Economic Interests of the Delegates
The above table is derived from Charles Beard’s compilation of the economic holdings of the Framers at the Constitutional Convention. Beard’s account can be found in his Economic Interpretation of the Constitution (1913). The interpretation went unchallenged for roughly 40 years.
Beard’s main claim was that the Constitution was not created by “demi-gods” or even disinterested men, nor was it adopted by means of an open and democratic ratification system. Instead, Beard argued that economic interests were at stake in both phases.
At times, Beard comes close to suggesting that the Constitution is an economically-determined document rather than simply we need to take economics into account. For example, Beard argues that a small group of active men with “personalty” interests – “money, public securities, manufactures, and trade and shipping” – as opposed to “realty” interests (including those owning small farms, many of whom Beard claimed were debtors) called for the Convention and the rest of “the people” had no say in who went there or in the process of ratification.
According to Beard, “The Constitution was an essentially economic document based upon the concept that the fundamental private rights of property are anterior to government and morally beyond the reach of popular majorities.” (324) A “large property less mass was excluded from participation in all stages of the process.” “The Constitution was ratified by a vote of probably not more than one-sixth of the adult males.” (325) Put differently, the Constitution was created by and for “substantial property interests.” Ideas, geographical location, and size of the state play little or no role in Beard’s account of the Constitution. Property holdings determine everything.
During the latter half of the 20th Century, his economic interpretation was subjected to considerable scrutiny – to the point where virtually no scholars today accept his thesis as proposed. Leading challengers to Beard’s thesis include Douglass Adair, Martin Diamond, Robert Brown, and Forrest McDonald.
Yet Beard remains a force to be reckoned with in the 21st Century. The continued interest in Beard seems, in large part, to be a persistent attraction by scholars and students to his claim that he was telling history as it “really” happens rather than giving a historical account as abstract “mythology” created by demi-gods. (It is rather odd that James Madison does not make an appearance in the table, but that Beard relies on him heavily to “prove” his thesis that Federalist 10 supports an economic interpretation of the Constitution.)