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Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Founders, the Constitution, and the Historians

The first step in getting Americans to disregard the Constitution is to get them to distrust the men who wrote it. This assault on the Founders, subtle at first, began in earnest almost 100 years ago. The first historian to challenge the motives of the Founders was Charles Beard in An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (1913).

In this landmark book, Beard, a professor of history at Columbia University, argued that the Constitution was “an economic document drawn with superb skill by men whose property interests were immediately at stake.” The Founders, then, rather than being patriots, wise lawmakers, or thoughtful students of government, were primarily in the Constitution-writing business to protect their “property interests.”

Conflicts of Interest

The Founders’ economic motives, according to Beard, were straightforward—they were owed money from their support of the Revolution, and those “public securities” (receipts for loans made to support American independence) were not being repaid under the weak Articles of Confederation. A stronger governing document was needed to ease the transfer of tax dollars from ordinary citizens into the pockets of the more affluent Founders.

Thus, according to Beard, the constitutional convention in Philadelphia in 1787 was promoted by “a small and active group of men immediately interested through their personal possessions in the outcome of their labors. . . . The propertyless masses were . . . excluded at the outset from participation. . . .”

Beard, who was among the first generation of professionally trained historians, gathered evidence on the Founders: “Many leaders in the movement for ratification were large [public] security holders,” he argued. Those who opposed the Constitution owned fewer public securities.

Each state had to vote on ratifying the Constitution, and Beard offered evidence that “the leaders who supported the Constitution in the ratifying conventions represented the same economic groups as the members of the Philadelphia convention.” The Founders, Beard conceded, did not write the Constitution merely to make money, but nonetheless, “The Constitution was essentially an economic document.”

Beard’s thesis, seemingly well researched, was presented in a tentative way, but it soon swept the historical profession and became gospel in college classrooms by the 1920s. The Constitution, professors suggested to their students, was not a document worthy of special respect. It was a product of self-interest that should be interpreted loosely and changed as the Progressives saw fit.

The constitutional separation of powers, for example, according to Woodrow Wilson—a friend of Beard’s and a fellow Ph.D. in history—was a “grievous mistake” by the Founders. More centralization of power was needed—especially in the executive branch—to change society through needed reforms, such as the progressive income tax.

Beard made his reputation with his book and went on to an illustrious career: He authored or coauthored 49 books that had sold more than 11 million copies by 1952.

Questionable Scholarship

During the 1950s, historian Forrest McDonald did a more thorough study of the Founders and discovered what can most generously be described as errors in research and, less generously, as fraudulent research. McDonald traveled to archives throughout the original 13 states and meticulously compiled data on thousands of men involved in the debate over the Constitution. After systematically studying the lives of the Founders and the state convention delegates, McDonald wrote We the People, which debunked Beard completely. “No correlation” exists, McDonald discovered, “between their economic interests and their votes on issues in general or on key economic issues.” In fact, McDonald emphasized that in Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and New York “most [public] security holders opposed ratification.”

How could Beard have erred so badly? In part Beard missed the mark because he was trying to hit something else—a Progressive agenda for reform, the excuse to transfer wealth from the haves to the have-nots. If the Founders were merely protecting their economic interests, Beard and his progressive friends were justified in supporting the redistribution of wealth.

How can we be sure that Beard was blinded by his ideology? One indication is that he seems to have willfully distorted his evidence to suggest that certain signers of the Constitution owned more public securities (and other forms of wealth) than they actually did. For example, Daniel Jenifer of Maryland, who signed the Constitution in Philadelphia, held no public securities—a point against Beard’s view that the signers were self-interested. But Beard classified Jenifer among the large security holders because his son Daniel Jenifer, Jr., held several thousand dollars’ worth of them.

But alas, as McDonald shows, “Jenifer had no children—at least no legitimate ones—for in both of the sources Beard used to gather data on Jenifer, it is expressly stated that Jenifer was a bachelor.” Beard also classified Gunning Bedford, Jr., a delegate from Delaware, as a security holder, but, as Beard admits, there were two Gunning Bedfords in Delaware, and the one who didn’t sign the Constitution was the one who owned the public securities. Furthermore, Beard places delegates Nicholas Gilman, William Samuel Johnson, Charles Pinckney, and others as holders of public securities, but they did not acquire these securities until long after they signed the Constitution.

Some of Beard’s mistakes are more subtle. He classifies delegate William Few as a security holder because Few funded a “certificate of 1779” with a “nominal” value of $2,170. True, but what Beard neglects to say is that Few’s “nominal” value was scaled down to a mere $114.80, a sum hardly worth motivating Few to sign the Constitution to redeem.

No doubt all the Founders were concerned about their own finances as well as those of the nation. But in writing the Constitution, they were above all trying to apply principles of natural rights and limited government to create a durable nation that would be a bastion of freedom in an unfree world. James Madison and other Founders diligently studied ancient and modern republics to learn from their mistakes what safeguards to employ to protect liberty while allowing elected politicians enough authority to effectively lead the nation.

The Sacrifices Made

What Beard omits from his history is the wisdom and dedication of the Founders in overcoming narrow self-interest to produce a masterful guiding document for the country. The actions of Robert Morris of Pennsylvania and Nathaniel Gorham of Massachusetts, for example, are remarkable. Both men signed the Constitution and supported it vigorously even though they ultimately lost money doing so.

Both men had committed to buy land with public securities—which were trading at only about 15 percent of par value before the Constitution was ratified. When the Constitution was ratified and the public securities were redeemed, both Morris and Gorham had to buy the securities at par value, so they both lost fortunes. Morris, in fact, went from being the wealthiest merchant in the United States in 1787 to being tossed into debtors’ prison in the 1790s. Contrary to Beard, Morris had voted against his own economic self-interest, and for his country’s financial integrity.

  • Burton Folsom, Jr. is a professor of history at Hillsdale College and author (with his wife, Anita) of FDR Goes to WarHe is a member of the FEE Faculty Network