May 1, 2006


Charles Beard and the growth of modern American liberalism (Robert S. Sargent, Jr., May 1, 2006, Enter Stage Right)

In this paper, I suggest that liberalism, (I'll define it generally, as opposed to specific policy issues, as the use of a strong central government to achieve social reform, usually of an egalitarian nature) was greatly aided in its growth with the publication in 1913 of the historian Charles Beard's An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution. [...]

Before the publication of An Economic Interpretation, there was a dichotomy in liberal thought: A sense of needed reform in society, and recognition of society's great respect for our Constitution. The reason for the dichotomy, of course, is that the Constitution greatly limits the ability of the Federal Government to reform society. The 10th Amendment says: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people," and social reform is not a delegated power.

But Charles Beard changed the way reform-minded leaders thought about the Constitution. In An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution, Professor Beard argued that it wasn't political philosophy, or idealism which influenced the Founding Fathers, but selfish economic greed. What's important about this book is what the great historian, Samuel E. Morison wrote: "…An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution, was written apparently to break down [the] excessive respect for the Federal Constitution which [Beard] believed to be the main legal block to social justice." By discrediting the Constitution, Beard gave the intelligentsia, especially in academic circles, the ammunition to attack the Constitution in ways that would allow the centralized Federal Government to not only participate, but to take the lead in reforming society.

The great revival of interest in the Founders is helping to dispense with Beard's canards, but those of us who went to school in the 70s and 80s faced a faculty that had sucked down the myth of the Founders being motivated entirely by economic greed like mother's milk. This text richly deserves its place among the Worst of the 20th Century.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 1, 2006 9:02 PM

Published in 1913? Just as the 'progressive' era was coming to a head. What an awful year. Beard has been dicredited to a degree although the 'reforms' generated by his economic/historicism still haunt the country.The link between Marx and the progressives should be clear and uncontested by now.All of the reforms of the era should be jettisoned, wholesale.

Posted by: Tom C.,Stamford,Ct at May 2, 2006 7:30 AM

What a strange idea the Left espouses!

They would evaluate an institution not on its utility, but on its original motive.

It is difficult to escape the conclusion that high among the motives for American independence and American limited government were the will to wrest the land from the savage and the intention to maintain arrangements of involuntary servitude.

Many would hold that one or both of these motives are unworthy, but wait--behold the regime of freedom and prosperity the institutions originally so motivated have brought in their train.

A person of African of of mixed African descent living in North America two hundred-odd years ago would have been advantaged then and there had the British retained domination. Better also would that person's lot have been if the new nation had adopted a unitary constitution of central powers sufficient to transforn local institutions.

But the hypothetical slave does not now exist. He or she is gone--dead as Methuselah's cat. The descendants of that person are here and now the beneficiaries of the freedom and prosperity which flow from limited government.

So does the motive matter at all? Neither the Marx-Beard thesis nor the more current "slave-nation" spin-off address the real world of the here and now. They do no more than to prescribe the destruction of ordered liberty in the cause of assuaging the psychopathology of ressentment.

Posted by: Lou Gots at May 2, 2006 8:18 AM