Charles Beard was born in Knightstown, Indiana, on 27th November, 1874. As a student he joined the Hull House social settlement in Chicago. After graduating from DePauw University, he studied at Oxford University (1898-1900) and while in England he helped establish Ruskin Hall, a free university offering evening and correspondence courses for working class people.
Beard met Mary Ritter while at DePauw University together. The couple married in the United States in 1900 before moving back to England. The Beards lived in Oxford and Manchester, where they became close friends of Emmeline Pankhurst and her two daughters, Christabel Pankhurst and Sylvia Pankhurst. At the time the women were members of the socialist reform group, the Independent Labour Party. They were also active in the National Union of Women Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) but later formed the more militant Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU).
Beard returned to the United States in 1904 to teach history at Columbia University. Beard and his wife were involved in several progressive political campaigns including women's suffrage and an end to child labour. During this period he was a regular contributor to the journal, the New Republic.
He became a well-known academic figure with his book An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (1913). In the book he controversially argued that those men who had drafted the American Constitution acted more on economic motives than for abstract ideals. He followed this with The Economic Origins of Jeffersonian Democracy (1915). During this period Beard developed the idea that for historians "objectivity was a noble dream". Instead, Beard believed that his role as a historian was to "provide the tools for progressive social change".
During the Red Scare in 1919, Archibald Stevenson of Military Intelligence, leaked a government list of 62 people believed to hold "dangerous, destructive and anarchistic sentiments" to the press. This list included the names of Beard, Jane Addams, Lillian Wald and Oswald Garrison Villard. It was also revealled that these people had been under government surveillance for many years.
Beard was never able to secure an academic appointment again and was forced to live off his writings and a diary farm he owned in Connecticut. Working with his wife, Mary Ritter Beard, he wrote a two volume history of the United States, The Rise of American Civilization (1927). This was followed by America in Midpassage (1939) and The American Spirit (1942). The couple also collaborated on A Basic History of the United States (1944).
Although a supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, he was very critical of his foreign policy. This was reflected in his books, American Foreign Policy in the Making: 1932-1940 (1946) and President Roosevelt and the Coming of War (1948). Charles Beard died in New Haven, Connecticut, on 1st September, 1948.