Pulling punches: Charles Beard, the propertyless, and the founding of the United States.

Author:Sparrow, Bartholomew
Position:Centennial of Charles Beard's 'Economic Interpretation of the Constitution'

The economic historian Charles A. Beard has been an immensely controversial figure. Generations of scholars have argued over his writings, debated their meanings, and, ultimately, contested their legacy. Most notably, he has been excoriated for his thesis in An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States, in which he argues that in the process of drafting and ratifying the Constitution of the United States, the federalists, composed of "merchants, money lenders, security holders, manufacturers, shippers, capitalists, and financiers" (i.e., those Beard identifies as the significant holders of "personalty"), triumphed over the interests of the "debtors and farmers," smaller landholders, and persons of moderate wealth. (1) Criticisms of Beard's evidence and argument have cumulatively weakened but not fundamentally upended the claim in An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States ("Economic Interpretation" hereafter) that the establishment of the United States Constitution of 1787--and therefore of the United States--was effected so as to secure the assets of wealthier Americans, especially persons in finance and commerce and those with extensive land holdings. (2)

The argument here is that the defect in Beard's thesis may be the opposite from that voiced by his critics: it is not that Beard overplays his hand, but that he understates his case. Namely, that he neglects the implications that follow from his insufficient attention to the propertyless. Early in Economic Interpretation, Beard brings up and then essentially siderails further discussion of an entire class of Americans who had clear and pressing economic interests of their own in a new national government: the Euro-Americans who had no property (to be distinguished from African American slaves and free blacks or the "civilized" American Indians who paid taxes).

On the second page of Economic Interpretation, Beard writes of the "transported felons and indented [sic] servants" who came to America, and refers to the scholarship of the historian James Davie Butler on the British convicts exiled to America. (3) He also cites the scholarship of A.M. Simons, who writes of the large numbers of Irish who emigrated to America, and of the "three classes of 'white slaves'" brought over in colonial times to be "sold to the colonists for a term of years": (1) indentured servants; (2) transported convicts; and (3) kidnapped men, women, and children. (4) Beard further draws on the research of John R. Commons (5)--a personal friend--who reports that the population of indentured servants and transported felons constituted half of the Europeans who emigrated to colonial America, that German indentures constituted a large share of the class of indentured servants, and that many of the Scots in Ulster forced off their land went to America. (6)

It is not that Beard wholly omits this class. Early on in Economic Interpretation he identifies four distinct economic groups at the Founding, the second and third of the groups constituting the class of impoverished Euro-Americans. However, he restricts his study to persons who were legally indistinguishable. He explains these several groups of persons at the Founding

whose economic status had a definite legal expression: [1] the slaves, [2] the indented [sic] servants, [3] the mass of men who could not qualify for voting under the property tests imposed by the state constitutions and laws, and [4] women, disenfranchised and subjected to the discriminations of the common law. These groups were, therefore, not represented in the Convention which drafted the Constitution, except under the theory that representation has no relation to voting. (7) Beard concedes that he cannot determine the extent of this disenfranchisement and legal discrimination and he observes that there was no working-class "consciousness" of any kind. He acknowledges, too, that Hamilton and the other Founders "dismissed" what he identifies as "the coming industrial masses." But rather than discussing this class, Beard spends the remainder of Economic Interpretation focusing almost entirely on the differences and divisions among "the social groupings within the politically enfranchised mass," without "legal distinctions." (8)

This omission was calculated. Beard wrote Economic Interpretation primarily for his contemporaries, as Richard Hofstadter observed in Progressive Historians. Hofstadter frames the Progressive Era by examining the works of Turner, Beard, and Parrington as part of an intra-generational discussion. (9) Beard's intended audience would have known the scholarship of the day and were familiar with his references. Historians of the period would thus have recognized the Butler source as the only existing attribution of a comment on convicts by George Bancroft. Butler recounts a conversation he had with Bancroft about transported felons, one where Bancroft admits, "he had been very economical in dispensing the truths he had discovered. Having a handful, he had opened only his little finger." (10)

The implications of such admissions should not be dismissed, since Bancroft's multi-volume History of the United States from the Discovery of the American Continent was a landmark work of scholarship and made him one of the most important historians of the nineteenth century. Thus when Beard specifically references Butler's quotation of Bancroft, Beard is thereby acknowledging the existence of this class of poor Americans, as well as recognizing their minimized legacy.

Yet Beard does not then investigate the existence or implications of this population of bound laborers, of former indentured workers and exiled convicts who had finished their terms of service, and of their descendants. Instead, he effectively sets aside this class of "indented servants," "white slaves," and formerly bound workers since this population was not represented at the convention in Philadelphia or at the ratification conventions in the states. Later in Economic Interpretation, Beard mentions the disenfranchisement of those with minimal or no property when he discusses the property qualifications for voting within the states. In virtually all of the rest of the book, however, he focuses on how the delegates at the Constitutional Convention were foremost concerned with and divided among those of little property, those with different kinds of property, or those who were either debtors or creditors. His analysis is of how the two broad classes of economic interests that were represented politically and were not discriminated against legally shaped the political economy of the new United States.

The first part of this article reviews the origins and circumstances of this class, where more recent research has confirmed Butler's, Simon's, and Common's findings that this class did constitute an important, if marginalized category of colonial Americans, persons rejected by both the British authorities and by American colonial elites. Persons of this class would comprise the unruly mobs occupying colonial towns and cities, would serve in the Continental Army, and, often, would flee into the Appalachians and beyond--into what from 1763 to 1783 remained British North America; only later, under President Andrew Jackson, would most of this class become enfranchised.

The second part of this article considers the role of this class in the Founding and how the presence of this class influenced the text of the Constitution and other Founding documents--even as this population is ignored by most studies of the origins and development of the Founding. The third part shows that Beard's limited treatment of this lowest class of Euro-Americans was consistent with his background, his view of history, and his other writings.


    For many Europeans who came to the New World, America was not a land of opportunity or the occasion for a new beginning--contra the American myth. Many of them came as bound labor, filling the demand for farm workers, craftsmen, tutors, domestic help, and other occupations. These persons constituted the majority of unfree labor in the 17th century and first decades of the 18th century. Not until the latter half of the 18th century did African slavery become the principal component of forced labor. All told, approximately half of all Europeans emigrating to British North America came over as bound labor in some form, whether as indentured servants, political exiles, or transported felons. (11)

    The dominant category of bound labor consisted of persons who lacked the ability to pay for their trans-Atlantic passage, thus they arrived as indentured workers. (12) They signed contracts in England (or elsewhere in the British Isles or on the Continent) that would then bind them to several years' service--four to seven years, typically--in exchange for their transport to America. Ship captains held most of these contracts, and they would sell the indentured servants upon arriving in American ports. (13)

    The other chief category of bound labor was that of exiled convicts. Convicts were the first to be used as forced labor at the for-profit Jamestown Colony. With too many "gentlemen" and too few servants, the Jamestown Colony "appealed to the mayor of London" in 1609 "to rid the city of its 'swarme of unnecessary inmates' by sending to Virginia any who were destitute and lying in the streets." (14) The mayor obliged, shipping the criminals (and some of the indigent) to America. (15)

    Despite the different origins of these two groups, colonial Americans treated the indentured servants and exiled convicts as a single class, in effect, and considered them a separate caste. (16) Over time, the proportion of bound labor composed of indentured servants and exiled felons fell, as African slavery supplanted Euro-Americans as the principal form of forced labor. Masters had every incentive to overwork their servants, to...

To continue reading