2020 Great Immigrants Recipient

Sven Beckert
Professor of American History, Harvard University
Born in:

Born in Germany, Sven Beckert wanted to be a historian ever since he was a child. After studying history, economics, and political science at the University of Hamburg, he came to the United States to pursue his graduate studies in the late 1980s. His PhD thesis in history at Columbia University explored the formation of the bourgeoisie in 19th-century New York City. Initially planning to return to Europe after completing his degree, Beckert decided to stay in the U.S. “Academic life at the university was more open than what I had been used to in Germany. It was faster, more cosmopolitan, and offered more variety,” he recalls.

Beckert is the author of the widely acclaimed Empire of Cotton: A Global History (2014), in which he argues that cotton was vital in helping launch the Industrial Revolution. The work documents the exploitation of the millions of slaves, mill workers, and others whose labor made King Cotton possible, while illuminating the continual shortcomings of global capitalism. Among other honors, Empire of Cotton won the Bancroft Prize, was named one of the 10 most important books of 2015 by the New York Times, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for History. Beckert’s is also the author of The Monied Metropolis (2001) and coeditor of Slavery’s Capitalism: A New History of American Economic Development (2016).

Beckert is the Laird Bell Professor of History at Harvard University, where he teaches the history of the United States in the 19th century, with an emphasis on capitalism. He is cochair of the Program on the Study of Capitalism at Harvard University and cochair of the Weatherhead Initiative on Global History. Beckert is also the coeditor of “America in the World,” a series of books from Princeton University Press bringing together a new generation of scholars whose work is informed by “attention to networks, identities, and processes that transcend the nation-state.” He is a past Cullman Fellow at The New York Public Library Fellow and Guggenheim Fellow.

In 2007 and 2011, Beckert collaborated with a group of undergraduate students to examine the historical connections between Harvard University and the institution of slavery, including how Harvard benefited from endowments connected to the slave economy while also working to stifle debates about slavery and abolition. The resulting publication, Harvard and Slavery: Seeking a Forgotten History, propelled other efforts to examine and address the legacy of slavery at the university. As Beckert wrote in his introduction to the project, “We want to inspire others to dig deeper into this history, but even more so we want to encourage a broader debate on what this history means for us today.… It is the community as a whole that needs to decide what needs to be done.”