ince its publication in 1913, Charles Beard’s An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States has sparked controversy. Initially the book was denounced as an attack on the patriotic motives of the framers of the Constitution. In the next two decades the “Beard thesis” settled into intellectual orthodoxy, at least in the worlds of higher education and informed opinion. During World War II and the Cold War, scholars looked more critically on economic interpretations of history, and beginning in the 1950s Beard’s account came under serious attack for its historical inaccuracy, forcing neo-progressive historians to undertake a revisionist project, still going on, to save it from historical oblivion.
Charles Austin Beard was born in 1874, the son of a Quaker father who in 1861 had migrated from North Carolina to Indiana, where he found success as a farmer, banker, and real estate speculator. After graduation from DePauw University, Beard spent four years in England on his father’s dime studying history at Oxford University and indoctrinating himself in trade union politics and Fabian socialist reformism. After marriage to fellow reformer Mary Ritter, he pursued studies in history at Columbia University. He was awarded the doctoral degree in 1908 for his Oxford research on the office of justice of the peace in England and joined the political science faculty. Brilliantly successful and popular as a teacher, Beard in the graduate school and early faculty years increasingly supported himself through income from books, lectures, and investments, including a dairy farm that he purchased in Connecticut. The Beards’ lifestyle in New York City, biographer Ellen Nore observes, “appears to have been founded on the unspoken premise that social change would be neither rapid nor destructive of bourgeois luxuries.”
Following the inclination of his dyed-in-the-wool Republican father, Beard fashioned himself into a reform-minded national progressive Republican. As a graduate student in the School of Political Science, he aligned himself with renowned Progressive scholars Frank J. Goodnow, E.R.A. Seligman, and James Harvey Robinson against the Hegelian-minded conservatives John W. Burgess and Nicholas Murray Butler, president of Columbia University. A scholar-activist, Beard got involved in municipal reform and became editor of the National Municipal Review, a new Progressive journal. In a review of Woodrow Wilson’s The New Freedom, Beard said Wilson addressed “the central problem of American democracy: the distribution of wealth and opportunity,” though in reality his call for a new freedom was a reversion to “that day of laissez faire, long dreamed by philosophers but never quite realized in any social order.” At the same time, Beard concluded that the Bull Moose Republican campaign of Theodore Roosevelt, though offering appealing rhetoric, was politically untrustworthy. It was neither possible nor desirable to break up the trusts and restore effective competition. Nevertheless, he approved the New Nationalism, regarding it as a socialist idea that might be adopted gradually without a revolution.
Madison the Socialist
In 1912 Beard published The Supreme Court and the Constitution, arguing that the founders designed the Supreme Court and national judiciary as a bulwark to protect the solid, conservative, commercial and financial interests of the country. The founders’ aim was “to establish a government that would be strong enough to pay the national debt, regulate interstate and foreign commerce, provide for national defence, prevent fluctuations in the currency created by paper emissions, and control the propensities of legislative majorities to attack private rights.” In taking this position Beard opposed radical critics of judicial review, such as Louis B. Boudin and Gilbert E. Roe, who wanted to strip courts of all putative legislative authority.
The situation was more complicated with respect to the Constitution as a system of republican government in which the people were supposed to be the constituent constitutional authority. Here the methods and nature of control of the organs of government “become the fundamental problem of prime importance—in fact, the fundamental problem in constitutional law.” Beard explained, “The social structure by which one type of legislation is secured and another prevented—that is, the constitution—is a secondary or derivative feature arising from the nature of economic groups seeking positive action and negative restraint.”
In plain language, Beard asserted that the Constitution as public law was not “made out of some abstract stuff known as ‘justice,'” but reflected “determining forces” in the social structure. Separated from the social and economic fabric by which it was conditioned, law “has no reality.” This assumption about law was imported wholesale into his most famous book.
As he put it in An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution, “economic elements are the chief factors in the development of political institutions.” Most surprisingly, Beard claimed that James Madison, in Federalist 10, supported a theory of economic determinism as a principle of constitutional construction. Madison argued that property rights, originating in the diversity of men’s faculties, result in different degrees and kinds of property; unequal distribution of property generates faction; and regulation of the various and interfering economic interests is the principal task of modern legislation. The “spirit of party and faction” is thus involved in “the necessary and ordinary operations of government.” Beard commented: “Here we have a masterly statement of the theory of economic determinism in politics…. [P]arty doctrines and ‘principles’ originate in the sentiments and views which the possession of various kinds of property creates in the minds of the possessors.” Class and group divisions based on property lie at the base of modern government, “and politics and constitutional law are inevitably a reflex of these contending interests.” Beard added that those who “repudiate the hypothesis of economic determinism as a European importation,” will be forced to revise their views on learning that one of its earliest affirmations came from “a profound student of politics who sat in the Convention that framed our fundamental law.”
But linking Madison to socialism was misguided as well as anachronistic. To say the least, Beard’s reading of Madison as an economic determinist contradictedThe Federalist‘s central premise that Americans were deciding the question whether good government could be established from “reflection and choice” or must forever be left to depend on “accident and force.”
Force of Circumstances
The “Beard thesis” argues that the Constitution, which contains no property qualifications, recognition of economic groups, or special privileges conferred on any class, is nevertheless a document grounded in the overpowering sway of economic interests. “The true inwardness of the Constitution,” Beard wrote, was disclosed not in the dry language of the text, but in other sources, especially The Federalist, “the finest study in the economic interpretation of politics which exists in any language.” The Constitution as “an economic document was drawn with superb skill by men whose property interests were immediately at stake.” The “product of deliberate, precise, skillful, and rational calculation,” as Cecilia Kenyon put it in her review of Beard’s book, it was designed to appeal “directly and unerringly to identical interests in the country at large.”
The framers were compelled by force of circumstances to persuade large economic groups that safety and strength lay in the adoption of the new system. Every fundamental appeal was directed to some material and substantial interest: to the people at large, who sought protection against invading armies; to the commercial classes, whose business would be ruined by the follies of the Confederation; and to holders of depreciating federal securities, and creditors seeking relief against paper money. “But above all,” Beard claimed, the authors of The Federalist appealed to “the owners of personalty [i.e., personal property in the form of trading stock, money-at-interest, land held for speculation, war bonds] anxious to find a foil against the attacks of levelling democracy.” The overriding need was to create a government endowed with “certain positive powers, but so constructed as to break the force of majority rule and prevent invasions of the property rights of minorities.” The corollary requirement was “restrictions on the state legislatures which had been so vigorous in their attacks on capital.”
Beard asked bluntly whether the members of the Federal Convention possessed “the kinds of property which were immediately and directly increased in value or made more secure by the results of their labors in Philadelphia?” Did they hold money at interest, own public securities, speculate in western lands, or have an interest in shipping and manufactures? He said his purpose was “not of course, to show that the Constitution was made for the personal benefit of the members of the Convention.” “The only point” was to ascertain whether they represented “distinct groups whose economic interests they understood and felt in concrete, definite form through their own personal experience with identical property rights, or whether they were working merely under the guidance of abstract principles of political science?”
In claiming they knew through personal experience “the precise results which the new government that they were setting up was designed to attain,” Beard attributed to the framers a motive of economic self-interest. How did he ascertain this motivation, or think it could be proved? Although conceding that the most illuminating source on “the economic character” of the Constitution was the record of debate in the Convention, he did not analyze that debate. It was unnecessary to do so because in Beard’s view of the framers’ economic motives were the assumption on which An Economic Interpretation of the Constitutionwas predicated, not a conclusion based on the delegates’ economic opinions and arguments in the Convention. In striking contrast, Beard did consult the record of debate in the Convention in a chapter on the political doctrines of the delegates.
To supply an economic determinist social science research strategy, Beard conceived “an economic biography” of an estimated 160,000 men connected with the framing and adoption of the Constitution. If the study showed no line of property division between supporters and opponents, the Constitution would be shown to have no relation to economic groups or classes, but would be “the product of some abstract causes remote from the chief business of life-gaining a livelihood.” If it was found that economic groups such as money lenders, merchants, and capitalist financiers supported the Constitution, and farmers and debtors opposed it, “would it not be pretty conclusively demonstrated that our fundamental law was not the product of an abstraction known as ‘the whole people,’ but of a group of economic interests which must have expected beneficial results from its adoption?” In the famous central chapter of the book, Beard presented his research findings on the property affiliations of members of the Convention, relative to four kinds of property rights that were adversely affected by the government under the Articles of Confederation.
Upon the book’s publication, Republican notables such as William Howard Taft and Elihu Root attacked it for unpatriotic desecration of the Founding Fathers’ statesmanship. Several scholarly reviews questioned Beard’s thesis on political and economic historical grounds. Beard relished the criticism from politicians, and was undeterred by the judgment of professional peers. In 1917, after a series of conflicts with the university’s conservative administration, he resigned from the Columbia faculty to go on to bigger things as an intellectual reformer-entrepreneur in the United States and abroad. In this period Beard wrote, with Mary Ritter Beard, The Rise of American Civilization (1927) a popular work that applied the seminal economic interpretation to the whole course of American history.
Searching for “a moral standard to which all mankind can repair,” Beard dabbled in the philosophy of history and got carried away with Benedetto Croce’s theory of historical relativism. For his presidential address to the American Historical Association in 1933, he presented a paper entitled “Written History as an Act of Faith.” Explaining the concept of relativism, he said the historian must explore “receding sets of times and circumstances until he confronts an absolute: the totality of history as actuality which embraces all times and circumstances and all relativities.” Beard asserted that the historian, consciously or unconsciously, “performs an act of faith” as to the direction in which the world is moving. His own faith was placed in “the indomitable spirit of mankind” and in collectivist democracy against capitalist or proletarian dictatorship.
Beard wrote a new introduction to An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution in 1935. Admitting his inability to “discover all-pervading determinism in history,” Beard disavowed the Marxian idea that American history could be fully explained in economic terms. He denied having “accused the members of the Convention of working merely for their own pockets,” and said the book “does not ‘explain’ the Constitution” or “exclude other explanations deemed more satisfactory to the explainers.” At the same time he urged Americans, as legatees of the founding heritage, “to inquire constantly and persistently, when theories of national power or states’ rights are propounded: ‘What interests are behind them and to whose advantage will changes or the maintenance of old forms accrue?'”
In the late 1930s Beard strongly opposed FDR’s foreign policy interventionism, isolating himself from liberal Democrats. He moved farther to the right in The Republic: Conversations on Fundamentals (1943), a popular book in which he extolled republican virtues and warned against the danger of unlimited executive power. The struggle between social classes now seemed less significant than the preservation of limited constitutional government. “If we can’t govern ourselves decently,” Beard wrote, “what else matters or can be accomplished?”
The Spell Broken
Beard exercised a dominant influence on the historical profession until his death in 1948. “Then,” as historian John Higham wrote, “the spell was broken. The wizard became a bogeyman,” and historians plunged avidly into revision of the Beard thesis.
The first systematic studies of An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution were written in the 1950s by Robert E. Brown and Forrest McDonald. Both historians tracked Beard’s every word and methodological step, and concluded that the famous thesis was fundamentally erroneous. Brown faulted Beard’s presentism in accusing the framers of anti-democratic animus. He argued that the Constitution was relatively democratic when considered in historical context. McDonald admitted the significance of economic forces in constitution making and replicated Beard’s research protocol. He found the thesis of market-capitalist property interests vs. farmer-debtor paper money interests to be lacking empirical support. Delegates to the ratifying conventions did not vote as consolidated interest groups, and holders of public securities were almost as numerous among opponents of the Constitution as among supporters.
Although liberal and radical scholars acknowledged flaws in Beard’s methodology and conclusions, in the view of political scientist Harold C. Syrett his “overall approach” was sound. To Beard “more than to any other individual, we owe the realization that the Constitution was not created in an economic vacuum.” Carl B. Swisher said “the rough treatment” Beard received did not negate his achievement in bringing the economic question into play in searching for the origins of constitutions, in contrast to “sources in divinity, racial superiority, and in other areas.”
In the 1960s liberal historians sought to refurbish the Beard thesis as the interpretive rationale of American constitutionalism. The Neo-Beardians proposed an economic-geographic interpretation organized around the development of capitalist market relations. Merrill Jensen, noting that Beard’s controversial book had generated more heat than light, posited that the essential division over the Constitution was between cities and nearby commercial farming areas on the one hand, and farmers in the back country on the other. A second front for the revisionists was a different economic issue entirely—paying the debts and establishing the public credit of the United States. That the national government must pay the Revolutionary war debt was universally acknowledged. The question was whether the states or the national government was better prepared to provide a constitutional foundation for national economic development.
From the late 1960s on, the “republican” ideological interpretation of the Revolution and Constitution superseded Beard’s economic determinism. Bernard Bailyn, the preeminent scholar of early American politics, rejected the Progressive interpretation of the Constitution as a Thermidorean reaction to the democratic radicalism of the Revolution, whether “engineered by…a capitalist junta or the proponents of rule by a leisured patriciate.” Beard’s persistent claim that it was not his intent to attack the motives of the framers had never been credible. In the face of mounting criticism of An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution, Gordon S. Wood came to Beard’s rescue, as it were, by shifting the analysis from economic theory to the rhetoric of social status. In The Creation of the American Republic (1969), Wood argued that the Federalist plan for constitutional reform was based on an ideal of republican society in which a patrician class played the role of virtuous and disinterested rulers. He dismissed Beard’s economic history research model as “crude” and useless. Nevertheless, he believed Beard’s view of the Constitution as “in some sense an aristocratic document designed to curb the democratic excesses of the Revolution” was the most helpful framework for understanding the framing and ratification of the Constitution.
Recent work in history and political science focuses on the question of whether the founders’ America is better conceived as an extended federal republic or as a multiplicity of state republics. In post-Beardian scholarship the threat to American independence from internal, interstate anarchy and from European intervention externally is taken seriously. In the view of David C. Hendrickson, “The debate over the Constitution was no longer a controversy between aristocrats and democrats but a structural discourse among states and sections on how best to organize the peace.” Similarly, David B. Robertson in The Constitution and America’s Destiny (2005) depicts pluralistic bargaining over regional, state, and local political and economic interests, on the basis of which a consensus formed in support of the new Constitution.
Should An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution be regarded as a relic of the Progressive theory of economic determinism, or has revisionist scholarship saved the Beard thesis from extinction? Economic theory aside, it is hard to see how the mind and spirit of Charles Beard, who in his own distinctive way was a nationalist, nativist, and American exceptionalist, can be reconciled with contemporary progressive norms of multiculturalism and egalitarianism. It remains to be seen whether, as Brian Balogh, a Beard admirer, puts it, “charismatic leaders like Barack Obama” will be able to “jump-start” the cycle of continued growth of centralized national authority predicted by the “remarkably resilient interpretation of American political development originally crafted by Progressive era activist historians like Charles Beard.”
But this much is clear: the Constitution was never intended to be an instrument of deterministic, progressive ratiocination. In thrall to the doctrine of legal realism, Beard denied the legitimacy and authority of the Constitution as fundamental law. In its original and revised versions Beardian-style history misconceives both the nature and the purpose of the American Founding.