Ideas that matter: parting thoughts on Charles Beard on the 100th anniversary of An Economic Interpretation.

AuthorLowe, Jessica K.
PositionCentennial of Charles Beard's 'Economic Interpretation of the Constitution'

Charles Beard's work presents an irony. On the one hand, Beard's An Economic Interpretation is known to historians, especially historians of America, as the epitome of a certain type of work: one that sees "interests"--or more precisely, economic interest--as the primary human motivation in history. (1) Beard's book, although discarded in many of its particulars, is still influential for its perspective: an unrelenting insistence that the American founders were motivated not by lofty ideals (or even not-so-lofty ones) but by their certificates and bonds and pocketbooks; as G. Edward White puts it, Beard "invited the conclusion that interests drove ideas." (2) On the other hand, despite this emphasis on interest, Beard was, like his Progressive contemporaries, a bit of an idealist himself. As Ajay Mehrotra reminds us, Beard saw the goal of all thought as a search for "truth"; while he certainly ravaged the "crowned constitution and its halo," Beard did so because, in his words, "the seeker of truth must be fearless." (3)

This irony evokes the full significance of An Economic Interpretation. The book's brilliance is not in its writing--in its repetitive analysis or in its catalogue of persons and personalty--but rather in its moral force--its muckraking (4)--which casts aside popular and scholarly constitutional veneration to expose a rank, self-interested underbelly. Beard, as Richard Drake relates, was spurred on by his experiences at Oxford and deeply interested in the education of and support for the working man; he considered pursuing a career as an activist as well as a scholar, and ultimately "sought to do both." (5) As a scholar, Beard was indignant indignant--about constitutional veneration, yes, but even more about the way the "sacred" Constitution had been made a cover for "every great national sin--from slavery to monopoly." (6) If the Constitution was the national temple, Beard was turning over its moneychangers' tables. This radical speech act, rather than the content of the work, is his signal contribution to the historiography of the United States.

After the publication of An Economic Interpretation in 1913, a full generation of historians debated Beard's accuracy. They sifted through the framers' yellowed account books, local court records, and centuries-old ruminations on state, government, and politics to dispute his claims, arguing about the inaccuracy of his reduction of their work and ideas to mere self-interest. (7) By 1968, as White relates, historian Richard Hofstadter could describe Beard's legacy as an "imposing ruin." (8) Beard and his Progressive critique of the Constitution (along with the Progressive ideas of "science" that shaped it) yielded ground to a new generation of historians, focused on ideology and the distinctively "republican" worldview of the founding generation, one fused from a conglomeration of English sources, Enlightenment and religious thought, and colonial experience, and one which put forth its own imperatives for behavior, like virtue and self-restraint. (9) On the whole, the republican worldview that this "ideological school" portrayed was a different "mental world," as Jonathan Gienapp puts it, from our own, one which scholars working in this vein saw themselves as translating. (10) In the process, they shattered the notion that a universality of motivations united the American founders with subsequent generations--and that those motivations could be reduced to a single factor, rational self-interest.

Of course, despite long hegemony, the ideological school itself came under threat. One attack came from neo-progressives, developing Beardian themes and exploring the framers' economic motives; another focused, also in a Beardian vein, on the relationship between the Constitution and slavery." But the principal challenge was from the turn towards broader, transnational history--from new, self-consciously distinct paradigms that emphasized empire and the Atlantic world, or international history. (12) Eventually the point of studying...

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