Beard & uber-Beard.

Author:Graber, Mark A.
Position:Centennial of Charles Beard's 'Economic Interpretation of the Constitution'

Once upon a time, respectable scholars thought lead could be converted into gold, worried that educating woman harmed their offspring, and maintained that the purpose of the Constitution of the United States was to enrich the framers. A conference marking the anniversary of the publication of such works as Le Livre des figures hieroglyphiques (1) or Sex in Education (2) would spend considerable time explaining why previous generations were foolish. The thesis of Charles Beard's An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States presently enjoys approximately the same status as alchemy and medical misogyny. "Today," Richard Hofstadter wrote in 1968, "Beard's reputation stands like an imposing ruin in the landscape of American historiography." (3) Gordon Wood states, "Beard's notion that men's property holdings ... determined their ideas and their behavior was so crude that no further time should be spent on it." (4) The question of the day is whether Beard and An Economic Interpretation are worth studying for reasons other than historic interest.

The overriding conclusion of the symposium is that Charles Beard lives in contemporary scholarship in ways that Nicolas Flamel and Edward H. Clarke do not. Some commentators celebrate the continued vitality of An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution. They recognize that Beard was wrong on many specifics, but insist that Beard's emphasis on economic interests provides a foundation for scholarship that uncovers deeper truths about American constitutional development and contemporary American constitutional politics. Still others regret what they perceive to be the continued vitality of Beardian themes in contemporary constitutional scholarship. In their view, contemporary scholars miss or mischaracterize distinctive features of American constitutional law and politics by remaining too harnessed to Beard's economic determinism.

The papers below highlight how over the past half century the debate over An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution has been transformed from a controversy over Beard to a controversy over "uber-Beard." Beard was an historian who claimed in An Economic Interpretation that elite economic self-interest explained the movement for the Constitution of the United States, the distinctive features of the Constitution of the United States, and why the Constitution of the United States was ratified. (5) Beard's later works relied on a similar economic analysis to explain numerous episodes in American constitutional development. (6) Uber-Beard refers to those Progressive and New Deal scholars who regard various economic interests as the central force in American constitutional development. The scholars who celebrate uber-Beard do so because they believe this focus on interests garners important descriptive insights into and has valuable normative consequences for American constitutional development. Those who worry about the continued influence of uber-Beard are less pleased with the impact of progressive-style social science research, insisting that the over-emphasis on interests unduly discounts the independent influence of ideas on American constitutional development in general and on the particular ways ideas structure those interests that Beard and other scholars thought were the prime movers of constitutional politics.

For most of the twentieth century, historians disputed whether Beard correctly identified the political movements that contested the Constitution in the late 1780s and the motives participants in that struggle had for supporting or opposing ratification. Beard insisted that economic elites structured debate during the framing and ratification conventions. An Economic Interpretation concluded,

The movement for the Constitution of the United States was originated and carried through principally by four groups of personality interests which had been adversely affected under the Articles of Confederation: money, public securities, manufactures, and trade and shipping. .... The members of the Philadelphia Convention which drafted the Constitution were, with a few exceptions, immediately, directly, and personally interested in, and derived economic advantages from, the establishment of the new system. (7) By the late 1960s, a strong scholarly consensus developed that Beard was mistaken in his class analysis of the founding era. Robert E. Brown raised sharp questions about Beard's empirical methods. (8) Forrest McDonald's survey of nearly two thousand framers "found that the differences in the[] property holdings" of Federalists and Anti-Federalists "were negligible." (9) Debate continues over whether some measure of economic status explains the difference between late eighteenth-century proponents and opponents of the Constitution. (10) Nevertheless, no contemporary scholar claims that Beard in 1913 correctly mapped the lines of conflict.

Beard remains vital because his social scientific approach to constitutional history and the ways in which he sought to demystify the framing have numerous contemporary champions and critics. Beard was a committed "economic determinis[t]" (11) who believed that political and constitutional developments were structured by fights over property. An Economic Interpretation contended, "class and group divisions based on property lie at the basis of modern government; and politics and constitutional law are inevitably a reflex of these contending interests." (12) Ideas and ideologies, in Beard's view, were rooted in class position and were not independent casual influences on human behavior or political development. He criticized previous constitutional histories for "[t]he absence of any consideration of the social and economic elements determining the thought of the [framers]." (13) Beard believed this hard-headed approach to constitutional history knocked the framers off their nineteenth-century pedestals and onto ordinary political terrains. In sharp contrast to some previous histories that saw James Madison and friends as working out the divine will, (14) Beard insisted that proponents of the Constitution were part of a political movement that was no different in kind or motivation than any other political movement that sought to influence American constitutional development. He wrote, "The Constitution was of human origin, immediately at least, and it is now discussed and applied by human beings who find themselves engaged in certain callings, occupations, professions, and interests." (15) While Beard claimed this observation packed no political punch, (16) the bottom-line message of An Economic Interpretation was that contemporary progressives should imitate the framers by interpreting the Constitution in light of the policies that they thought best served their interests rather than imitate the framers by interpreting the Constitution as adopting the policies the framers thought best served the framers' interests. The 1935 edition of An Economic Interpretation concluded,

It is for us, recipients of their 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?" By refusing to do this we become victims of history--clay in the hands of its makers. (17) The An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution that remains controversial was the first prominent work that studied the Constitution of the United States by employing or purporting to employ modern social science methods. Constitutional studies before Beard tended to be hagiographic and focused on the timeless ideas the author believed motivated the framers. George Bancroft, the most influential constitutional historian of the nineteenth century, interpreted the framing in light of "the movement of the divine power which gives unity to the universe, and order and connection to events." (18) Beard anticipated much political science scholarship of the post-World War II era by emphasizing how constitutional forms and practices were more often consequences of interest group politics than the theoretical ruminations of "straight-thinking" men. (19) By focusing on the Constitution's origins as a means to satisfy particular late eighteenth-century interests, Beard opened the door to reflection on whether the Constitution ought to be reformed in light of present interests. (20)

Contemporary reactions to Beard and An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution are rooted in reactions to the ways in which social scientists began to treat the Constitution and American constitutional development during the Progressive Era. Many papers in this symposium are uber-Beardian, even as they question Beard's particular thesis. These essays insist the hunt for the interests that structured the Constitution remains vital. That search, the authors claim, reveals important insights into American constitutional development that may influence contemporary theories about the authority and proper interpretation of the Constitution. Other papers in this symposium question both Beard and uber-Beard. These essays contend that Beard and his contemporaries led social scientists and their legal allies down mistaken paths that continue to distort research on the American constitutional experience. Beard still lives, each essay makes clear, though whether continued resurrection or reinterment is the appropriate response remains contested.


    Richard Drake, Ajay Mehrotra, and G. Edward White place Beard and uber-Beard in their historical contexts. Each locates Beard's work at the birth of twentieth-century social science. Drake looks at the English roots of Beard's approach to history. Mehrotra examines how Beard was shaped by and shaped the first modern social science departments at Columbia University. White details Beard's influence on Progressive...

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