Biography and History

James Montgomery Beck was born in Philadelphia on July 9, 1861. Raised in a Moravian home, he graduated from the Moravian College and Theological Seminary in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania in 1880. Despite his father's wish that he become a minister, he pursued a legal career. After an apprenticeship in law he was admitted to the bar in 1884 and entered the law office of William F. Harrity, a prominent Pennsylvania Democrat, with whom he formed a law partnership in 1891. Admitted to the bar of New York City in 1903, and in 1922 to the bar of England, he rose to be one of America's leading corporate lawyers.

Like many others, Beck combined his legal career with a career in public service. He served as Assistant United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania 1888-1892, and as United States Attorney 1896-1900. Although he started out as a “Cleveland Democrat,” he joined the Republican Party in 1900 and was subsequently appointed Assistant Attorney General by President William McKinley. In this capacity, he became involved with litigation concerning the government's regulatory powers, which reflected the wish of the late McKinley and early Theodore Roosevelt administrations to assist the American business community. Beck resigned in 1903, when he joined the New York law firm of Shearman and Sterling. He continued his law practices in New York, Philadelphia and Washington until 1921. In that year President Warren G. Harding, whose election Beck had actively promoted, appointed him Solicitor General of the United States. He resigned in 1925, briefly returned to his law practice and then was elected as a Republican to Congress in 1927, to fill the vacancy caused by the resignation of James M. Hazlett. Reelected three consecutive times, he resigned in 1934, disillusioned with the “Rubber Stamp Congress” and his inability to fight the measures of the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration, which conflicted with his individualism and constitutionalism, and his principles of limited government and laissez-faire.

Beck shared his ideals and political beliefs in numerous speeches and publications. Having many personal contacts in England, he felt very strongly about the Allied cause and was one of the first Americans to make a case for the Entente, the alliance between Great Britain, France, and Russia prior to World War I. His most famous book, The Constitution of the United States (1924), sold over fifty thousand copies, including translations in German and French. As a Congressman he was the leading spokesman in the campaign against Prohibition, but he tried to fight the principles and legislation of the New Deal. He continued this fight after his resignation, and his book Neither Purse Nor Sword, about the destruction wrought by the New Deal upon the Constitution, appeared five months after his death. His biographer, Morton Keller, portrayed him as a passionate man, who felt deeply about anything he engaged in, but who, disillusioned with post-war society, venerated the past. One of the most eloquent orators of his time, James Beck helped shape the political views of the Republican Party. In a changing society, he died in political isolation in April 1936 and was later remembered as the often lonely defender of conservatism's great beliefs.

Beck was a devoted member, and later President, of the Philadelphia Shakespeare Society from 1913 until his death. He married Lilla Lawrence Mitchell in 1890, and had a son and a daughter, James Montgomery Beck, Jr. and Beatrice.

See: Morton Keller, In Defense Of Yesterday. James M. Beck and the Politics of Conservatism, 1861-1936, (New York, Coward-McCann, 1958).

Source: From the finding aid for MC007

  • James M. Beck Papers. 1787-1936 (inclusive), 1880-1936 (bulk).

    Call Number: MC007

    The James Beck papers consist primarily of correspondence, articles, addresses and scrapbooks which document Beck's career as lawyer, Assistant United States Attorney, United States Attorney, Assistant Attorney General, Solicitor General of the United States, a Republican member of Congress, author, and public speaker.