Charles Beard & progressive legal historiography.

Author:White, G. Edward
Position::Centennial of Charles Beard's 'Economic Interpretation of the Constitution'

Last year marked the 100th anniversary of the publication of Charles Beard's An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution. When Beard's work first appeared it was generally well received in academic circles, but precipitated an outpouring of protests from members of the general public, including former President William Howard Taft and the then newspaper publisher Warren G. Harding. (1) In the next several decades, however, Beard's claim that those who framed the Constitution were "immediately, directly, and personally interested in" the outcome of their labors at Philadelphia, and were to a greater or lesser extent economic beneficiaries from the adoption of the Constitution, (2) was regarded in historical circles as the best explanation of the framers' motivation. But by 1968 Richard Hofstadter had concluded that "Beard's reputation stands like an imposing ruin in the landscape of American historiography." (3) In the end, Hofstadter believed, Beard "geared his reputation as a historian so closely to his political interests and passions that the two were bound to share the same fate." (4)

Hofstadter characterized Beard, along with Frederick Jackson Turner and Vernon Parrington, as scholars who "explained the American liberal mind to itself in historical terms," who "gave us the pivotal ideas of the first half of the twentieth century," and who "seemed to be able to make American history relevant to the political and intellectual issues of the moment." (5) They were "Progressive" historians.

In this essay I want to explore the characterization of Beard as a "Progressive" historian, because I believe that most influential scholarship in legal and constitutional history from the time Beard's Economic Interpretation appeared through the 1960s, and beyond, shared Beard's "Progressive" perspective. I begin the essay by describing what Hofstadter found deficient in Beard's approach, and how those criticisms reflected the dominant perspective of framing-era historians by the late 1960s. I then turn back to "Progressive" legal and constitutional historiography itself, outlining its central features and starting premises, which were far closer to those of Beard than to those of his historian critics in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Next I discuss another line of criticism of Beard, one that surfaced on the initial publication of his Economic Interpretation, and chart the response to that criticism by scholars who adopted a "Progressive" approach. Finally, I seek to explain why a "Progressive" perspective on American legal and constitutional history, despite its obvious deficiencies, retained its scholarly influence for so long.

Hofstadter had initially been influenced by Beard, finding An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution a book "of profound and decisive importance" "[f]or those of us who came of age in the 1920's or 1930's." (6) But by the 1960s Hofstadter had become disaffected with Beard's approach. The problem, for Hofstadter, lay in Beard's insistence that "[t]here is a dynamic relation between interests and ideas, in which the workings of interests can never be left out of account." (7) Although Hofstadter acknowledged that as a "general proposition ... ideas and interests [were] somehow associated," (8) he concluded that treating ideas as inseparable from interests led to several difficulties.

One was that "ideas ... will somehow be dissolved and that we will be left only with interests on our hands." (9) Hofstadter harbored a "suspicion that Beard ... [was] looking for a way to explain ideas on the assumption that when they were satisfactorily explained they would be properly subordinated." (10)

Another difficulty was that "interests will be too narrowly construed," resulting in "too much emphasis [upon] the motives and purposes of individuals and groups, not enough on the ... limitations imposed on men by particular historical situations." (11) Beard did "not seem to have recognized," Hofstadter maintained, "that the way in which men perceive and define their interests is in some good part a reflex of the ideas they have inherited and the experiences they have undergone." (12) Ideas, for Hofstadter, were invariably "repositories of past interests [that] ... present ... claims of their own that have to be satisfied." (13) Beard's treatment of "ideas, ... moral impulses, [and] cultural forces that could not be closely tied to economic origins" was, Hofstadter concluded, "often quite inept." (14)

In sum, Beard's "ideas-interests formula" led him "to leave out ... the whole area of experience in which ideas and interests are jumbled to a degree that the effort to divorce and counterpose them becomes an artificial imposition [on] the realities of history." (15) In Hofstadter's view "the central, formative, shattering, and then reintegrating experience of civic life" for the "generation of the Founding Fathers" was "the Revolution," "which ... galvanized their inherited store of ideas." (16) Beard's account of the Constitution missed "the moving force of the Revolutionary commitment." (17) For Hofstadter, Beard's choice to emphasize the "sweep of economic forces" not only made him "far less interesting as a historian of ideas," (18) it caused him to characterize the relationship between the American Revolution and the framing of the Constitution in too simplistic a fashion.

The passages previously quoted from Hofstadter's critique of Beard reveal that his primary concern with Beard's methodology was what it left out. By insisting that there was an indissoluble connection between interests and ideas, Beard's approach invited the conclusion that interests, in the end, drove ideas, so that ideas eventually disappeared as a force of causal weight in history. As applied to the generation that framed the Constitution, this conclusion appeared counterintuitive. The central theme of the framers' historical experience, Hofstadter believed, was the Revolution, by which he meant not just the war for American independence but the whole complex of ideas and events that inclined British colonists in America, over the last half of the eighteenth century, to consider separating themselves from the British Empire and establishing a new nation with a republican form of government.

Hofstadter found it hard to credit that the "Revolutionary experience" would not have shaped the framing of the Constitution, which was drafted only 11 years after the Declaration of Independence. But Beard's approach, by insisting that the Constitution was created by persons who perceived their economic interests as being threatened by egalitarian and redistributive impulses associated with the Revolution, "[lost] touch with the moving force of the Revolutionary commitment." (19) Beard "seems to have thought of men," Hofstadter suggested,

as simply perceiving their interests and then, rather naturally, drifting into the acceptance or the use of ideas that would further them. He does not seem to have recognized ... that the way in which men perceive and define their interests is in some good part a reflex of the ideas they have inherited.... (20) By the time Hofstadter's critique of Beard appeared, a line of scholarship emphasizing the singular importance of republican ideas to the framing generation was beginning to gain prominence. Bernard Bailyn's The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution was published in 1967; Bailyn's The Origins of American Politics in 1968; and Gordon Wood's The Creation of the American Republic in 1969. In 1972 Pauline Maier's From Resistance to Revolution provided more detail on the evolution of ideas that influenced advocates for American independence, and in 1975 J.G.A. Pocock's The Machiavellian Moment, a culmination of work that had begun in the early 1960s, traced the "radical" ideas about sovereignty and governance endorsed by American separatists to English antecedents. In 1972 Robert Shalhope concluded that a new historiographical "synthesis," highlighting the importance of republican theories of government in the revolutionary and framing decades, had emerged. (21) In that "synthesis" there seemed little room for Beardian interpretations. Wood observed that "[i]t seems obvious by now that Beard's notion that men's property holdings, particularly personalty holdings, determined their ideas and their behavior was so crude that no further time should be spent on it." (22)

Wood's comment suggested that to the extent that the "republican synthesis" literature dominated historians' conceptions of the framing era, Beard's work on the framers would be dismissed. But the "republican synthesis" literature eventually came to be seen by some scholars as monocausal or reductionistic, (23) and in 2003 Robert McGuire produced a "new economic interpretation of the United States Constitution" that employed statistical and econometric analysis (24) in the course of arguing that supporters of the Constitution tended to own public and private securities and to live close to navigable waterways. (25) So perhaps we need to take a fresh look at Beard.

My effort here is to look again at Beard through lenses first supplied by Hofstadter: to see Beard as one of the first of a group of twentieth-century scholars who revolutionized the study of American legal and constitutional history, and whose influence is in some respects...

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