Constitutional Convention
Constitutional Convention
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Economy in Constitutional Convention

Looking at the Past Through the Lens of Economy

Was the Constitution "an economic document for economic ends"?

One of the most influential—and controversial—history books ever published was Charles Beard's An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States, in 1913. Beard, a professor of politics at Columbia University, was a Progressive historian (a member of the Republican Party, not a Marxist) committed to reforming the federal government to save American democracy from what he considered to be the abuses of capitalism. His work was influenced by his contemporary context, in which he and other Progressives hoped that the Supreme Court would prove more amenable to federal regulation of trusts and congressional labor laws to protect industrial workers. Beard clearly admired the Constitution's framers and the work they accomplished, but he also demystified those framers, the process by which the Constitution was framed, and the motivations for doing so. He analyzed each individual convention delegate (in alphabetical order!), described their economic background and interests, and demonstrated how they each stood to benefit financially from passage of the new governmental structure. None of the delegates represented the interests of small farmers or mechanics; most of them came from towns or coastal regions where personal property was highly concentrated.

Essentially, Beard argued that these framers shaped a new government to curb the excesses of democracy and to protect wealthy men with property interests, including themselves. Property interests later became business, which subsequently became synonymous with the despised corporate oligarchy of Beard's era. Marxist historians had mounted similar arguments before him, but Beard's status within the profession and his judicious tone brought credibility to his economic interpretation among mainstream scholars and created an uproar upon publication of the book. Over 11 million copies of the work were sold in various languages around the world.

Ex-president William Howard Taft and others soon emerged to challenge Beard's thesis. In the decades that followed, numerous historians and political scientists mounted counter-arguments and a consensus soon followed that the founding fathers had actually put their personal interests aside, both political and economic, for the sake of building a new and better government. Many pointed out that not all creditors or slaveholders always voted the same way; therefore while they may have shared some economic or class interests, such commonalities did not necessarily supersede other factors such as geographic region, education, and religion. Economists have noted that the framers could not have known exactly how their interests would be affected by all the provisions on which they were voting. Yet the argument continues; recent studies have sought to defend the economic interpretation of the Constitution, while modifying or expanding on certain aspects of the original Beard thesis. One examination found that personal or constituent interests were statistically significant determinants of a delegate's vote at the convention, regardless of whether the issue was constitutional or a matter of financial interest. In other words, there probably was some sort of connection between a person's socioeconomic standing and the way that they voted in regard to the Constitution and the measures that comprised it.

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