Samuel H. Beer, Authority on British Government, Dies at 97

Historians in the News

Samuel H. Beer, a leading American expert on British government and politics who was a longtime professor of government at Harvard and who led the liberal organization Americans for Democratic Action from 1959 to 1962, died April 7 at his home in Washington. He was 97 and lived in Washington and Cambridge, Mass.

The death was confirmed by his wife, Jane K. Brooks. For 30 years, Mr. Beer taught “Western Thought and Institutions,” a legendary course that combined history, political theory and comparative government, to generations of Harvard undergraduates. In the wider world, he was known for several books on politics and government in Britain and the United States noteworthy for their timeliness and the elegance of their arguments.

In his first book, “The City of Reason” (1949), he articulated a liberal political philosophy based on the ideas of Alfred North Whitehead. It was followed by “Treasury Control” (1956), a study of how the British government coordinates financial and economic policy, and the highly regarded “British Politics in the Collectivist Age” (1965), an inquiry into the conflict between conservative and radical impulses in postwar Britain.

In 1982, as Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s government gathered steam, he published “Britain Against Itself: The Political Contradictions of Collectivism.” He later turned his attention to American political theory in “To Make a Nation: The Rediscovery of American Federalism” (1993)....
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Sheldon M. Stern - 4/22/2009

I was fortunate enough to be a teaching fellow in Sam's legendary course from 1964-1968. It is simply impossible to briefly sum up his towering personality, intellect, and integrity.
He was active and sharp to the end. In our last email exchange, just weeks before he died, he talked with typical clarity about the prospects for the Obama administration. He was simply the finest human being I have ever known.