He was born in Waterloo, Iowa. He enrolled at the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 1893 as an undergraduate, and while there gradually gained an interest in studying history. Remaining on for graduate work, Becker studied under Frederick Jackson Turner, who became his doctoral adviser there. Becker got his Ph.D. in 1907. He was John Wendell Anderson Professor of History in the Department of History at Cornell University from 1917 to 1941. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1923.
Becker died in Ithaca, New York.
Cornell has recognized his work as an educator by naming one of its five new residential colleges the Carl Becker House.
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