Using Beard to overcome Beardianism: Charles Beard's forgotten historicism and the ideas-interests dichotomy.

Author:Gienapp, Jonathan
Position:Centennial of Charles Beard's 'Economic Interpretation of the Constitution'

Charles Beard's An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States is no different than many scholarly classics--controversial, jarring, accessible, victim to the abuses and appropriations of speed-readers, and claimed as the original influence for several different (and sometimes competing) scholarly movements. As with all classics, too, Beard's book makes for fresh reading. No matter how defensive Beard's remark was that "[p]erhaps no other book on the Constitution has been more severely criticized, and so little read," (1) when one brushes aside the intervening appropriations and interpretations that have succeeded it and reads it anew, the work has an enduring ability to surprise. One feature that might surprise is the historicist impulse, which, however buried beneath classic statements of economic determinism, was there all along.

Historicists come in many shapes and sizes, but they tend to believe that the substance of human thought and action (beliefs, values, and motivations) are historically constituted and, thus, are not universally fixed in all people in all times and places. (2) Historicists de-naturalize processes, revealing how certain descriptions and practices that might appear essential or inevitable were, in fact, contingent historical creations. Historicism is a methodological or philosophical posture in this regard more than a topic of study; plenty of non-historians are historicists while plenty of historians study the past without commitment to historicist principles. (3) These latter historians tend to assume that some set of universal imperatives (be they motivations lurking deep in human nature or imperatives of an unchanging external world) help explain past human conduct. As such, Beard, a self-described economic determinist, would not seem an obvious candidate for the historicist label. Accordingly, his historicism has been easy to miss. Rather than dwell on the historically and culturally contingent context in which America's constitutional framers operated, Beard centered on the economic interests they brought to the project, interests that seemingly transcended the particularities of the historical moment.

Subsequent historians of the American Revolution and Constitution only underscored these aspects of Beard's work. Beard's economic determinist approach, and what seemed to accompany it, helped spawn, as is well-known, the "progressive" school of the American Revolution, an approach that, similarly to Beard, tended to interpret the Constitution as a conservative bulwark against popular democracy orchestrated by the propertied classes. (4) Whatever important differences remained, those who contributed to this interpretive orientation were either increasingly linked with Marxist approaches to human inquiry or themselves consciously endorsed that linkage. Consequently, Beard's account of the Constitution has often been explained by reference to materialist social theories of the nineteenth century. As Peter Novick wrote in his widely read work on objectivity and the development of the American historical profession in the twentieth century, Beard's "crude reduction of Marxism to economic determinism," directly "informed ... An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States." (5) These intellectual commitments seemed to explain what had led Beard to see political ideologies as superstructural rhetoric obscuring the play of real economic self-interest lurking beneath (a classic Marxist formulation). "The theories of government which men entertain are emotional reactions to their property interests" is how he himself put the matter. (6)

When historians some half-century or so after Beard came to acquire a new appreciation for ideology and its importance, Beard's account of constitutional creation played the convenient foil to this emerging focus. Scholars like Bernard Bailyn, Gordon Wood, Edmund Morgan, Jack Greene, John Phillip Reid, and so many others took as their starting point the profound differences separating the mental world of the eighteenth century from that of today and thus took their task to be systematic acts of conceptual translation through which alone the Revolution and its enduring political and legal embodiment (the Constitution) might be understood. (7) And they either consciously or implicitly built their accounts in contradistinction to what Beard seemed to have advanced. This tendency was only compounded as neo-progressive historians, who arose in response to this ideological reorientation of the founding era, began reviving some Beardian themes. (8)

Emphasizing economic interest is not irreconcilable with historicism. But Beard was an avowed universalist who believed that timeless material interest explained human behavior no matter differences across space or through time. As he himself wrote, "it has seemed to me, and does now, that in the great transformations in society ... economic 'forces' are primordial or fundamental, and come nearer 'explaining' events than any other 'forces.'" (9) Consequently, suggesting that Beard was a historicist might seem far-fetched. It is not just because the observation might seem strikingly perverse that I raise it. It is also not to rescue Beard from reductionist labels, even if his work contained important elements not easily reconciled with the common determinist portrait. (10) It is because grasping the historicist dimension in Beard, however small and buried, is helpful in overcoming the ahistoricist impulses that, thanks in part to Beard, remain deeply pervasive in historical study in particular and the human sciences more generally. The common thread that has tied together most accounts of the American Revolution and the Constitution's creation has been Beardianism.

Beard's account of constitutional creation has been largely discredited. Yet he remains as vital as ever; whether the implied target of new arguments or inspiration for a new "progressive" account of the Revolution (purified of his missteps and excesses of course), Beard continues to frame much of the conversation. (11) No matter how many years pass or how much new research surfaces, he does not seem to recede permanently into the unknown. The primary reason Beard remains so relevant is because of the pernicious, yet amazingly compelling, distinction between ideas and interests that he did so much to perpetuate. Beard's specific argument has been dismantled, but the Beardian conceptual architecture remains firmly in place, taken for granted at so many turns that its persistent influence remains hard to detect. In other words, one can repudiate Beard (his conclusions) while perpetuating Beardianism (his guiding premises). As long as we continue to think of ideology and interests as categorically distinct and antagonistic, we will all remain Beardians in an important sense.

The lingering and unfortunate appeal of this framing dichotomy is owed in part to the ambiguity that continues to surround ideology and its cognates. Ideology has meant both a set of principles, ideals, or values to which individuals willingly subscribe; or, it has also meant a structured consciousness, a phenomenological perspective that rests at the very bottom of human perception. In the latter instance, the matter would better be described as a culture, a conceptual framework, or a mode of consciousness. (12) This rival version involves little willing subscription, it is not a set of principles or commitments that one chooses. It is a way of organizing one's surroundings and giving them sense, a perceptual mode that precedes the formation of either principles or interests. Just as there could be no beliefs or desires without such a mode (without understanding of how to use available semantic vocabularies to give meaning to the world), there could be no principles or interests. Since there are no pre-perceptual interests, there is certainly no formation or recognition of economic self-interest independent of the semantic conceptual framework that makes it possible. (13)

Beard, of course, did not grasp this point and incorrectly assumed that economic interests were innate, universal, and independent of cultural perception. But Beardianism, in its most generic form, remains vital because his failure to grasp the historicist and cultural origins of interests still resonates. (14) As long as we continue to think that ideas, ideologies, or values stand in opposition to interests or the prospect of material gain we will still reside in Beard's world, because those who take ideas seriously will spend much of their time attempting to prove (likely unsuccessfully) that historical speakers were sincere while those who take interests seriously will paint ideas as little more than rhetorical covers, easy enough to brush aside in order to determine what was really going on. The day that we fully realize...

To continue reading