’s time on the bench was notable for the expanse and creativity of his graft and corruption. His corruption stunk badly enough that he managed to make himself the fourth person to ever be successfully removed from office through impeachment – the Senate convicted him in 1936 of “bringing the judiciary into disrepute.” (Can you imagine? How quaint!)

But he’s also notable for another coincidence, a bit closer to my historiographical heart. Halsted Ritter was the brother of Mary Ritter Beard. Yes, that Mary Ritter Beard: prolific Progressive historian, and partner to the similarly productive Charles Austin Beard – who famously argued in An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States that the framers were a cabal of anti-democratic capitalists, and the Constitution their effort to put property over people. 

Even more interesting, the first historian to attempt to write a history of “the business man” was Miriam Beard – Mary and Charles’s daughter, and Halsted’s niece.[2] And how did Miriam Beard think about Washington’s connection to business? Well, pretty much in the same way her uncle and parents did:

It seems possible that the extended Ritter-Beard clan might be responsible for shifting public understanding of Washington, and other founders – and in the process also elevating the “businessman” to the status of main character in American history. Something of an irony, given the Progressive politics of many of the family’s members…

[1] Sol Bloom, “Washington the Business Man,” in Honor to George Washington and Reading about George Washington, ed. Albert Bushnell Hart (Washington, D.C.: United States George Washington Bicentennial Commission, 1932), 131-45. Note, however that Ritter’s earlier publication does not necessarily mean he originated these ideas, or this argument; Bloom had been working on the Bicentennial Commission since the mid-1920s, it’s entirely possible he had come to his conclusions earlier, had prior communication with Ritter, or even that the two collaborated. More research will tell…

[2] Miriam Beard, A History of the Business Man (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1938).