Charles A. Beard & the Columbia School of Political Economy: revisiting the intellectual roots of the Beardian thesis.

Author:Mehrotra, Ajay K.
Position:Centennial of Charles Beard's 'Economic Interpretation of the Constitution'

Since it was first published in 1913, Charles A. Beard's An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution has been a lightning rod of controversy for constitutional scholars and historians. While conservative critics have stressed the text's Marxist elements to castigate Beard's book as an ideological polemic, American progressives have embraced Beard's empiricism as a definitive piece of first-rate, historical scholarship. Despite these varying claims, few scholars have investigated the broader intellectual environment from which Beard emerged and in which An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution was written. Instead, commentators and critics alike have frequently detached Beard's text from its historical context. (1)

Yet to understand better how and why Beard wrote An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution, one must have a sense of the life and times of Charles Austin Beard. This article's central aim is to provide such historical context. Just as Beard sought to historicize the Founders as they drafted and adopted the Constitution, this article seeks to historicize Beard as he researched and wrote his classic text on the Constitution. Because Beard was both a graduate student and professor at Columbia University before and while he researched and wrote his book, this article explores the particular influence that Columbia University's institutional and intellectual climate may have had on Beard and the writing of An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution.

In addressing this research question, this article builds on a vast secondary literature about Beard and his scholarship. Indeed, there are currently more than three dozen books or monographs devoted to Beard and over 300 law review articles that have some significant reference to him and An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution. (2) In addition to synthesizing some of the findings of this vast literature, this article builds in particular on the excellent biographies that have been written about Beard and the outstanding work that political and legal theorists like Clyde Barrow, Pope McCorkle, and others have done to trace the genealogy of Beard's ideas. (3)

In contrast to the existing literature, however, this article attempts to broaden the historical lens in two modest ways. First, in addition to examining the key individual figures who undoubtedly influenced Beard, this article investigates the broader intellectual and institutional context in which he operated. Drawing on my prior research on the prominent early twentieth-century political economists at Columbia University, (4) this article contends that Beard was the product of a unique Columbia tradition of inductive, proto-institutionalist research in political economy--a tradition that at its core sought to meld serious political and historical scholarship with progressive social activism. (5) Most orthodox scholars at this time were frequently engaged in highly theoretical and deductive research in the social and behavioral sciences. By contrast, Columbia political economists were committed to an innovative and pluralistic vision of academic research that emphasized the need for a broader, empirical understanding of how social, political, and economic institutions shaped human behavior. (6)

This article's second contribution is more methodological. Initially, my goal was to explore the archives for any remaining undisclosed nuggets of historical evidence about Beard's aims and intentions in writing An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution. The manuscript collections at Columbia University provide an accurate sense of the cultural climate of that institution at the turn of the twentieth century, and the remaining correspondence that Beard had with his colleagues sheds significant light on certain aspects of Beard's historical methods. But to understand who Beard was before he arrived at Columbia, it was necessary to supplement my prior research with a visit to the Charles and Mary Beard personal papers which are housed at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. (7)

The first contribution--examining the broad intellectual environment at Columbia and how it may have shaped Beard -appeared more promising than the latter objective of finding something interesting in the archives. Indeed, revisiting the secondary sources led to the initial conclusion that searching the Beards' papers might have been a fool's errand. As the existing historiography makes clear, the Beards purposely discarded much of their personal correspondence. In a 1950 letter to historian Merle Curti, Mary Beard acknowledged that her husband had "destroyed some letters, indeed all his letters, a short time before he died." (8) Several years later, after Mary's death, their son William corroborated that his parents "left behind no great wealth of valuable materials besides their printed works." (9)

Still, given that there are roughly a dozen boxes of materials in the Beards' papers, the historian's professional fetish for archival research initially prevailed. Unfortunately, the results were somewhat disappointing. The personal papers are "frankly fragmentary"--a phrase that Beard frequently used to describe his own research. (10) But much of the primary source evidence supports and supplements what we know about Charles Beard and the intellectual and institutional culture that gave birth to his Economic Interpretation of the Constitution. Archival materials, together with the published record, demonstrate that although Beard was not quite a fully formed scholar when he arrived in Morningside Heights, his Columbia experience reinforced and refined rather than reformed the young scholar.

Columbia, in short, facilitated an evolution rather than a transformation in Beard's thinking. His time at Columbia provided him with new scholarly perspectives and research methods, but ultimately these new views heightened his innate tension between scholarly objectivity and political advocacy, between his belief in social scientific research and his desires for social democratic reform. What began as a youthful Midwestern populism and skepticism towards tradition and authority gradually evolved into a more cosmopolitan pragmatism--one that accentuated the provisional nature of constitutional truths and the instrumental use of historical analysis. Simply put, Beard's time at Columbia, as both a student and junior scholar, refined his personal predilections and his early upbringing and education, rather than radically transforming him into a new thinker and writer.

This article proceeds in three parts. Because Beard's early rearing and college education played an important role in his intellectual development, Part I begins with a brief summary of Charles Beard's personal background: his upbringing in central Indiana, his formative education at DePauw University, and his experiences in Oxford, England. Part II turns to the Columbia years and the general intellectual environment of that university during Beard's time there. This section chronicles how and why Columbia University became one of the leading factories of early twentieth-century social science research and scholarship, and how this general culture of innovative, interdisciplinary research and socially engaged scholarship shaped Beard's own work. Part III, then, traces the influence of key Columbia mentors and colleagues on the development of Beard's thinking and research. By synthesizing the existing literature on Beard with new primary source evidence, this last section shows how a particular group of Columbia scholars shaped Beard's ideas. Finally, the article concludes with a summary of how the Columbia "school" of political economy shaped Charles Beard and the writing of An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution." (11)


    Even before Charles Beard arrived at Columbia in 1902 to begin his graduate studies, he was imbued with a hard-headed realism and a rebellious streak that shaped his early thinking and actions. Reared in an affluent Midwestern farm family, Charles learned at a relatively young age about the importance of economic interests, and the links between law, politics, and money. Although his father was "a rock-ribbed Federalist-Whig-Republican," as Beard often noted, Charles and his older brother Clarence were raised in an environment that valued and nurtured practical thinking and nonconformity. (12)

    Many of the lessons Beard learned as an Indiana farm boy resonated with him for decades. Later in his life, when critics were challenging his contention about the importance of economic interests on politics and policymaking, Beard recalled that he had grown up listening to the parlor discussions of Indiana farmers who seemed to understand quite clearly how money and power affected American politics and society. While detached scholars may have thought his ideas and claims were heresy, ordinary Americans, he argued, appeared to understand the central points he was making in much of his writings. (13)

    The everyday parlor discussions that Beard referred to were, of course, a product of their times. Beard, after all, was coming of age during the height of Midwestern, agrarian populism. (14) Although his family's personal wealth extended beyond agricultural holdings, Beard came to understand during his upbringing how modern industrialism was affecting the plight of ordinary farmers, and how populist organizations, like the granger movement, were attempting to challenge existing economic and political powers. (15) Even at an early age, Beard himself had developed the confidence to challenge authority. In 1890, Charles was summarily expelled from his Quaker high school, Spiceland Academy, for helping his older brother produce a pamphlet criticizing the faculty and administrators at nearby Indiana University, where Clarence was a student. (16)


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