Thursday, April 18, 2013

Comments on Charles Beard

The Progressive historian Charles Austin Beard (1874-1948) is one of the most famous American historians, remembered especially for his An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States. I'll let Encyclopædia Britannica do the summary ("Beard, Charles A." 2006 DVD) from Encyclopædia Britannica 2006 Ultimate Reference Suite DVD .[Accessed February 6, 2008]:

He ... developed a schema of historical explanation that found its most famous expression in An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (1913). In this book he claimed that the Constitution had been formulated by interest groups whose motivations were just as much personal financial ones as they were political ones. Although American politicians were generally outraged at the implications of material interests embodied in the Constitution by the Founding Fathers, the book was received by academicians as an innovative study on motivational factors among socioeconomic groups.
Beard's book focuses attention on economic factors in the making of the Constitution. But the traditional way of remembering his book seems to be a shallow cynicism, i.e., the Founders who wrote the Constitution was just looking to make a buck for themselves.

For most of his career, Beard associated himself with the political left in Britain and the US. But the last book of his career, published the year of his death, was President Roosevelt and the Coming of War, 1941 (1948), which echoed the rightwing isolationist indictment of Roosevelt which was also reflected in his American Foreign Policy in the Making, 1932–1940 (1946). I've been puzzled for a long time by Beard's reputation and his seeming political flip from Progressive reformer to rightwing isolationist late in his life.

In some ways, the roots of his seeming ideological change may well have been in his earlier work. The argument of Economic Interpretation, apart from some of the factual challenges other historians brought forward, is heavily reductionist. Yes, the participants in the Constitutional Convention of 1787-8 were mean of means and capitalists of some variety. But that's who the leaders of the new democracy were. The United States economy was a developing capitalist economy with few feudal holdovers. Any Constitution that was well suited to the circumstances of the United States would have benefitted the wealthiest portion of society, even if it had been written by paupers.

The Progressive movement was influenced by a particular interpretation of early American history that looked to the pro-business followers of Alexander Hamilton in the Federalist Party as the precursors of the kind of affirmative government that Teddy Roosevelt practiced as President in restraining the trusts. William Appleman Williams contributed an essay on Beard to the compilation American Radicals: Some Problems and Personalities (1957), Harvey Goldberg, ed., which was entitled, "Charles Austin Beard: The Intellectual as Tory-Radical". There was definitely a conservative streak in Beard's thought in the heyday of Progressivism.

Beard followed An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States with The Economic Origins of Jeffersonian Democracy (1915), which also proved to be a very influential book at the time. Merrill Peterson discusses Beard's work on Jefferson in The Jefferson Image in the American Mind (1960). Key to Beard's view of Jefferson was the notion that Jefferson's Democratic-Republican Party (the original name of today's Democratic Party, which was normally called the Republican Party prior to the 1820s) grew out of the anti-Constitution movement of the late 1780s, while Hamilton's Federalist Party grew from the Constitution's supporters. Peterson points out that this inaccurate picture of early American party history was based on heavily reliance on Federalist sources. As Peterson puts it:

In truth, the underlying idea of continuity [anti-Constitutionalists to Republicans, pro-Constitutionalist to Federalists] was a Federalist idea. It was as if Beard had taken one of the myths of Federalism - that the Federalists were the friends of the Constitution and the Jeffersonians its enemies - drained off its grosser content, added some fresh ingredients, and then presented the result as a true history of the original parties. Republican arguments to the contrary by Jefferson, Madison, and John Taylor, Beard laid to the "extraordinary cleverness" with which these partisans "claimed the Constitution for themselves". Beard was committed to the Federalist position by his earlier book [on the Constitution]. If the Constitution was framed in hostility to democracy and for the benefit of capitalist groups, then it naturally followed that the Hamiltonian system conformed to the Constitution.
How James Madison, one of the leading members of the Constitutional convention and one of the three authors (along with Hamilton and John Jay) of the Federalist Papers could have been viewed as a conniving enemy of the Constitutional system is a bit hard to imagine.

Peterson writes that Beard presented Jefferson as having been "a radical and doctrinaire agrarian", and that he had used the term "agrarian" in a "confusing double sense of agricultural and anti-capitalist." Jefferson, of course, was not anti-capitalist, nor were the free farmers of his time. Peterson notes that later in his career Beard was to speak positively of Jefferson's politics. But his argument in Economic Origins of Jeffersonian Democracy was distinctly anti-Jefferson, writing him off as essentially a naively utopian agrarian:

The Economic Origins of Jeffersonian Democracy has usually been placed, with nearly all of Beard's work, on the Jeffersonian side of the perennial debate. On what grounds it is difficult to see. ...

As critical as he was of twentieth-century capitalism, Beard nevertheless believed the Federalist regime, which gave the spur to capitalism, had been good for the country. The Jeffersonians had cried privilege and corruption. They were right, of course; but it was, Beard thought, merely a question of whose ox was gored. "It was a clear case of a collision of economic interests: fluid capital versus agrarianism. The representation of one interest was as legitimate as the other." The only standard Beard could apply to the parties was that of capacity for constructive work, which in turn depended upon the ability to organize politics around economic want and need. Unquestionably, in Beard's judgment, Hamilton and the Federalists were superior to Jefferson and the Republicans in this crucial task of statesmanship. A refrain of innuendo ran through the book to the effect that the new government would have suffered irreparable injury had the decision on such momentous issues as Hamilton's "been left to those highly etherealized persons who 'cherished the people' - and nothing more." Hamilton's understanding of the economic basis of politics caused Beard to rank him "with the great statesmen of all time." No such encomium was passed on Jefferson.

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