Interpretation of the Constitution
by Charles Beard
Historical Interpretation in the
. . . It will be admitted without
controversy that the Constitution was the creation of a certain number of
men, and it was opposed by a certain number of men. Now, if it were
possible to have an economic biography of all of those connected with its
framing and adoption--perhaps about 160,000 men altogether--the materials
for scientific analysis and classification would be available. Such an
economic biography would include a list of the real and personal property
owned by all of these men and their families; lands and houses, with
incumbrances, money at interest, slaves, capital invested in shipping and
manufacturing, and in state and continental securities.
Suppose it could be shown from the
classification of the men who supported and opposed the Constitution that
there was no line of property division at all; that is, that men owning
substantially the same amounts of the same kinds of property were equally
divided on the matter of adoption or rejection--it would then become
apparent that the Constitution had no ascertainable relation to economic
groups or classes, but was the product of some abstract causes remote from
the chief business of life--gaining a livelihood.
Suppose, on the other hand, that
substantially all of the merchants, money lenders, security holders,
manufacturers, shippers, capitalists, and financiers and their
professional associates are to be found on one side in support of the
Constitution and that substantially all or the major portion of the
opposition came from the non-slaveholding farmers and the debtors--would it
not be pretty conclusively demonstrated that our fundamental law was not
the product of an abstraction known as "the whole people," but
of a group of economic interests which must have expected beneficial
results from its adoption? Obviously all the facts here desired cannot be
discovered, but the data presented in the following chapters bear out the
latter hypothesis, and thus a reasonable presumption in favor of the
theory is created.
Of course, it may be shown (and
perhaps can be shown) that the farmers and debtors who opposed the
Constitution were, in fact, benefited by the general improvement which
resulted from its adoption. It may likewise be shown, to take an extreme
case, that the English nation derived immense advantages from the Norman
Conquest and the orderly administrative processes which were introduced,
as it undoubtedly did; nevertheless, it does not follow that the vague
thing known as "the advancement of general welfare" or some
abstraction known as "justice" was the immediate, guiding
purpose of the leaders in either of these great historic changes. The
point is, that the direct, impelling motive in both cases was the economic
advantages which the beneficiaries expected would accrue to themselves
first, from their action. Further than this, economic interpretation
cannot go. It may be that some larger world-process is working through
each series of historical events; but ultimate causes lie beyond our
A Survey of Economic Interests in
. . . A survey of the economic
interests of the members of the Convention presents certain conclusions:
A majority of the members were
lawyers by profession.
Most of the members came from towns,
on or near the coast, that is, from the regions in which personalty was
Not one member represented in his
immediate personal economic interests the small farming or mechanic
The overwhelming majority of
members, at least five-sixths, were immediately, directly, and personally
interested in the outcome of their labors at Philadelphia, and were to a
greater or less extent economic beneficiaries from the adoption of the
1. Public security interests were
extensively represented in the Convention. Of the fifty-five members who
attended no less than forty appear on the Records of the Treasury
Department for sums varying from a few dollars up to more than one hundred
thousand dollars. Among the minor holders were Basset, Blount, Brearley,
Broom, Butler, Carroll, Few, Hamilton, L. Martin, Mason, Mercer, Mifflin,
Read, Spaight, Wilson, and Wythe. Among the larger holders (taking the sum
of about $5000 as the criterion) were Baldwin, Blair, Clymer, Dayton,
Ellsworth, Fitzsimons, Gilman, Gerry, Gorham, Jenifer, Johnson, King,
Langdon, Lansing, Livingston, McClurg, R. Morris, C.C. Pinckney, C.
Pinckney, Randolph, Sherman, Strong, Washington, and Williamson.
It is interesting to note that, with
the exception of New York, and possibly Delaware, each state had one or
more prominent representatives in the Convention who held more than a
negligible amount of securities, and who could therefore speak with
feeling and authority on the question of providing in the new Constitution
for the full discharge of the public debt:
Langdon and Gilman, of New
Gerry, Strong, and King, of
Ellsworth, Sherman, and Johnson, of
Hamilton, of New York. Although he
held no large amount personally, he was the special pleader for the
holders of public securities and the maintenance of public faith.
Dayton, of New Jersey.
Robert Morris, Clymer, and
Fitzsimons, of Pennsylvania.
Mercer and Carroll, of Maryland.
Blair, McClurg, and Randolph, of
Williamson, of North Carolina.
The two Pinckneys, of South
Few and Baldwin, of Georgia.
2. Personalty invested in lands for
speculation was represented by at least fourteen members: Blount, Dayton,
Few, Fitzsimons, Franklin, Gilman, Gerry, Gorham, Hamilton, Mason, R.
Morris, Washington, Williamson, and Wilson.
3. Personalty in the form of money
loaned at interest was represented by at least twenty-four members:
Bassett, Broom, Butler, Carroll, Clymer, Davie, Dickinson, Ellsworth, Few,
Fitzsimons, Franklin, Gilman, Ingersoll, Johnson, King, Langdon, Mason,
McHenry, C.C. Pinckney, C. Pinckney, Randolph, Read, Washington, and
4. Personalty in mercantile,
manufacturing, and shipping lines was represented by at least eleven
members: Broom, Clymer, Ellsworth, Fitzsimons, Gerry, King, Langdon,
McHenry, Mifflin, G. Morris, and R. Morris.
5. Personalty in slaves was
represented by at least fifteen members: Butler, Davis, Jenifer, A.
Martin, L. Martin, Mason, Mercer, C.C. Pinckney, C. Pinckney, Randolph,
Read, Rutledge, Spaight, Washington, and Wythe.
It cannot be said, therefore,
that the members of the Convention were "disinterested." On the
contrary, we are forced to accept the profoundly significant conclusion
that they knew through their personal experiences in economic affairs the
precise results which the new government that they were setting up was
designed to attain. As a group of doctrinaires, like the Frankfort
assembly of 1848, they would have failed miserably; but as practical men
they were able to build the new government upon the only foundations which
could be stable: fundamental economic interests. The fact that a few
members of the Convention, who had considerable economic interests at
stake, refused to support the Constitution does not invalidate the general
conclusions here presented. In the cases of Yates, Lansing, Luther Martin,
and Mason, definite economic reasons for their action are forthcoming; but
this is a minor detail.