The Founders, the Constitution, and the Historians

By Folsom, Burton | Freeman, July/August 2009 | Go to article overview

The Founders, the Constitution, and the Historians


Folsom, Burton, Freeman


The first step in getting Americans to disregard the Constitution is to get them to distrust the men who wrote it. This assault on the Founders, subtle at first, began in earnest almost 100 years ago. The first historian to challenge the motives of the Founders was Charles Beard in An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (1913).

In this landmark book, Beard, a professor of history at Columbia University, argued that the Constitution was "an economic document drawn with superb skill by men whose property interests were immediately at stake." The Founders, then, rather than being patriots, wise lawmakers, or thoughtful students of government, were primarily in the Constitution-writing business to protect their "property interests."

The Founders' economic motives, according to Beard, were straightforward - they were owed money from their support of the Revolution, and those "public securities" (receipts for loans made to support American independence) were not being repaid under the weak Articles of Confederation. A stronger governing document was needed to ease the transfer of tax dollars from ordinary citizens into the pockets of the more affluent Founders.

Thus, according to Beard, the constitutional convention in Philadelphia in 1787 was promoted by "a small and active group of men immediately interested through their personal possessions in the outcome of their labors. . . . The propertyless masses were . . . excluded at the outset from participation. . . ."

Beard, who was among the first generation of professionally trained historians, gathered evidence on the Founders: "Many leaders in the movement for ratification were large [public] security holders," he argued. Those who opposed the Constitution owned fewer public securities.

Each state had to vote on ratifying the Constitution, and Beard offered evidence that "the leaders who supported the Constitution in the ratifying conventions represented the same economic groups as the members of the Philadelphia convention." The Founders, Beard conceded, did not write the Constitution merely to make money, but nonetheless, "The Constitution was essentially an economic document."

Beard's thesis, seemingly well researched, was presented in a tentative way, but it soon swept the historical profession and became gospel in college classrooms by the 1920s. The Constitution, professors suggested to their students, was not a document worthy of special respect. It was a product of self-interest that should be interpreted loosely and changed as the Progressives saw fit.

The constitutional separation of powers, for example, according to Woodrow Wilson - a friend of Beard's and a fellow Ph.D. in history - was a "grievous mistake" by the Founders. More centralization of power was needed - especially in the executive branch - to change society through needed reforms, such as the progressive income tax.

Beard made his reputation with his book and went on to an illustrious career: He authored or coauthored 49 books that had sold more than 11 million copies by 1952.

During the 1950s, historian Forrest McDonald did a more thorough study of the Founders and discovered what can most generously be described as errors in research and, less generously, as fraudulent research. McDonald traveled to archives throughout the original 13 states and meticulously compiled data on thousands of men involved in the debate over the Constitution. After systematically studying the lives of the Founders and the state convention delegates, McDonald wrote We the People, which debunked Beard completely. "No correlation" exists, McDonald discovered, "between their economic interests and their votes on issues in general [or] on key economic issues." In fact, McDonald emphasized that in Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and New York "most [public] security holders opposed ratification."

How could Beard have erred so badly? …

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