The Political Economy of the Original Constitution

By White, G. Edward | Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview

The Political Economy of the Original Constitution


White, G. Edward, Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy


INTRODUCTION

There seems to be little dispute that the original Constitution of the United States--and by "original Constitution" I mean the document drafted in 1787 and ratified, along with its first Ten Amendments, in 1789 and 1791 (1)--was an economic document. It was a document containing provisions that addressed economic issues and reflected economic attitudes. But the original Constitution was by no means solely an economic document. This Article will argue that if one emphasizes the Constitution's economic dimensions, one should approach it as a document reflecting attitudes toward political economy, that is, the relationship between political theory and economic activity.

This approach is distinct from another line of scholarship that has been concerned with "economic interpretations" of the Constitution. The other line of work, first made visible by Charles Beard's An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution (2) and perpetuated by Beard's critics, (3) sought to identify the economic "interests" of the men who drafted the Constitution and to suggest that those individuals--Beard identified them as including shippers, manufacturers, and bankers--wanted a strong central government to further their interests. (4) Beard's critics, by looking more closely at the backgrounds of the Framers, concluded that some of his characterizations were faulty. For example, although Beard claimed that groups whose economic interests centered on "personalty" favored the Constitution, in opposition to those whose interests centered on "realty," some of Beard's critics demonstrated that a majority of the Framers derived most of their income from real property holdings. (5)

The difficulties with economic interpretations of the Constitution are twofold. First, the approach, which rests on an "interest group" analysis of politics and economics fashionable for a time among twentieth-century historians, is anachronistic because it projects later conceptions of the organization of American political and economic life back on to the framing period. Most wealthy Americans of the framing era derived their incomes from a form of agricultural householding, which could involve extractive agriculture, land speculation, and domestic and international commerce. (6) Agricultural households operated both as subsistence farming operations and as commercial enterprises, blurring the line between "personal" and "real" property ownership. (7) Second, the approach tends to oversimplify. The mere fact that a supporter of the Constitution could be described as having a particular economic interest hardly proves that he supported the Constitution because of that interest. There are numerous reasons why late-eighteenth-century Americans might have supported or opposed a measure intended to transform the structure of American government. Economic interpretations of the Constitution, in the hands of some historians, become another way of demonstrating those historians' preference for ascribing weighty causal significance to economic motivations in historical actors.

Thus, the central question is not whether the Constitution is susceptible of an economic interpretation. Rather, if one assumes that the original Constitution was in some respects an economic document, one must ask what sort of economic document it was. In other words, on what assumptions about economic activity was the Constitution based? And, what was the relation of those assumptions to broader assumptions about human behavior, human governance, and the course of human events that the Framers held? In short, how might one describe the political economy of the original Constitution?

I. THE "ECONOMIC" PROVISIONS OF THE ORIGINAL CONSTITUTION

A. The Central Concerns of the Constitution's Supporters The movement to alter the form of national government in the United States arose out of two sets of concerns that surfaced among creole elites (8) between the mid-1770s and the mid-1780s as Americans fought the Revolutionary War and gained experience with state governments and the federal government of the Articles of Confederation. …

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