When I first read historian Charles A. Beard’s excellent book, An Economic Interpretation of the American Constitution, it was forty-six years old and now more than a century after its publication it still stands like a rock. I first read it while I was taking an elective course on the Constitution at Baylor University. It, along with some of the Federalist essays, was included in a list of suggested additional readings. In his book, Beard quoted from some Federalist essays as did the instructor of my Constitution class, a law professor. And in my work on this book I developed a new appreciation for these essays. All three of us, historian, law professor, and student, were especially interested in Federalist 10, James Madison’s important and brief (3,000 word) essay. Our mutual interest sprang from our inquiring minds—we wanted to know what the Framers did and why they did it.
Beard said that he based his book on the political science of James Madison. He said that Madison summarized his personal political ideas with utmost precision in one passage in Federalist 10. Beard included an abridged version of that passage in his book, but I am including it in full. Here it is in James Madison’s own words:
As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed. As long as the connection subsists between his reason and his self-love, his opinions and his passions will have a reciprocal influence on each other; and the former will be objects to which the latter will attach themselves. The diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate, is not less an insuperable obstacle to a uniformity of interests. The protection of these faculties is the first object of government. From the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property, the possession of different degrees and kinds of property immediately results; and from the influence of these on the sentiments and views of the respective proprietors, ensues a division of the society into different interests and parties.
The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society. A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good. So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts. But the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society. Those who are creditors, and those who are debtors, fall under a like discrimination. A landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a mercantile interest, a moneyed interest, with many lesser interests, grow up of necessity in civilized nations, and divide them into different classes, actuated by different sentiments and views. The regulation of these various and interfering interests forms the principal task of modern legislation, and involves the spirit of party and faction in the necessary and ordinary operations of the government.
Here is what Beard said about Madison’s political theory:
Here we have a masterly statement of the theory of economic determinism in politics. Different degrees and kinds of property inevitably exist in modern society; party doctrines and “principles” originate in the sentiments and views which the possession of various kinds of property creates in the minds of the possessors; class and group divisions based on property lie at the basis of modern government; and politics and constitutional law are inevitably a reflex of these contending interests. Those who are inclined to repudiate the hypothesis of economic determinism as a European importation must, therefore, revise their views, on learning that one of the earliest, and certainly one of the clearest, statements of it came from a profound student of politics who sat in the Convention that framed our fundamental law.[i]
Beard was very clear. He said that Madison and the other Framers designed the Constitution to protect and possibly improve their personal economic interests. And Madison himself, in the quotation above, said men in general have a variety of economic interests and the “principal task of modern legislation” is to regulate these “various and interfering interests.” I can only add that this regulatory task goes beyond legislation and includes the executive and judicial branches as well. In short, our lives, to a great degree, are consumed in the getting, the spending, and the keeping of money, and the government that the Framers designed plays a major role in these activities. Beard believed that our government favors the upper classes over the lower. I agree.
Beard was very thorough in his analysis. He begins by discussing the three methods of historical interpretation of the Constitution—the first is that divine powers guided the Founding Fathers; the second is that they were carrying on an Anglo-Saxon tradition, and the third rejects interpretation altogether and simply recites facts. The first two obviously have no merit, and the third is of no use. He described the third method of interpretation this way:
Such historical writing, however, bears somewhat the same relation to scientific history which systematic botany bears to ecology; that is, it classifies and orders phenomena, but does not explain their proximate or remote causes and relations.
Beard’s early-twentieth-century English is less difficult than that of the Framers, but he does use some words that are not commonly used today. One of the most important of these is “personalty.” It is defined as property that is not real estate, not “realty.” We might call it personal property today, but it does include bonds, cash deposits, and the like. It is important to Beard’s discussion because many of the Framers had considerable sums in personalty.
In the second chapter he talks about the different groups of Americans who had economic interests that could be affected by changes in law, and therefore could be affected by the new Constitution. These groups are:
The Disenfranchised: “the slaves, the indented servants, the mass of men who could not qualify for voting under the property tests imposed by the state constitutions and laws, and 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.”
Real Property Holders: small farmers, who were widespread, landed proprietors who were the manorial lords of the Hudson valley region, and the slaveholders of the South.
Personal Property Holders: people who held cash, securities, income from manufacturing and shipping, and speculators who held land in the West.
Beard’s basic idea is that these groups all had a serious economic interest in the details of the new Constitution. In the third chapter he asserts that all of these groups were already adversely affected by the government in force in 1787 when the Constitution was written. Therefore, he says, they would naturally hope that things would go better under the new government. In fact, it seems to me that it would be perfectly natural for any citizen who had a hand in designing the new government to want to see his interests protected and possibly improved.
In the fourth chapter Beard explains that the men who became delegates to the constitutional convention were chosen by the state legislatures. This fact, coupled with the fact that there were property requirements for voting (and only males could vote), meant that the greater part of the population would be excluded from a chance to send a representative to the convention. This exclusion is a theme that runs throughout the thinking of the wealthy elite classes of the time, and is an important part of our republic. In short, the government at that time was only for a limited class of men.
In the fifth chapter, Beard lists the economic interests of fifty-three of the delegates to the constitutional convention. He then reorganizes the list of names to show which of these delegates shared economic interests. In other words he was pointing out where economic voting blocs might arise.
In the sixth chapter he shows how specific elements of the Constitution would be of economic interest to the various delegates. For example, he reminds us of the portions of the Constitution that protected slavery in the states where it already existed. This protection certainly diminished any uncertainty that the slaveholder might have had with respect to his greatest asset, his slaves.
In the seventh chapter, he lists the political inclinations of more than forty of the convention delegates. And he drew an interesting conclusion, to wit: the authors of the Federalist essays, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison, collectively represented the political philosophies of the delegates. Some of those delegates, such as James Wilson, were very democratic and wanted the people to have a say in the new government. Roger Sherman, on the other hand, said that the people should have as little to do as possible with the new government.
In the eighth chapter, he discusses the process of ratification. Even though the constitutional convention was called by Congress acting under the Articles of Confederation, the ratification process was different from that prescribed for amending the Articles. As one might expect there were unhappy citizens in almost every state. But the new Constitution was ultimately ratified.
In the ninth chapter, Beard looks closely at the vote on the Constitution. He makes the point that the people did not vote on the document, and therefore it is not accurate to say that “we the people” ordained the Constitution. Rather the document was drafted by a wealthy, carefully selected group of leaders from the various states, and the people were on the outside looking in. The people were excluded from having any meaningful voice on individual portions of the Constitution; the whole thing was done by one up or down vote.
In the tenth chapter, he traces how various economic interests voted on the Constitution. His conclusions are as you might expect. Those citizens who stood to gain the most from the new government worked the hardest for its ratification. Those who were opposed derived their antipathy from the fact that their economic interests were not protected or improved. In short, the vote fell along economic lines. Those who got an economic advantage voted for it, the others voted against. This might be fine if all of the people had been allowed to participate in the design of the Constitution and had been allowed to vote “yes” or “no” on its ratification.
In the eleventh chapter, Beard summarizes the discussion held in the various states in reaction to the ratification. And, in closing, he draws the following overall conclusions. Here is what he said:
At the close of this long and arid survey—partaking of the nature of catalogue—it seems worthwhile to bring together the important conclusions for political science which the data presented appear to warrant.
The movement for the Constitution of the United States was originated and carried through principally by four groups of personalty interests which had been adversely affected under the Articles of Confederation: money, public securities, manufactures, and trade and shipping.
The first firm steps toward the formation of the Constitution were taken by a small and active group of men immediately interested through their personal possessions in the outcome of their labours.
No popular vote was taken directly or indirectly on the proposition to call the Convention which drafted the Constitution.
A large propertyless mass was, under the prevailing suffrage qualifications, excluded at the outset from participation (through representatives) in the work of framing the Constitution.
The members of the Philadelphia Convention which drafted the Constitution were, with a few exceptions, immediately, directly, and personally interested in, and derived economic advantages from, the establishment of the new system.
The Constitution was essentially an economic document based upon the concept that the fundamental private rights of property are anterior to [come before] government and morally beyond the reach of popular [democratic] majorities.
The major portion of the members of the Convention is on record as recognizing the claim of property to a special and defensive position in the Constitution.
In the ratification, of the Constitution, about three-fourths of the adult males failed to vote on the question, having abstained from the elections at which delegates to the state conventions were chosen, either on account of their indifference or their disfranchisement by property qualifications.
The Constitution was ratified by a vote of probably not more than one-sixth of the adult males. It is questionable whether a majority of the voters participating in the elections for the state conventions in New York, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Virginia, and South Carolina, actually approved the ratification of the Constitution.
The leaders who supported the Constitution in the ratifying conventions represented the same economic groups as the members of the Philadelphia Convention; and in a large number of instances they were also directly and personally interested in the outcome of their efforts.
In the ratification, it became manifest that the line of cleavage for and against the Constitution was between substantial personalty interests on the one hand and the small farming and debtor interests on the other.
The Constitution was not created by “the whole people” as the jurists have said; neither was it created by “the states” as Southern nullifiers long contended; but it was the work of a consolidated group whose interests knew no state boundaries and were truly national in their scope.
I find nothing to disagree with. Charles Beard was right—the Constitution was designed to protect and improve the economic interests of the Framers and others of their class. Many historians agreed with Beard, and for a while, his views were ascendant. But myths, when they are widely held, and even though they are false, nevertheless are often stronger than truth, and with the help of time and a few historians the myth finally prevailed. Henry Steele Commager was one of those historians, and he did not agree with Beard’s analysis. In December of 1958, he published an essay in American Heritage magazine entitled “The Constitution: Was It an Economic Document?” Like other critics, Commager did not challenge Beard’s data or most of his analysis. He said:
The correctness of Beard’s analysis of the origins and backgrounds of the membership of the Convention, of the arguments in the Convention, and of the methods of assuring ratification, need not be debated. But these considerations are in a sense, irrelevant and immaterial. For though they are designed to illuminate the document itself, in fact they illuminate only the processes of its manufacture.
So, Commager, unable to puncture the thorough scholarship of Beard, looked for another way to defeat his thesis. He declared that Beard’s work was merely about a sideshow, not really about the main event of the constitutional convention. He dismissed the political philosophies of the delegates as well as their economic interests as “immaterial,” and he gave no weight to the uncontested fact that the bulk of America’s citizens had no representation at the convention or at the ratification proceedings. Commager was slipping into myth. The Framers were not saints, for as Madison said in Federalist 51, “If men were angels no government would be necessary.” Not only did the Framers think a new government was necessary they were in a rush to put it in place. And because they were merely human it is safe to assume that they would take into account their own economic interests. It is impossible to believe that the delegates would create a government that would destroy their holdings and their futures. It is easy to believe that they thought very carefully about their personal economic welfare. Commager then tried to frame the question in the following way:
Here are two fundamental challenges to the Beard interpretation: first the Constitution is primarily a document in federalism; and second, the Constitution does not in fact confess or display the controlling influence of those who held that “the fundamental private rights of property are anterior to government and morally beyond the reach of popular majorities.
These two points are distinctions of no significance. In the first challenge, of course the Framers were concerned with federalism. But this concern was primarily created because of the economic tensions among the various sections, states, and groups. Each state, each section, each financially-connected group of the nation had economic interests and those interests were, in many cases, congruent with the interests of the Framers themselves. So, federalism included economic protections and benefits for each section, state, and each represented group, and those same protections and benefits accrued to the delegates from those states and sections. In fact, those delegates were actually the authors, the designers, the creators, as well as the beneficiaries of those protections and benefits. In other words, federalism was merely a convenient structure for satisfying the economic interests of all who were represented.
But, and this is an important but, Beard pointed out, and Commager did not challenge, that the economic interests of all citizens were not represented at the constitutional convention. Some citizens were disenfranchised. They were denied a seat at the table even though they were the majority of the people. If some of their interests happened to fall within the circle of the small group of men engaged in designing the Constitution, then so much the better, but if not, they had no recourse.
Commager was willing to give some ground, but:
Now it will be readily conceded that many, if not most, of the questions connected with federalism were economic in character. Involved were such practical matters as taxation, the regulation of commerce, coinage, western lands, slavery and so forth. Yet the problem that presented itself to the framers was not whether government should exercise authority over such matters as these; it was which government should exercise such authority—and how should it be exercised?
He completely misstates Beard’s thesis. Beard did not say that the question was “whether the government should exercise authority over such matters.” Beard agreed with the Framers. He said that the question was how government would exercise authority over such matters. And, Beard’s answer to the question of how was to show that the methods chosen were those that protected and possibly improved the economic circumstances of the Framers themselves. The Framers had a problem—they wanted to protect their economic interests—and they designed a political solution to that problem.
When Commager began to discuss his second challenge, that the Constitution itself does not show any sign that it was designed to protect economic interests, he said this:
Mr. Beard makes amply clear that those who wrote the Constitution were members of the propertied classes, and that many of them were personally involved in the outcome of what they were about to do; he makes out a persuasive case that the division over the Constitution was along economic lines. What he does not make clear is how or where the Constitution itself reflects all these economic influences.
But Beard did do what Commager said he did not do. Beard did show “how or where the Constitution itself reflects all these economic influences.” Commager must have overlooked Beard’s “Chapter 6, The Constitution as an Economic Document.” Beard devoted approximately 10,000 words to an explanation of the various ways in which the Constitution’s various articles and clauses were designed to protect the economic interests of the Framers and others of their class. Beard ended his Chapter 6 with this paragraph:
To carry the theory of the economic interpretation of the Constitution out into its ultimate details would require a monumental commentary, such as lies completely beyond the scope of this volume. But enough has been said to show that the concept of the Constitution as a piece of abstract legislation reflecting no group interests and recognizing no economic antagonisms is entirely false. It was an economic document drawn with superb skill by men whose property interests were immediately at stake; and as such it appealed directly and unerringly to identical interests in the country at large.
In addition, Commager, never a businessman, failed to understand what has become all too clear in our era, and that is that businessmen, men of commerce, want to limit government intrusion into their dealings as much as possible. But when there is an advantage to be gained by government intervention, the affected businessmen want to control the form and timing of that intervention—they want to write the necessary legislation to suit themselves. This process has become commonplace in our national and state governments, and it was made possible by the way that the Framers designed the Constitution.
Finally, having left not even a mark on Beard’s edifice, Commager returned to myth—he summoned “American Exceptionalism” to his cause. He quoted “the dashing young Charles Pinckney of South Carolina,” who said:
The people of this country are not only very different from the inhabitants of any State we are acquainted with in the modern world; but I assert that their situation is distinct from either the people of Greece or of Rome.[ii]
Even if Pinckney was right, or even if he was “dashing,” his words had nothing whatever to do with Beard’s argument. Beard did not belittle the people of America. He merely was trying to explain the motives of the Framers. It is not sinister to have motives. I have motives. You have motives. I tried to explain my motives at the beginning of this book, and those motives, expressed in years of work, have resulted in this book. The Framers had motives and those motives led them to produce our Constitution, and that Constitution has produced varying effects upon the people.
[i] Charles A. Beard, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States, p14, Location 199, Kindle Edition.
[ii] I do not know if Pinckney was an authority on ancient Greece, but it is well-documented that he owned slaves and worked them on his plantation. His father-in-law, Henry Laurens, earned great wealth as a partner in Austin and Laurens, the largest slave-trading house in North America. Obviously slavery was of great financial importance to Pinckney, and as Beard argues, he worked very hard to protect his financial interests. I cannot imagine why Commager quoted Pinckney except to say that he must not have known Pinckney’s background.