Charles A. Beard, An Intellectual Biography

By Ellen Nore | Go to book overview
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Wealth and Power
An Economic Approach to Constitutions,
Parties, and Politics

To the period between 1912 and 1915 belong Beard's first great works in public law and American history: The Supreme Court and the Constitution (1912), An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution (1913), Contemporary American History (1914), and Economic Origins of Jeffersonian Democracy (1915). Written by a man ardently committed to bettering the conditions of life in a great city, these books reflect his belief that the future would "not be hideous and mean, but beautiful and magnificent" and his view of himself as a "co-worker in that great and indivisible natural process which draws down granite hills and upbuilds great nations." 1 These volumes certainly fixed Beard's reputation as an innovator among American historians and political scientists. Yet contemporaries who examined Beard's writing closely saw a disturbing problem: the "economic interpretation" did not exist as a unified theory of explanation. Beard shifted from an idea of people acting out of personal interest to a generalization that people represented the interests of groups. He approached an ideological interpretation of the actions of powerful groups and individuals, but he did not embrace it. Wealth and power were connected, and the public law reflected this connection, but his efforts to describe the process by which the law emerged from a social context were imprecise and contradictory.

In his well-known lecture "Politics," given at Columbia in 1908, Beard asserted that "the great question of any age" was "not shall private property as such be abolished," for the "nature of man" had demonstrated that "it

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