Charles Beard: A century later, he's still at the center of a debate (H-Net)

Historians in the News

Mr. Liebers is an HNN intern.

What started on H-SHEAR as an innocent discussion of recommended books for a graduate US history readings course recently became an active debate between respected scholars on the economics of the US Constitution.  At issue: Charles Beard’s An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States and, more generally, the historiographical staying power of economic histories that make bold claims.

Calvin Johnson, University of Texas (26 Jun 2008)

Beard really is unforgiveable.  He thought that the Constitution was written to ‘crucify mankind upon a cross of gold’ by putting thumbscrews on honest debtors by prohibiting state paper money.   The reason he thought that was that William Jennings Bryan taught him that and the Supreme Court in cases like Pollack v. Farmers Trust (holding the income tax to be unconstitutional) found that the Constitution prevented invasion of capitalists' right.  That thesis is wrong on about seven different levels.

Professor Johnson then went on to evaluate Beard from a variety of standpoints,  critiquing Beard’s use of the political debates of the early 20th century, most notably those concerning populism, as a framework for historical analysis. Some days earlier, the false dichotomy of economic benefits going to the founders and lack of concern for the poor came up.

Robert Wright, New York University (22 Jun 2008)

The gist is that most Americans, and a surprisingly large percentage of scholars, won't accept Pareto improvement, policy changes that make one or more people better off without making anyone worse off, as a legitimate criterion for social justice. Instead, they believe that policies are flawed, even evil, if they do not help the least well off first, or the most, or whatever. That the Constitution was likely a Pareto improvement par excellence therefore doesn't register and Beardian insinuations flourish.

Thus the discussion evolved to focus on a new question:  was the constitution a Pareto improvement?  That is to say, taken as a whole, was it economically beneficial for some while not to the detriment of any major constituency group? A back and forth between Professors Paul Finkelman at Albany Law School and Robert Wright ensued.   As they refined the debate, Professor Finkelman offered comments on the utility of the Pareto economic model for the Constitution.

Paul Finkelman, Albany Law School (23 Jun 2008)

Perhaps historians are skeptical of claims of such marvels as a Pareto improvement because we have a sense that there is a huge difference between the perfect improvements of an economic model and politics, economics, and social conditions in the real world.  We might also ask if we are going to make the ‘all's well that ends well’ argument, should we not also talk about the failure of the Constitution to provide a constitutional mechanism for significant change, short of civil war in the 19th century and massive protest with considerable human suffering during the civil rights movement of the 20th century?

From there, discussion of how the constitution affected the realities of slavery brought in comments from those studying slavery both in the US and Canada, helping to broaden the question to include other constituency groups.  The comedic value of H-SHEAR was made apparent when MapQuest was invoked to describe relative distances that slaves might have had to travel from the south to Canada and New England.   Professor Finkelman wrote, “MapQuest would have been a very useful thing for slaves in VA If only, alas, there had been roads and highways to get from Richmond to Boston. They could have just gone to Hertz, rented a car, and MapQuested their way to Ft. Erie, gone through one of the tunnels or maybe over the Peace Bridge, and been in Canada.”

The tone grew adversarial at times, but overall, the discussion was amusing for observers, informative, and indicative of a healthy on-line dialogue of scholarly matters. Finally, Daniel Herman, Associate Professor at Central Washington, took a step back and addressed an issue I will close with.<

Daniel Herman, Central Washington University (25 Jun 2008)

I just have this to add:  what a tool this discussion would be for an undergraduate discussion of the Constitution.  I'm delighted to see some of the lights of my field hit the ball back and forth across the court, backhand forehand, overhead slam, and sometimes out of bounds.

I wholeheartedly endorse this.  Formal training, reading the great syntheses and the polemics, working through primary documents and learning to use the library—they’re all indispensable.  But to engage your peers (or elders) in discussion of important historical questions, without the initial intimidation of a small group discussion, is a thrill that can make a lasting impression. 


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