Understanding the American Past: American History and Its Interpretation

By Edward N. Saveth | Go to book overview

Radicals and Conservatives after Independence

by OSCAR AND MARY HANDLIN

["Radicals and Conservatives in Massachusetts after Independence, from the New England Quarterly, XVII ( September 1944), 343-355. Reprinted by permission.]*;

In the 1940's, Charles A. Beard's argument that the movement for the Constitution had its inception in the economic interests of the early American upper class was amplified in the work of Merrill Jensen. The latter extended Beards thesis about the framing of the Constitution back into the so-called "critical period," roughly from the conclusion of the Revolutionary War until the assembling of the Constitutional Convention. According to Jensen, government under the Articles of Confederation was not the hopeless fiasco that conservative historians like John Fiske had made it out to be.1

Under the Articles of Confederation, asserted Jensen, there was a reasonable amount of stability and prosperity for the generality of the population which was satisfied to let the form of government remain as it was. Like Beard before him, Jensen sees the Constitutional Convention as a class movement brought about by a minority of the population to further their economic interests. The minority, contends Jensen, consisted of "conservatives" who, between 1776 and 1789, were bent upon frustrating the egalitarian tendencies of the radicals.2

The Handlins are plainly dubious about this thesis; at least insofar as it applies to Massachusetts. To begin with, they deny the

____________________
*
This note was written in the course of a study of the role of government in American economy, under the auspices of the Committee on Research in Economic History of the Social Science Research Council.

-111-

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