Creation of the U.S. Constitution: Charles Beard's Interpretation

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will examine Charles Beard's interpretation of the U.S. Constitution. We will learn who Charles Beard was and what he thought about America's 'Founding Fathers' and the U.S. Constitution.

Who Was Charles Beard?

'We historians are all about the Beard.' This is a running joke among certain academic circles. While some historians like to sport the bearded look, other students of history are referring to Charles Beard, a super influential 20th century historian. So who was this guy?

Charles Beard remains one of the most important 20th century historians. This guy is big stuff. His scholarship dating back to the first half of the 20th century is still debated today. The interpretations he proposed were so profound that modern-day historians are still forced to navigate his views.

Charles Beard was a highly influential 20th century historian.
Charles Beard

Charles Beard lived between 1874-1948. He was educated at Oxford University and Columbia University. His most important writings date back to the 1910s-1930s. Beard taught at Barnard College and later went on to serve as president of the American Historical Association. Holding to a progressive position, he was also a dynamic force in politics and American academia in general. Beard is primarily known for his interpretation of America's 'Founding Fathers' and the creation of the U.S. Constitution.

Charles Beard's Interpretation of the Constitution

In 1913, Beard published his most influential book, An Economic Interpretation of the U.S. Constitution. This book was pretty controversial. It upset a lot of people. Even today, it continues to be widely debated within academic circles.

Basically, Beard argued that the U.S. Constitution was adopted in order to protect the rights and interests of the wealthy, upper-class members of society. The 'Founding Fathers' were members of this upper-class group. See, most of our 'Founders' were wealthy land-owners. Think about Thomas Jefferson or George Washington, for example. Therefore, Beard was arguing that America's 'Founders' adopted the U.S. Constitution primarily out of economic self-interest.

In formulating this interpretation, Beard drew from the scholarship of another famous historian named Carl L. Becker. Becker had argued the American Revolution really consisted of two revolutions: one against Great Britain for independence and the other a conflict to decide who should rule in the absence of British authority. Beard took this idea and ran with it. Beard conceived the Constitution as stemming from a class conflict between wealthy landowners and common farmers.

We have to understand the impact of the American Revolution on class conflict. The American Revolution in its day was a pretty radical event. To a degree, it stripped power from the upper-class and distributed it among the lower-class. This was particularly true of Jeffersonian democracy. In the American Revolution and its aftermath, the common man had secured so much political power, that many members of the upper-class felt threatened. Beard thus regarded the U.S. Constitution as stemming from a counter-revolution in which the elite upper-class acted to to restore their power and thwart the masses from grasping too much influence.

See, many of the wealthy upper-class feared the masses would unite and basically steal their land. The Constitution, while granting rights and protection to all classes, was particularly appealing to the upper-class because it provided a legal safe-guard on their power. If we think about this in terms of the political spectrum, the common people would be regarded as more of the liberals and the elite landowners as the conservatives. Thus, Beard interprets the Constitution as a conservative bulwark against the encroaches of liberal democracy.

Beard's interpretation, and Becker's, for that matter, belong to what scholars call progressive history, or the progressive interpretation of history. The progressive interpretation of history emphasizes economic factors and issues of class conflict.

The Legacy of Beard's Interpretation

Beard's interpretation was controversial when it first appeared. Nevertheless, it made waves. In the left-leaning climate of the 1930s, it had become widely accepted. However, the conservatism and anti-communism of 1950s spelled disaster for Beard's interpretation.

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