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Wednesday, May 1, 1991

A Reviewers Notebook: The Conservative Constitution

Russell Kirk calls his generally excellent new book The Conservative Constitution (Regnery Gateway, 241 pages, $22.95). The word “conservative” is correctly calculated. The famous 55 men, leaders in their own colonies, wanted to avoid a revolution. They were bent on retaining the historic rights of Englishmen. It was King George III who was the revolutionist, bound to revive the discredited divine fight of kings.

So the 55 men—Madison, Hamilton, John Adams, Washington, and the rest—cut loose from Britain, though a bit reluctantly. They followed Montesquieu, who wrongly saw a tripartite division of powers in the unwritten English constitution. Kirk would like to think that Edmund Burke, a friend of the colonists who had no desire to see them separated from England, had more to do with the spirit of the American Constitution than John Locke, who gets a credit deriving from the part he played in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. It just so happened that Edmund Burke was too wrapped up in heading the English opposition to Robespierre and the revolutionary French Jacobins to pay any direct attention to 55 men in Philadelphia.

Just who read Burke and who read Locke are matters for argument. Russell Kirk does his best to get at the truth of influence. Charles Beard, the historian, was insistent that the 55 men had economic interests to protect. Kirk does not disagree. But he writes that factors other than economic interests strongly influenced the delegates, “and their votes at the Convention do not follow the pattern that Beard thought he had discerned; nor did ratification of the Constitution in the several states actually follow the lines of Beard’s economic interpretation.” The flaw in Beard’s thesis is “the hard fact that mercantile, manufacturing and public-security investments were not the more important property holdings of the Convention’s delegates.” Agricultural property, particularly in the case of the richer delegates, bulked far larger in value. “There occurred no contest at the Convention between capitalist and farmer, nor any other discernible class conflict along economic lines.”

The Beard thesis that the line of cleavage was between personal property interests (capitalistic classes) on the one hand and small farming and debtor interests on the other is, as Alabama’s Forrest McDonald told Kirk, “entirely incompatible with the facts.”

McDonald, a good Hamiltonian researcher, had undone Beard by following Beard’s own methods, but with greater thoroughness. Kirk is perfectly safe in taking McDonald’s word. But this leads to a great injustice. It so happens that a Michigan professor, Robert E. Brown, anticipated both McDonald and Kirk by some 30 years.

When I was doing the review column for The Wall Street Journal in the fifties, my editor, Vermont Royster, handed me Brown’s pioneering critical analysis 0f Beard, a book called Charles Beard and the Constitution. You might find this interesting, said Royster.

Indeed I did. Let me quote from my own flabbergasted review column. “As things were actually constituted,” I wrote, “the America of 1787 was an agrarian nation in which property was widely and beneficently diffused. As Professor Brown puts it, quoting Gouverneur Morris, ‘At least 90 percent of the men were voters because they were freeholders.’ Some 97 percent of the people lived in rural areas, and the local freehold voting qualification admitted the small farmers, including the debtors among them, to the franchise. States in which farming was practically the sole economic interest were among the first to ratify the Constitution. And towns whose citizens owned a lot of ‘personality’ actually voted to reject the document that had been allegedly rigged in their interest . . . .

“The Founders felt, and rightly felt, that they had a mandate from the people to balance the powers in such a way that the tyranny represented by King George III would never be repeated in America. And, while they admittedly had economic motives, their main effort was to protect the life, liberty and property (small farms included) of everybody, not merely the few who had put their money into movable securities which would benefit by the funding of the debt.”

I concluded my review of the Brown book by saying that it failed to give justice to the totality of Charles Beard’s work. Beard ended his life believing that the Founders had wrought well. He said many interpretations, economic, moral, and esthetic, were possible. Later I played the part of honest broker when Henry Luce lured Beard into doing a piece extolling the Constitution as a document in which moral factors were even more important in history than economic.

None of my praise for Brown should detract from Kirk’s book. It is sound even though he gets some of his figures from a secondary source. My only consideration here is to see that pioneers get credit. I am sure Russell Kirk would agree with me.

  • John Chamberlain (1903-1995) was an American journalist, business and economic historian, and author of number of works including The Roots of Capitalism (1959). Chamberlain also served as a founding editor of The Freeman magazine.