Pulling Punches: Charles Beard, the Propertyless, and the Founding of the United States

By Sparrow, Bartholomew; O'Brien, Shannon Bow | Constitutional Commentary, Summer 2014 | Go to article overview

Pulling Punches: Charles Beard, the Propertyless, and the Founding of the United States


Sparrow, Bartholomew, O'Brien, Shannon Bow, Constitutional Commentary


The economic historian Charles A. Beard has been an immensely controversial figure. Generations of scholars have argued over his writings, debated their meanings, and, ultimately, contested their legacy. Most notably, he has been excoriated for his thesis in An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States, in which he argues that in the process of drafting and ratifying the Constitution of the United States, the federalists, composed of "merchants, money lenders, security holders, manufacturers, shippers, capitalists, and financiers" (i.e., those Beard identifies as the significant holders of "personalty"), triumphed over the interests of the "debtors and farmers," smaller landholders, and persons of moderate wealth. (1) Criticisms of Beard's evidence and argument have cumulatively weakened but not fundamentally upended the claim in An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States ("Economic Interpretation" hereafter) that the establishment of the United States Constitution of 1787--and therefore of the United States--was effected so as to secure the assets of wealthier Americans, especially persons in finance and commerce and those with extensive land holdings. (2)

The argument here is that the defect in Beard's thesis may be the opposite from that voiced by his critics: it is not that Beard overplays his hand, but that he understates his case. Namely, that he neglects the implications that follow from his insufficient attention to the propertyless. Early in Economic Interpretation, Beard brings up and then essentially siderails further discussion of an entire class of Americans who had clear and pressing economic interests of their own in a new national government: the Euro-Americans who had no property (to be distinguished from African American slaves and free blacks or the "civilized" American Indians who paid taxes).

On the second page of Economic Interpretation, Beard writes of the "transported felons and indented [sic] servants" who came to America, and refers to the scholarship of the historian James Davie Butler on the British convicts exiled to America. (3) He also cites the scholarship of A.M. Simons, who writes of the large numbers of Irish who emigrated to America, and of the "three classes of 'white slaves'" brought over in colonial times to be "sold to the colonists for a term of years": (1) indentured servants; (2) transported convicts; and (3) kidnapped men, women, and children. (4) Beard further draws on the research of John R. Commons (5)--a personal friend--who reports that the population of indentured servants and transported felons constituted half of the Europeans who emigrated to colonial America, that German indentures constituted a large share of the class of indentured servants, and that many of the Scots in Ulster forced off their land went to America. (6)

It is not that Beard wholly omits this class. Early on in Economic Interpretation he identifies four distinct economic groups at the Founding, the second and third of the groups constituting the class of impoverished Euro-Americans. However, he restricts his study to persons who were legally indistinguishable. He explains these several groups of persons at the Founding

   whose economic status had a definite legal expression: [1] the
   slaves, [2] the indented [sic] servants, [3] the mass of men who
   could not qualify for voting under the property tests imposed
   by the state constitutions and laws, and [4] women,
   disenfranchised and subjected to the discriminations of the
   common law. These groups were, therefore, not represented in
   the Convention which drafted the Constitution, except under
   the theory that representation has no relation to voting. (7)

Beard concedes that he cannot determine the extent of this disenfranchisement and legal discrimination and he observes that there was no working-class "consciousness" of any kind. He acknowledges, too, that Hamilton and the other Founders "dismissed" what he identifies as "the coming industrial masses. …

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