Charles Beard was Actually a Hamiltonian

tags: historians, progressivism, Charles Beard, Alexander Hamilton

Mac McCorkle is Associate Professor of the Practice and Director of the Master’s Program at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. The article is adapted from his longer essay “The Historian as Intellectual: Charles Beard and the Constitution Reconsidered,” American Journal of Legal History (October 1984) 314-63.

“[Hamilton] was the colossal genius of the new system. It is true ... that he had little to do with the formation of the Constitution [at Philadelphia], but it was his organizing ability that made it a real instrument bottomed on all the substantial interests of the time. ... It has been charged that he leaned always on the side of the financial interests against the public as represented in the government; but it must be remembered that at the time the new system went into effect, the public had no credit and financiers were not willing to forego their gains and profits for an abstraction. ... [Hamilton] was swayed throughout the period of the formation of the Constitution by large policies of government -- not by any of the personal interests so often ascribed to him.”

-- Charles Beard, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution, pgs. 100, 101, 114

This year conferences are taking place to mark the hundredth anniversary of Charles Beard’s An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution. But if gatherings in the recent past on Beard are an accurate guide, the major thrust will be not to celebrate his work. It will be to quickly exhume him, brand him as more or less a misguided simpleton muckraker against the Founders’ handiwork, and then bury him once more. Barely heard but basically ignored will be geeky econometric voices advising caution against another hasty burial. Their inconvenient findings are that according to contemporary quantitative techniques economic self-interest indeed played a major role in determining support for or opposition to the Constitution.

Professors in the constitutional law academy are the most intent on seeing that Beard stay buried. They seem to fear that if Beard came back to life the Constitution would become a bastard anti-democratic document, lose its political legitimacy, and their enterprise of liberal versus conservative debate over the real meanings of the document would go into bankruptcy.

The tragedy however is that Beard’s An Economic Interpretation has gone from beyond critical challenge to below intellectual respect without ever being adequately understood. Contrary to the stereotype that still emanates from the top of the history profession and the constitutional law academy,* Beard in An Economic Interpretation was not sympathetic to the Jeffersonian or anti-Federalist populist traditions. He instead sided with Hamilton and his elite capitalistic allies in the Federalist tradition. In effect Beard belonged to the neo-Hamiltonian camp in the Progressive movement which Merrill Peterson identified as congregating around The New Republic and championing the “bold use of the powers of the national government for constructive purposes.”

In the wake of his disillusionment with American involvement in World War I, Beard’s viewpoint shifted toward an embrace of Jefferson’s general democratic image. While largely maintaining his reform stance on the domestic front, Beard developed a “continentalist” stance on foreign policy that condemned the modern progressive tradition of not just Woodrow Wilson but also Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Delano Roosevelt for pushing America out of its isolation into military conflict in Europe and Asia.

Yet while somewhat downplaying Hamilton’s role, Beard still maintained his neo-Federalist view in support of the Constitution. And Beard’s shift toward Jefferson after World War I serves as nowhere near an adequate excuse for the widespread interpretation of Beard’s strongly Hamiltonian perspective in An Economic Interpretation before World War I.**

*See, e.g., Appleby, A Restless Past: History and the American Public (2005) 82, 86,164 (Beard “interpreting the Constitution as a Thermidorean response to the revolutionary ideals of the Declaration of Independence); Ackerman, We The People: Transformations, Vol. 2 (2000) 32 (Beard “demonizing” the founders as instigators of an “American Thermidor”); Kramer, The People Themselves: Popular Constitutionalism and Judicial Review (2004) 272n8; Akhil Reed Amar, America’s Constitution: A Biography (2012) 279,472; “Symposium: The Constitution as an Economic Document,” George Washington Law Review, v. 56 no.1 (November 1987).

**For more on Beard’s shift in viewpoint after World War I, see my longer version of this paper on

Beard’s Hamiltonianism should be obvious from any close reading of An Economic Interpretation. Superficial readings however can miss Beard’s perspective because he aspired to present An Economic Interpretation in what he later characterized as a “coldly neutral” academic style. (Introduction to the 1935 edition, p.ix) Throughout An Economic Interpretation Beard made such statements as “the inflamed declarations” of neither side in the political struggle surrounding the making of the Constituion should” be accepted without discount.” (48)

Superficial readings also miss the relatively complex modernist cast to Beard’s somewhat buried viewpoint. As Alfred Kazin pointed out, Beard’s Economic Interpretation represented the academic version of a Progressive-era “shock work.”(Historian Henry May similarly underlined its modernist flavor in commenting that “Beard’s book on the Constitution fittingly appeared in the same year as the New York Armory Show.”) It used the avant-garde tool of economic analysis to explain the Constitution in a fashion that could smack of Marxist-like determinism. Beard also provocatively appropriated Marxist phraseology, for example, in praising Hamilton and Madison establishing the new governmental “superstructure” in the Constitution on a “sound [economic] basis.” (154)

Beard similarly seemed to delight in the shock value of schooling readers on the financial realities of the founders’ handiwork. “It seems safe to hazard a guess, therefore, that at least $40,000,000 gain came to the holders of securities through the adoption of the Constitution and the sound financial system which it made possible,” he speculated at one point (35) In a footnote Beard added the disclaimer: “The ethics of redeeming the debt at face value is not here considered....” But Beard immediately broke out of this neutrality stance and added: “... although the present writer believes that the success of the national government could not have been secured under any other policy than that pursued by Hamilton.” (35, n1)

Another one of Beard’s modernist goals was to demolish the notion that the Constitution amounted to something near an immutable code of divinely-inspired commandments. On the very first page of An Economic Interpretation, Beard announced his opposition to the picture of the Constitution as the product of a “people acting under divine guidance” found in such works as Jacksonian Democrat George Bancroft’s epic History of the Formation of the Constitution of the United States.

Consequently Beard’s analysis in An Economic Interpretation displayed a number of moving parts and rough edges. The historian Cushing Strout went so far as to suggest that “Beard’s inept handling of the economic interpretation had obscured his own deep respect for the Founding Fathers.” (98) Strout was right that Beard too loosely and interchangeably used such concepts as “economic determinism” and “economic interpretation” as well as merged class, group, and individual economic interests into an indistinguishable mix.

Yet any close reading would reveal that Beard constructed a coherent narrative about the making of the Constitution as an epochal event of economic and political progress. The overwhelming stack of declarations from Beard make clear that superficial readings of An Economic Interpretation as anti-Hamiltonian have been far more inept than Beard’s execution of his path-breaking method of economic analysis in 1913.

The unequivocal statements in his more breezy writings surrounding An Economic Interpretation leave no room for portraying Beard as a Jeffersonian, anti-Federalist, or populist sympathizer. For example, one year before in The Supreme Court and the Constitution, Beard declared:

“[I]t was a truly remarkable assembly of men that gathered in Philadelphia on May 14, 1787, to undertake the work of reconstructing the American system of government. It is not merely patriotic pride that compels one to assert that never in the history of assemblies has there ever been a convention of men richer in political experience and in practical knowledge, or endowed with a profounder insight into the springs of human action and the intimate essence of government.”

Moreover, his pro-Hamiltonian viewpoint in An Economic Interpretation was evident when Beard plainly referred to the New Yorker as “the colossal genius of the new system” who was not “swayed” by “any of the personal interests so often ascribed to him.” And Beard’s neo-Federalist viewpoint kept breaking through on numerous other pages in An Economic Interpretation. For example in An Economic Interpretation’s analysis regarding the economic interests of members at the Constitutional Convention:

  • The only time that Beard used the phrase “class bias” was in reference to the Anti-Federalists. (294) He similarly deflated the complaint of the agrarian classes against Hamilton’s mercantilist policies as Treasury Secretary by declaring that they “attack[ed] his policies as inimical to public interest, i.e., their own interests.” (103)
  • In contrast, Beard generously referred to Federalist debt financiers led by Robert Morris of Pennsylvania as “patriots who risked their money” on behalf of the Revolution. (22) He proclaimed that “no man contributed more to the establishment of our Constitution and the stability of our national institutions” than Robert Morris, ‘the Patriot Financier.’” And, according to Beard, Morris’ financial associates among the delegates at the Constitutional Convention were “eminent men.” (135-36).
  • The person whom Beard came closest to characterizing as guilty of outright corruption for “intermixing his official relations with his private economic affairs” was Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts (98) – who refused to sign the Constitution and became a prominent Anti-Federalist.

Such close textual analysis of An Economic Interpretation confirms that Beard was wielding a double-edged sword in the guise of a detached scholarly analysis. While attempting a scientific deconstruction of the mythic Founding Fathers, Beard was nevertheless striving to develop a more realistic economic interpretation in favor of the founders’ earth-bound handiwork.

The key intellectual distinction to grasp about Beard’s neo-Hamiltonianism in An Economic Interpretation was that he viewed the “the structure of American society” (24) as reflecting a pre-modern and pre-democratic world. In his 1916 lectures published as The Economic Basis of Politics (1922), Beard even proclaimed that the founders forged the Constitution “in the midst of mediaeval forms and institutions.” (41) While not making the same kind of overstatement in An Economic Interpretation, Beard emphasized the elitist, inert, and relatively primitive nature of the political universe under “the state constitutions and laws in force” (65) on the eve of the Constitution.

An Economic Interpretation first noted the accepted pattern of systematic political exclusion in 1787. No controversy existed, according to Beard, over the political disfranchisement of “slaves, indentured servants, the mass of men who could not qualify for voting under property tests... and women.” (24) He then emphasized the importance of pre-political indifference throughout American society in the late eighteenth century. “Far more [white males] were disfranchised through apathy and lack of understanding of the significance of politics,” Beard declared. In an era with still small populations in urban areas and relatively plentiful cheap land, qualifying “freeholds were widely distributed, especially in New England.... [N]othing like the same proportion was disfranchised by the property qualifications as would be today under similar qualifications.” (242)

In this pre-modern political context, truly “radical democratic changes did not seem perilously near.” (168) Beard deflated even the warmest calls for what appeared to be mass democracy among some anti-Federalists by emphasizing that it was a “mass composed largely of property holders.” (314) Contrary to the mistaken Beardian stereotype, An Economic Interpretation contains no “democratic” calls from Jefferson or citations to his Declaration of Independence in opposition to the spirit of the Constitution.

Two years later in The Economic Origins of Jeffersonian Democracy (1915) Beard even discounted the democratic significance of Jefferson’s winning the presidency in 1800. According to Beard:

“Jeffersonian Democracy did not imply any abandonment of the property, and particularly the landed, qualifications on the suffrage and office-holding. Jeffersonian Democracy simply meant the possession of the federal government by the agrarian masses led by an aristocracy of slave-owning planters, and the theoretical repudiation of the right to use government for the benefit of any capitalistic groups.” (467)

In An Economic Interpretation Beard further insisted that the urban working class in “no state” had “apparently” developed any “consciousness of a separate interest.” (26). He noted that Madison nevertheless fretted about the potential of the landless industrial masses in the future (25) -- and in The New Republic he ridiculed Jefferson for predicting that they would be “sores on the body politic.” (”Jefferson and the New Freedom,” Nov. 14, 1914, p. 19) In contrast the far steadier Federalist intellect of Alexander Hamilton did not fear industrial progress and dismissed “the working-class problem” with “scant notice.” (AEI, 25)

Beard went so far as to project that the majority of non-voting “working-men in the cities” would have “doubtless voted with the major interests of the cities in favor of the Constitution as against the agrarians had they been enfranchised.” (25n1) He saw the Federalist agenda as embodying not just the narrow interests of capitalistic elites but more wholly “the strong impulse of economic forces in the towns and young manufacturing centres.” (175)

The economic conflict over ratifying the Constitution thus amounted to a geographical conflict as well. “The opposition to the Constitution,” according to Beard, “almost uniformly came from the agricultural regions, and from the areas in which debtors had been formulating paper money and other depreciatory schemes.” (291) Beard surmised that this agrarian base may well have constituted a majority even among the relatively small pool of eligible voters in the states. (239-252,352). But neither the Constitution’s lack of popularity nor the apathy among what Beard called “the backwoods vote” (252) gave him much pause. For unlike the more populistic Frederick Jackson Turner, Beard saw the cities and towns as the centers of progress in the pre-modern and pre-democratic world of 1787.

Beard’s emphasis on the clash between town and country in the state ratification struggles undermines the notion pushed by critics that An Economic Interpretation focused far too narrowly on the differing sources of wealth held by individual members of the Constitutional Convention. Beard indeed devoted a central chapter to exploring the assets held by each member in “realty” (agricultural farm land and estates) versus “personalty” (ownership of capital in businesses, public securities, and speculative land trading). (73-152) However as Beard stated toward the end of An Economic interpretation, he treated the differences between personalty and realty among members at the Convention as a rough proxy for the larger “opposition between town and country.” (310)

At the same time Beard recognized that “some holders of public securities are found among opponents of the Constitution.” (291,n1). And regarding the other side, Beard went out of his way to dismiss the notion that Hamilton allied his views with such financiers as Robert Morris for any reason beyond his desire to establish a strong national government. (100-114)

Similarly in Beard’s portrait Madison was a nationalist intellectual who was “able to take a more disinterested view of the funding system proposed by Hamilton” due to “[h]aving none of the public securities.” And as a “descendant of one of the old landed families whose wealth consisted principally of slaves and plantations,” the Virginian was instrumental in shaping the argument for the Constitution to pull Southern slave-owning planters away from its smaller and non-slave agricultural opponents. (125-6, 174-75)

It is true that Beard believed in the permanence of class rivalries based on property distinctions. In An Economic Interpretation Beard stated that “his inquiry” was based on the political science of James Madison in Federalist 10. Madisonian political science, in Beard’s view, saw such class divisions as inevitably arising for the quite inegalitarian reason that “diversity in the faculties of men” would always exist. (14) In Beard’s mind his realist belief in the permanence of classes was antithetical to any utopian hope that revolutionary overthrow of capitalism would make classes disappear.

In his 1916 lectures published as The Economic Basis of Politics (1922), Beard criticized laissez-faire thinkers and such egalitarians as Rousseau for attempting to ignore or destroy this “fundamental” truth about permanent class divisions. (18, 46-67) And two years before An Economic Interpretation, in a review of H.L.A. Fisher’s The Republican Tradition in Europe, Beard agreed with Fisher that Marx belonged in the category of “republican idealists” or “abstract republicans” whose “revolutionary activities” understandably repulsed statesmen of a realist bent. (Political Science Quarterly, v. 27,p. 512-13,1911).

At the same time, Beard’s writings on the economic shape of early twentieth century America confirmed his anti-presentist perspective on the struggle over the Constitution.

In Contemporary American History, 1877-1912 (1914) Beard declared that the founders overthrew the Articles in favor of the Constitution “when economic conditions were totally different from what they are today.” (305) He explained that the country was in a largely pre-industrial condition. The modern “economic revolution” in American life could not fully take place until the waging of the Civil War and abolition of the agrarian slave power. (50) A few years earlier, in Readings in American Government and Politics (1909), Beard explained that “the economic system prevailing at the close of the eighteenth century has been overthrown by the Industrial Revolution.” (56) And In American Citizenship (1914) Beard joined with his wife Mary to celebrate “the new spirit of liberty for all persons” as well as such specific changes as the elimination of slavery, the recognition of women’s right to own property, as well as the emerging movements for women’s suffrage and workers’ rights. (52, 55-59)

Encapsulating the simplistic conservative criticism of Beard during the Cold War, historian Robert E. Brown attacked him for believing that the Constitution “was put over undemocratically in an undemocratic society.” Brown would have been right if he had said that Beard saw the founders as acting undemocratically in a pre-democratic society –and as heroes for saving the new nation. In one passage of An Economic Interpretation Beard let his academic guard all the way down to declare that “the leaders in the movement for the new Constitution” took “the heroic measures which the circumstances demanded.” (64)

Beard doubted the extreme “Critical Period” allegation that economic conditions throughout the nation’s largely agricultural economy were in a full-scale economic depression under the Articles. Yet Beard still cited “the enormous total of the national debt,” the reality that the value of continental paper had depreciated so badly that many holders saw it as becoming completely worthless “as it might have been had the formation of the Constitution been infinitely delayed,” and the truth that the movement for the new Constitution was “extensive and diversified” because it had the support of “innumerable manufacturing, shipping, trading, and commercial interests.” (33,34,48,41) Elsewhere in An Economic Interpretation Beard straightforwardly referred to the time as the “critical period.” (83) In another passage Beard bluntly referred to “the imbecilities of the Articles of Confederation.” (145).

Such uncomprehending critics as Brown seized upon an especially provocative passage in An Economic Interpretation where Beard likened the establishment of the new Constitution to a coup d’etat. They have failed to grasp that Beard was quoting Professor John W. Burgess, the veteran unabashed defender of the Federalist tradition at Columbia when he was a graduate student and young professor there. “The revolutionary nature of the work of the Philadelphia Convention,” wrote Beard, “was correctly characterized by Professor John W. Burgess when he states that had such acts been performed by Julius or Napoleon, they would have been pronounced coups d’ etat.” (218)

Burgess the neo-Federalist conservative and Beard the neo-Federalist progressive were specifically referencing the founders’ decision to ignore the Articles’ procedures for constitutional amendment. The founders decreed that their new Constitution only needed the approval of conventions in nine states after Congress submitted it to them. This alternative process, Beard remarked, constituted “a departure from the provisions of the then fundamental law -- the Articles of Confederation -- which provided that all alterations and amendments should be made to Congress and receive the approval of the legislature of every state.” (217) Beard further quoted Burgess’ explanation that the founders’ action resembled those of Julius Caesar and Napoleon in “demand[ing] a plebiscite …over the heads of all legally organized powers.” (218, n1)

So Beard and Burgess were comparing the founders’ pushing through the Constitution to a plebiscitary not a military or palace coup. Burgess had defended the founders’ action as leading to the establishment of “of a constitution of government and liberty.” But in characteristic fashion Beard chose to invoke James Madison in confirming his own position. Madison’s defense in Federalist 40 of the founders’ actions, wrote Beard, “made out an unanswerable case for his side, frankly pleading the justification for revolution if the legal arguments which he advanced were deemed insufficient.” (222)

At the same time, while defending the founders’ short-circuiting of the ratification process, Beard did not picture the Constitution as reflecting dictatorial fiat in its policy substance. In An Economic Interpretation Beard pointed out that the Constitution featured such compromises with “rural interests” as “direct” taxation based on population rather than on a per-state basis or on land possession. That concession, according to Beard, prevented “the populations of the manufacturing states from shifting the burdens of taxation to the sparsely settled agricultural regions.” (169)

Even when discussing provisions most important to the Federalists’ modernizing agenda, Beard emphasized the compromises they made to get their top priorities in the Constitution. For example, Beard depicted “plenary control” of Congress “over foreign and interstate commerce” in the Commerce Clause as an essential item for “the mercantile and manufacturing interests.” Yet these capitalist interests “paid for their victory by large concessions to the slave-owning planters of the South.” An Economic Interpretation pointed to such compromises as the three-fifths clause discounting slaves on a per-capita basis for federal taxation purposes and the guarantee that fugitive slaves would be returned to their owners. (175, 169)

So Beard could not resist the shock value of emphasizing that the founders and their procedures exhibited raw political power rather than God’s will. Yet he pictured the founders’ actions in the pre-democratic times of 1787 as progressive and evidencing some statesman-like compromise rather than as reactionary or an American Thermidor. But in contrast to conservative defenders, Beard did not venerate the timeless wisdom of the constitutional document; he admired the activist political example of the Founders in crafting a realistic charter of government for their times.

In Contemporary American History Beard claimed that at the turn of the twentieth century the nation was facing “evidence of a discontent scarcely less keen and critical than that which was manifested with the Articles of Confederation.” (305) However in this new industrial-age Critical Period the political situation was turned on its head from 1787: the capitalist elites were now the standpatters who wanted no political reform to change the vast national economy which they ran. “Facing this centralized national economy,” explained Beard in Contemporary American History, “was a federal system made for wholly different conditions -- a national system of manufacturing, transportation, capital, and organized labor, with a national government empowered, expressly, at least, to regulate only one of these interests, transportation -- the other fundamental national interests being referred to the mercy of forty-six separate and independent legislatures.” (307-08)

Yet even in An Economic Interpretation Beard made clear that the founders should not be held responsible for this lack of correspondence between the weakness of the political system and strength of the economic system. Acknowledging that the powers of the federal government were “few” from the perspective of 1913, Beard declared that “they were adequate to the purposes of the framers” in 1787. (169) One year before, in Political Science Quarterly, Beard had more bluntly defended the founders on historicist grounds: “Whether this [constitutional] system is outworn, whether it has unduly property rights, is a legitimate matter for debate; but those who hold the affirmative cannot rest their case on the intent of the eighteenth-century statesmen who framed the Constitution.” (31)

In the early 1910s New Republic editor Herbert Croly vigorously promoted former president Theodore Roosevelt as the bold Hamiltonian progressive leader who could usher in the new promise of American life. Roosevelt actually saw himself as a partisan of the Hamiltonian tradition and even once wrote to a friend that “the worship of Jefferson” was “a discredit to the country.” Beard sided with Roosevelt’s insurgent New Nationalism over the victorious Woodrow Wilson’s Jeffersonian New Freedom in the 1912 presidential campaign. In Contemporary American History Beard specifically pictured Roosevelt as challenging “the idea of a neutral zone between the national and state legislatures ... guarded only by the Federal judiciary and favoring a “strengthening of the Federal government so to make it competent for every purpose.” (315)

Beard however refused to join populist or radical critics who called for the derailment of judicial review. In An Economic Interpretation Beard bluntly declared that the framers’ decision “to confer upon the Supreme Court the power of passing upon the constitutionality of statutes” represents “the most unique contribution to the science of government which has been made by American political genius.” (162)

In Contemporary American History Beard similarly defended federal judicial review as an “essential tool” in the workings of American government. He criticized “advocates of legislative democracy” for “failing to distinguish between the power itself” and “the manner of its exercise” by stand-patter jurists. In particular Beard insisted that federal judicial review was an especially crucial check on the decentralized and divergent actions of state legislatures. “The regulation of a national economic system by forty or more legislatures,” Beard proclaimed, “would be nothing short of an attempt to combine economic unity with local anarchy.” (86-87)

Thus no single-minded understanding of Beard could accurately capture the compound nature of his viewpoint in An Economic Interpretation. The errant responses from both sides drove Beard to a wry conclusion in his introduction to the 1935 edition: “[M]y book was roundly condemned by conservative Republicans... and praised ... with about the same amount of discrimination by Progressives and others on the left wing.” (vii)

Due to his attacks on FDR and his apparent indifference to Hitler, a torrent of criticism against Beard as an opponent of the founders’ handiwork overwhelmed his reputation after World War II. Such critics who saw Beard as unpatriotic were incapable of seeing anything straight about An Economic Interpretation or anything else written by Beard.

Otherwise esteemed historians who were friends of Beard fought against the uncomprehending wave of criticism to no avail. Howard Beale, for example, insisted that Beard “was proud of America, particularly proud of her Constitution, which he regarded as among the greatest creations of all time, and proudest of all of the Americans who had the wisdom to create it.” Eric Goldman similarly insisted that Beard wrote An Economic Interpretation “without Jeffersonian wrath” and “in the spirit of the Constitution.”

Ass time passed, such notable commentators as Richard Hofstadter, William Appleman Williams, John Diggins, Cushing Strout, Leonard Levy, Richard B. Morris, Merrill Peterson, Alfred Kazin, and Henry May noted at least some elements of neo-Federalist heterodoxy in Beard’s viewpoint. More recently Clyde Barrow’s intellectual biography of Beard and Eldon Eisenach’s analyses of Progressive-era thought have confirmed Beard’s neo-Hamiltonian progressive stance. But the beat still goes on about Beard as a one-dimensional intellectual enemy of Hamilton and the founders’ handiwork in Philadelphia.

Toward the end of his own career in the 1970s, Merrill Jensen -- the historian supposedly most responsible for continuing the Beardian tradition against the Constitution -- expressed frustration about this case of badly mistaken historiographical identity. In his own historical work Jensen squarely took issue with the pro-Federalist view that the Articles were allowing the country to come apart at the seams and sympathized with the decentralized tradition of the anti-Federalists. Yet Jensen insisted that the work of Beard was a “case [where] words have been misread, read with little care, or not read at all.” Beard’s writings, according to Jensen, “repeatedly praised” the founders “realism as opposed the romanticism of their opponents.”

As Jensen concluded, the misunderstanding surrounding Beard should serve as an important cautionary tale about “the loose generalizations made about the interpretations of historians.” One hundred years after An Economic interpretation, the continued misinterpretation of Beard is an embarrassment to the historical profession and the constitutional law academy.

comments powered by Disqus