Charles Beard

Oddly enough, one of the most outspoken writers on this topic was Charles Beard. He has entered the annals of American historiography as perhaps the quintessential economic-school historian. His seminal work, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States, published in 1913, argued that the forces of the revolution were in effect subverted by the forces of the established ruling class of the pre-war period. He argued that the history of America, and that the Constitution itself, was the result of Marxian-style class struggle. He further asserted that the Constitution was an economic document designed by those with money and property to protect those with money and property. This class-struggle view was applied by Beard to all of American history. He would undoubtedly stress the labor-management strife of the 1930s and the oppression of Indians and blacks as well if he were writing today of the history of the Great Depression. He would probably explain the western movement as a result of oppressed factory workers leaving the factory in order to find opportunity in the West (this comment is offered as evidence of Beard''s odd-man-out status within the "progressive school").

Beard also stands alone among the progressive historians inasmuch as he wrote a consensus-style book in collaboration with his wife. It was entitled The Beards'' Basic History of the United States and was published in 1944. In it, he (is "they" perhaps better?) seconded many of Jameson''s notions of the end of primogeniture, disestablishment of the Anglican church, and so on. Moreover, the breakup of large Tory estates was discussed (Beard 1944, 119).

But it is the chapter on the Constitution that stands out. Spatial restraint forces me to be brief; suffice it to say that the view of the Constitution offered by Beard was a much mellower view than the one offered by him a bit more than thirty years earlier. He discussed the various features of the document and extolled its virtues. In short, he seemed more tolerant of "men of property" (Beard 1944, 120-137). Was it because two world wars had changed his world-view? Had he been cauterized by the barbarism of twentieth-century global war? Or had he merely begun to be more tolerant, as so often happens as people reach the ends of their lives? Probably all of these forces were in effect to one degree or another. Beard himself is quoted by Richard Hofstadter as saying in 1934 that "[r]are indeed is the savant who does not appear to be at war with himself in his own breast" and in 1940 that "Olympian certitude has exploded" (Hofstadter, 285). In any event, whether for war-time propaganda reasons, or for the reasons wrought by intellectual evolution, Charles Beard near the end of his life had softened his once-adversarial stance.

My only important criticism of Beard is that economic interpretations of history that exclude all others, of the kind that Beard wrote in his earliest years, are at best one-dimensional. At worst they are narrow-minded, adversarial, sometimes even hate-filled, polemics.