Campus & Community

Samuel H. Beer, Harvard scholar, dies at 97

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Samuel Hutchison Beer, the distinguished Harvard political scientist, died in his sleep at the age of 97 on April 7.

For years, Beer was the world’s leading expert in British politics, but he also studied the American political system, and was active in American politics as a lifelong Democrat and chairman of Americans for Democratic Action from 1959 to 1962.

In 1944, Beer fought in the U.S. Army in Normandy, earning a Bronze Star; his peacetime hobbies included rock climbing and skydiving.

Beer was born July 28, 1911, in Bucyrus, Ohio, and graduated from the University of Michigan with a B.A. in 1932. He was a Rhodes Scholar at Balliol College, Oxford, from 1932 to 1935. He received his Ph.D. in political science in 1943 from Harvard. He married Roberta Frances Reed on June 22, 1935.

He worked on the staff of the Democratic National Committee and as occasional speechwriter for President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1935 and 1936. He was a reporter for the New York Post in 1936 and 1937 and a writer at Fortune magazine in 1937 and 1938.

After his wartime duty as captain in artillery, Beer served in the U.S. military government in Germany in 1945. While at Oxford he had traveled to Germany and noticed the rising threat of Nazism; after the war he was able to pursue his interest in the question of how so civilized a country, governed as a democracy, could lose so much.

When he returned to Harvard to teach in 1946, he gave a course on that topic and became the leader of an approach to comparative government that made sense of facts through the ideas of political, social, and economic theory. He began a Harvard course, “Western Thought and Institutions,” that was as much history as political science, and as much political theory as comparative government. He continued this famous course for more than 30 years, to the benefit and admiration of thousands of Harvard students.

Beer’s first book was “The City of Reason” (1949), a study in the tradition of Oxford idealism that sees the reason inherent in human things rather than hovering above and critical of irrationalities. Avoiding the vague complacency of such a view, he launched the thorough study of British politics that made him celebrated in Britain as the man who knew British politics better than the British did. In 1965 he published the book that secured his reputation, “British Politics in the Collectivist Age,” combining an analysis of postwar British socialism with the hard facts of political parties and pressure groups.

His study of American politics was crowned by the publication of his major work, “To Make a Nation: The Rediscovery of American Federalism,” in 1993. In it he stressed the original national purpose behind the idea of states’ rights, often abused to diminish the American nation.

Always a partisan outside but never inside the classroom, Beer took a leading role in opposing the student rebellion of the late ’60s at Harvard, criticizing the politicization of universities. In 1998 he also criticized the politicization of impeachment, testifying to the House of Representatives in the case of President Bill Clinton.

At Harvard, Beer served as the Eaton Professor of the Science of Government from 1971 and was chair of the Department of Government from 1954 to 1958. He received an honorary doctorate from Harvard in 1997. Retiring from Harvard in 1982, and with vitality intact, he moved to Boston College to become the first Thomas P. O’Neill Jr. Professor of American Politics, in part to honor his friend, the former speaker of the House of Representatives. Beer was also elected president of the American Political Science Association in 1977, and was made a fellow of the British Academy in 2000.

Tributes from his Harvard colleagues emphasize his personal qualities.

“His famous course Social Sciences 2 excited and nourished many thousands of minds,” says Stanley Hoffmann, the Buttenwieser University Professor at Harvard.

“His teaching was memorable for the virtue he conveyed in it, and he was as manly a man as a professor can be,” added Harvey Mansfield, Beer’s former student and the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Government at Harvard.

“A person of great moral as well as physical courage, Sam Beer displayed a greatness of spirit that made him larger than life,” said Peter Hall, Beer’s former student and the Krupp Foundation Professor of European Studies at Harvard.

After the death of his first wife, Roberta, in 1987, Beer married Jane K. Brooks in 1989, who survives him. He is also survived by two daughters, Katherine Swingly Beer of Cambridge, Mass., and Frances Fitzgerald Beer of Toronto; and by two stepdaughters, Alison Brooks of Washington, D.C., and Camilla Brooks of New York City.  He also leaves six grandchildren, three step-grandchildren, and one great-grandchild. A son, William, died in 1991.