Discuss Beard's arguments in Framing the Constitution.
I am not entirely certain that everyone commenting on Charles Beard’s essay “Framing the Constitution” actually read it. Beard is far more nuanced than the other comments would suggest. The problem, however, might lie in the use of the word “Framers.” Beard is far more respectful of the motivations of the authors of the Declaration of Independence and of the Constitution, with the Articles of Confederation representing an inadequate transitional framework for the establishment of a new form of government. Beard discusses Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Patrick Henry, and Samuel Adams within the context of a revolutionary movement intended to replace autocratic rule with republicanism or democracy. While the theories that were used to undergird our government were not new, their practical application was new. In addition, Beard lauds the backgrounds these men brought to their work, especially George Washington. Liberty from repressive autocrats was the goal, not financial gain, although the freedom they sought would certainly facilitate the kind of business transactions that would prove enriching. It is not, therefore, the “Framers” whom Beard indicts for their pecuniary interests in revolution:
“The new American political system based on these doctrines had scarcely gone into effect before it began to incur opposition from many sources. The close of the Revolutionary struggle removed the prime cause for radical agitation and brought a new group of thinkers into prominence. When independence had been gained, the practical work to be done was the maintenance of social order, the payment of the public debt, the provision of a sound financial system, and the establishment of conditions favorable to the development of the economic resources of the new country. The men who were principally concerned in this work of peaceful enterprise were not the philosophers, but men of business and property and the holders of public securities.”
This passage is hardly consistent with the kind of cynical revisionism that fueled the works of Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn. It would, after all, be folly to ignore economic considerations when creating a new nation out of the postwar remains of the colonies. Believing in economic freedom is not the same as acting primarily or solely out of self-interest. Rather, such beliefs arise from the notion that economic freedom is the optimal approach to collective economic well-being. Again, quoting from Beard’s essay:
“The makers of the Constitution represented the solid, conservative, commercial and financial interests of the country—not the interests which denounced and proscribed judges in Rhode Island, New Jersey, and North Carolina, and stoned their houses in New York.”
Basically, Beard is acknowledging the importance of intellectual and emotional maturity in the shaping of the United States of America. This is not the “greed is good” argument of Ivan Boesky/Gordon Gekko as propagated by filmmaker Oliver Stone. It is instead the argument borne out by history that the greatest good derives from freedom and not from tyranny.
Charles Beard presented a different view of the motives of the Founding Fathers who wrote the Constitution. He argued that the writers of the Constitution were mainly concerned with economic factors. He believed they were trying to preserve the rights of property owners. He argued that the rights of property owners were being challenged in the state legislatures. By giving some powers to the federal government while denying some powers to the state governments, the Founding Fathers were able to protect the rights of the property owners.
Since the Founding Fathers were property owners, it could be argued that the Founding Fathers were actually acting in an undemocratic manner because they were protecting their own interests instead of thinking about what was good for the majority of people in the country
Charles Beard’s view is considered an unorthodox one. Many historians don’t believe this was the motivation of the Founding Fathers.
Beard argued that the Framers of the Constitution were interested more in furthering their own economic interests than in creating a truly representative government. If anything, he argues, the government they created was anti-democratic, formed with the interests of holders of securities in mind, not those of the people as a whole. Many of the Framers did, in fact, stand to benefit from the establishment of a government that could raise revenue to finance its own debt, but subsequent generations of historians have pointed to a number of flaws in his argument, especially the selective use of sources to make his case. However, Beard's (actually the Beards', since his wife Mary collaborated with him on many of his works) view of the Constitution as a fundamentally conservative, even anti-democratic document is accepted, at least on some level, by most modern historians.
I would say that most modern historians believe that Beard went too far. Beard looks at the Framers and argues that they were acting as they did for selfish reasons. But it is possible to act in a way that promotes the interests of your class but is not selfish. If you truly believe that a system that helps your class will help everyone else as well, you are not being selfish. Most historians today would argue that this is what the Framers were doing and I tend to agree with them.