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James M. Beck

  • Moravian Alumnus Class of 1880
  • Congressman and Authority on the US Constitution
  • Internationally Known Lawyer

James Montgomery Beck (1861-1936):

James M. Beck

The Honorable James Montgomery Beck was born in Philadelphia in 1861. He was raised a Moravian and attended Philadelphia Episcopal Academy. He was then sent to Moravian College and Theological Seminary for further education. He received his A.B. in 1880. His father, a music publisher, hoped Beck would feel called to the ministry, Already an excellent speaker given to a grandiloquent style, J.M. Beck decided to seek a career in law. He passed the bar in 1884 and began a successful law career. He also developed a deep interest in politics that persisted until his death.

Though he started out as a committed Democrat, the Populist leanings of the party of the 1890s led him to become a conservative Republican in 1900. A few months later, he was called to be the Assistant Attorney General of the United States in the McKinley administration.

At the onset of World War I, Beck became the chief proponent of America's involvement in the war, proclaiming the nation's moral obligation to the Allied cause. He became a national celebrity in England, giving frequent speeches on the topic. At the end of the war, he campaigned against the League of Nations.

He was appointed Solicitor General of the United States during the Harding and early Coolidge administrations, but he had already begun to feel that the political system was disintegrating. He saw the rise of a mechanized society in America as an inevitable death knell to business standards and morals and as the triumph of the State over the individual soul. He proclaimed all of these sentiments in his frequent speaking engagements at many civic organizations and institutions, including several addresses at Moravian College.

In 1920, at the age of fifty-nine, he was elected a congressman from South Philadelphia and went on to fight for the principles he had espoused for a quarter century--Constitutionalism, individualism and laissez-faire. His eloquence against Prohibition, in spite of the Republican Party's division over the issue, was rewarded when the 18th Amendment was repealed in 1933.

His joy was short-lived, however, for the Great Depression had descended upon America. Leaving Congress in 1934, Beck gave strong speeches against New Deal policies and even argued cases against the New Deal in the Supreme Court. He struggled to find a conservative Republican presidential candidate and platform for the 1936 election. All this activity took its toll on the nearly seventy-five year old Beck. On Easter Sunday, April 12, 1936, he died suddenly of a coronary thrombosis. In its lengthy obituary, The New York Times declared James Montgomery Beck "one of the foremost authorities on the Constitution."

Beck Hall:

Beck Hall was built in 1979 as a residence hall. The hall was renovated in 1995.