Brian Anton's Reviews > An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States

An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United ... by Charles A. Beard
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Aug 03, 2011

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An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States by Charles A. Beard is a survey of the economics behind the formation and ratification of the United States Constitution. The work, originally published in 1913, gives insight into the demographics of those participating in the Constitutional Convention and theorizes that their socioeconomic status altered the foundations of the Constitution. Beard attempts to prove that the Constitution is the product of the small, upper-class minority of the United States as opposed to the agrarian majority. He states that the framers created the Constitution primarily in order to preserve their own interests thus opposing the popular belief that the framers were creating a truly democratic form of government.

Separated into twelve chapters, Beard's book can be grouped into the five following sections.

Chapter I, titled “Historical Interpretation in the United States” outlines the different types of interpretation used in writing United States history. The first, attributed to Hubert Howe Bancroft, “explains the larger achievements in our national life by reference to the peculiar moral endowments of a people acting under divine guidance” (1). Beard names the second interpretation Teutonic, “because it ascribes the wonderful achievements of the English-speaking peoples to the peculiar political genius of the Germanic race” who set an example for the world by creating “free” government (2-3). The third interpretation, “classifies and orders phenomena, but does not explain their proximate or remote causes and relations” (4). He goes on to suggest a new fourth theory: economic determinism, which he believes has been largely neglected (6). Eventually, Beard goes on to state his thesis in the chapter writing that, “the Constitution – is a secondary or derivative feature arising from the nature of the economic groups” (13).

In Chapter II, “A Survey of Economic Interests in 1787,” Beard examines three major groups. Those who did not have the right to vote: the slaves, the indentured servants, the mass of men who could not qualify under property tests imposed by state legislatures, and women. These groups were not represented in the Constitutional Convention. He goes on to explain that there were two other groups at the time that were allowed vote based on state laws: those with real property and those with personal property. Chapter III, “The Movement for the Constitution” explains the role of social class in the conception of the Constitutional Convention. Those with large capital and personal property, opposed to those with real property, did not benefit from the current Articles of Confederation, and because of the lack of legal channels to secure amendments to it, they decided instead to “revise” the document (63). In Chapter IV, “Property Safeguards in the Election of Delegates” Beard explains that, “the choice of delegates was afforded by the property qualifications generally placed on voters and legislatures by the state constitutions and laws in 1787” (65). The chapter goes on to outline the specific laws that kept those without property from voting and participating in the formation of the new government and eventually in those chosen to represent them in that government.

Chapter V, “The Economic Interests of the Members of the Convention” makes up a significant portion of the book. Beard outlines each member of the Convention’s personal holdings of property concluding that those involved would directly benefit from the creation of a new constitution (149). In Chapter VI, “The Constitution as an Economic Document,” Beard elaborates on the fact 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 instead, “ an economic document drawn with superb skill by men whose property interests were immediately at stake”(188). In this chapter, Beard emphasizes the point that the Constitution does not contain economic qualifications in its’ words and that the document protected the property of those involved in the Convention because of the suffrage requirements of the states at the time.

Chapter VII, “The Political Doctrines of the Members of the Convention,” goes into the political perspective of each member of the Convention at length.

Chapter VIII, “The Process of Ratification” goes in depth into the framers plan for ratification of the new Constitution. Beard explains that the chief problem for the Convention was whether there was more likelihood of securing a confirmation by the state legislatures or by state conventions (219). Eventually, the members of the Convention decided that they would use state conventions because the state legislatures were not likely to approve of the loss of their own power. Again, there were economic qualifications for those involved in the new state conventions allowing only those legally allowed to vote to participate. Chapter IX, “The Popular Vote on the Constitution,” and Chapter X, “The Economics of the Vote on the Constitution,” continue providing facts supporting Beard’s conclusion that most of the population was not allowed to vote on ratification because of their social standing and state laws preventing them to do so. Finally, in chapter XI, “The Economic Conflict,” Beard summarizes his findings found throughout the book.

On one hand, Beard writes in a way that is manageable and the topic is very interesting due to the original point of view that he uses in interpreting the Constitution and the events that led up to its ratification. He is forward in his approach and provides support for his thesis making the work one that is easy to understand and follow. He acknowledges the fact that his viewpoint has not been explored and that economic elements are the chief factors in the development of political institution, especially that of the United States government. They are instead discussed as a philosophic theory and have not been applied to the study of American history at large (6). Beard’s work is a significant addition to the study of American history due to his original perspective of the Constitution being the effect of the framers’ self-interests.

On the other hand, two chapters of the book are dull due to Beard’s daunting task of explaining the holdings and political interests of each member of the Convention. Chapter V, titled, “The Economic Interests of the Members of the Convention” and Chapter VII, titled, “The Political Doctrines of the Members of the Convention” outline each member’s real and personal property and perceptions of government respectively. The chapters provide necessary insight into the demographics of each member of the Convention but do it in a fashion making it difficult to keep the attention of the audience. Beard’s use of alphabetical organization makes sense but the examples are monotonous due to the depth of explanation of each member’s demographic.

In the preface of the book, Beard writes that the work is fragmentary and is “designed to suggest new lines of historical research rather than to treat the subject in an exhaustive fashion” (i). Throughout the book, he reiterates and criticizes himself because he is not as detailed as he should be. The self-criticism is unneeded due to the extensive use of primary sources, especially The Federalist and financial records from the Treasury Department in Washington. He uses excerpts from The Federalist throughout his work due to the fact that it, “presents in a relatively brief and systematic form an economic interpretation of the Constitution by men best fitted, through an intimate knowledge of the ideals of the framers to expound the political science of the new government . . . and whoever would understand the Constitution as an economic document need hardly go beyond it” (153). Beard uses the records from the Treasury Department are in Chapter V to give insight into the possessions, personal property, and real estate of each member present at the Convention. The findings that come out of those records conclude that a majority of the members of the Convention were lawyers by profession, not one represented the immediate personal economic interests of the small farmer or mechanic classes, and that at least five sixths of the members were economic beneficiaries of the ratification of the Constitution (149). Overall, the book provides support from outside sources to support his theory but seems to be limited to the documents listed above and may be due to the fact that many pertinent records have either been destroyed or never existed.

Overall, Charles A. Beard’s An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States explains an original point of view, differing from the usual perspective of observing those who wrote the Constitution as selfless and faultless individuals. His theory that the framers, as the minority, built the United States’ government in their own self-interest is unique and support for his thesis fills the book. The work is interesting and sheds a different light on our government, which according to Beard, is not a true representation of the entire United States and is hypocritical of the first three words of the Constitution.
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