Charles Beard, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution (1913)
IB History of the Americas Mr. Clarke
Charles Beard (1874-1948) is widely regarded as one of
the two most influential American historians of the early 20th century. While Beard published hundreds of monographs, textbooks and interpretive studies in both history and political science, he is most widely known for his radical re-evaluation of the Founding Fathers of the United States, whom he believed were more motivated by economics than by philosophical principles. As a leader of the “Progressive School” of historiography, he introduced themes of economic self-interest and economic conflict regarding the adoption of the Constitution. His study of the financial interests of the drafters of the United States Constitution, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution, seemed radical in 1913, since he proposed that the U.S. Constitution was a product of economically determinist, land-holding founding fathers. He saw ideology as a product of economic interests.
The Economic Interests of Members of the Convention
A survey of the economic interests of the members of the Convention presents certain conclusions:
A majority of the members were lawyers by profession.
Most of the members came from towns, on or near the coast, that is, from the regions in which personalty [population] was largely concentrated.
Not one member represented in his immediate personal economic interests the small farming or mechanic classes.
The overwhelming majority of members, at least five-sixths, were immediately, directly, and personally interested in the outcome of their labors at Philadelphia, and were to a greater or less extent economic beneficiaries from the adoption of the Constitution.
1. Public security interests were extensively represented in the Convention. Of the fifty-five members who attended no less than forty appear on the Records of the Treasury Department for sums varying from a few dollars up to more than one hundred thousand dollars…
It is interesting to note that, with the exception of New York, and possibly Delaware, each state had one or more prominent representatives in the Convention who held more than a negligible amount of securities [bonds], and who could therefore speak with feeling and authority on the question of providing in the new Constitution for the full discharge of the public debt…
2. Personalty invested in lands for speculation was represented by at least fourteen members…
3. Personalty in the form of money loaned at interest was represented by at least twenty-four members…
4. Personalty in slaves was represented by at least fifteen members…
It cannot be said, therefore, that the members of the Convention were ‘disinterested.’ On the contrary, we are forced to accept the profoundly significant conclusion that they knew through their personal experiences in economic affairs the precise results which the new government that they were setting up was designed to attain. As a group of doctrinaires [people concerned with political philosophy or ideology]… they would have failed miserably; but as practical men they were able to build the new government upon the only foundations which could be stable: fundamental economic interests.
-Charles A. Beard, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution (1913)
1) Summarize Beard’s main argument about the U.S. Constitution.
2) How does Beard portray the “Founding Fathers” wrote the Constitution?
3) Is it surprising to you that the participants in the Constitutional Convention came from this type of background?
4) Are there any parts of the Constitution that seem to reflect the self-interests of its writers? If so, what parts?
5) Might Beard’s emphasis on economic causation (or even determinism) be related to the period in which he wrote this book? Explain.