Samuel H. Beer, Harvard Political Scientist and Author, Dies at 97

By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Samuel H. Beer, 97, a Harvard University political scientist who specialized in the government and politics of Great Britain and also was a theorist of American federalism, died April 7 at his home in Washington of congestive heart failure. He also had a residence in Cambridge, Mass.

Dr. Beer spent about 40 years at Harvard and became chairman of the government department before retiring in 1982. Several of Dr. Beer's many books were about Britain, including his influential "British Politics in the Collectivist Age" (1965), a study of the ideological evolution of Britain's three largest political parties.

British political scientist Michael Moran, writing in a 2006 issue of British Politics, called Dr. Beer "probably the most distinguished foreign scholar of our system of government in the 20th century."

His book, published in Britain as "Modern British Politics," became a widely read textbook in British universities. "There can hardly be a political scientist in Britain over the age of 40, including myself, who did not first start to grasp British politics through Beer," Moran wrote.

Dr. Beer's best known book about the American system of governance was "To Make a Nation: The Rediscovery of American Federalism" (1993). A history of the underlying ideas of American federalism, "To Make a Nation" found antecedents in sources as varied as St. Thomas Aquinas, John Milton and David Hume, as well as Alexander Hamilton and James Madison.

Dr. Beer the political theorist occasionally became the political partisan. In 1935 to 1936, he worked on the staff of the Democratic National Committee and occasionally wrote speeches for President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He became chairman of the liberal advocacy organization Americans for Democratic Action.

In the 1980s, he critiqued the "new federalism" under President Ronald Reagan. He told the New York Times in 1982 that Reagan's efforts to shift power from Washington to state and local officials seemed an abdication of responsibility for "one of the standard, classic functions of the central government in any system -- to do a little evening up among regions."

Called to testify before the House Judiciary Committee during the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, he told lawmakers that they were obligated to consider the will of the people before taking the grave step of removing a president. By twice electing Clinton, the American people had spoken, Dr. Beer maintained, and Congress had no reason to countermand their judgment.

Samuel Hutchison Beer was born July 28, 1911, in Bucyrus, Ohio. He received his undergraduate degree from the University of Michigan in 1932 and was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University's Balliol College from 1932 to 1935. He visited Germany during that period and would later write about how a civilized democracy could succumb to Nazism.

He was a police reporter for the New York Post and a writer at Fortune magazine before receiving his doctorate in political science from Harvard in 1943. During World War II, he served as an Army artillery captain and stayed on afterward as part of the U.S. military government in Germany.

Returning in 1946 to his teaching duties at Harvard, he developed an approach to comparative government that relied on the interwoven insights of political, social and economic theory. In retirement, he became the first Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. Professor of American Politics at Boston College.

In 2002, he was named a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, where he did research on the formulation of a new public philosophy. He was working on a book review and remarks for a conference a few weeks before his death.

Dr. Beer's first wife, the former Roberta Reed, died in 1987. A son, William Beer, died in 1991.

Survivors include his wife of 20 years, Jane Kochmann Brooks of the District and Cambridge; two daughters from his first marriage, Katherine Swingly Beer of Cambridge and Frances Fitzgerald Beer of Toronto; two stepdaughters, Alison Brooks of the District and Camilla Brooks of New York; nine grandchildren; and a great-grandson.

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