The Beard Thesis and the Seinfeld Defense

In this, its centennial year, Charles Beard’s 1913 An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States retains its hold on both the publication market and, at least in certain circles, the popular imagination. Its claim that the Founders were possessive aristocrats out to protect the property of the privileged has, to be sure, been demolished in the scholarly literature, most notably by Forrest McDonald. But it may be time for those who respect the Framers to acknowledge at least one deep vein of truth in Beard’s thesis and reply with an even deeper one. Call it “the Seinfeld defense”: Yes, they wanted to protect property—not that there’s anything wrong with that.

The idea that the Founders had to be redeemed from Beard’s charge has so framed the response to the Progressive historian that the charge itself has been too little examined. But while Beard’s assessment of the personal economic stakes of the Philadelphia delegates was, as McDonald and others have shown, mistaken, his deeper point cannot and indeed ought not be dismissed: One purpose of the Philadelphia project was the protection of property.

To be sure, Beard’s errors are legion. They are theoretical, not just historical. He claims that the “economic corollary” to Madison’s political thought is that “[p]roperty interests may, through their superior weight in power and intelligence, secure advantageous legislation whenever necessary, and they may at the same time obtain immunity from control by parliamentary majorities.”[1] This is patent error—Madison had in fact said property could be regulated even to prevent its excess accumulation—as is Beard’s imputation of judicial supremacy to Madison, and his mistaking of that doctrine for the proposed national veto over state laws.[2]

Yet Beard’s assessment of the centrality of the economic dimensions of the Tenth Federalist is also essentially sound. Madison was acutely concerned with the violation of property rights in the states, even if his concern with paper currency was just as often its use to manipulate the poor as to defraud the rich. He and other delegates to Philadelphia had listed the protection of property as one of the essential reasons for the institution of government, as McDonald has emphasized. Beard’s error is not merely his conflation of economic interests, it is his underlying assumption—though it should be said he disclaims it under the banner of impartiality—that there is something inherently tawdry in the protection of property.

Beard counterposes the economic interests of the delegates to abstract theoretical motive. What he overlooks is the decisive role the protection of property played in republican theory as a bulwark against political abuse. Property provided a source of power independent of the sovereign, enabling the multiple ties of dependence whose necessity Bertrand de Jouvenel emphasizes.

Thus Governor Stephen Hopkins of Rhode Island in 1764: “For it must be confessed by all men that they who are taxed at pleasure by others cannot possibly have any property, can have nothing to be called their own. They who have no property can have no freedom, but are indeed reduced to the most abject slavery. . . .” Samuel West, preaching an Election Day sermon in 1776, noted the connection between property and personal independence: “But if [the British] have the right to take our property from us without our consent, we must be wholly at their mercy for our food and raiment, and we know by sad experience that their tender mercies are cruel.” Timothy Ford, writing under the pseudonym Americanus, similarly observed in 1794 that in the absence of protection for property, there would be no laws “but such as would authorize the lounging crew to prey upon the industrious.”

There were, moreover, legitimate questions of justice presented by the practices of abolishing debts by means of legislative fiat or inflating them out of existence with paper money. There is no particular reason one man ought to labeled covetous or greedy for wanting a loan he has made in good faith to another to be repaid. Nor can these economic disputes be seen as proxies for battles between rich and poor, since those attempting to manipulate their way out of debt were just as often the former.  Property also plays a decisive role in the doctrine of subsidiarity, the idea that social problems ought to be resolved by the closest available social institution. Its exercise requires, in Hopkins’ terms, something to call one’s own rather than being dependent on the distant resources of the state.

None of this is to rehabilitate Beard from the errors that cause him to impute rapacity to the Framers. It is, however, to suggest that even the behavior of which he accuses them might not be altogether rapacious. To the extent he means to accuse them of exploiting the Constitutional process to protect their personal assets, he is clearly wrong. To the extent the indictment is that they wanted to protect property, the best defense may come from Jerry and George: Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

[1]Economic Interpretation (New York: Free Press, 1968), 161.

[2] Ibid., 178.

Greg Weiner

Greg Weiner, who teaches political science at Assumption College, is the author of Madison’s Metronome: The Constitution, Majority Rule and the Tempo of American Politics. His book American Burke: The Uncommon Liberalism of Daniel Patrick Moynihan will be published by University Press of Kansas in early 2015.

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Comments

  1. Kevin R. Hardwick says

    Greg–

    Something I have never noticed in Madison: you write “Madison had in fact said property could be regulated even to prevent its excess accumulation.” Can you point me to the primary sources I should read on this? I would guess if I went back to Drew McCoy I could track down the reference, but hopefully you can save me the effort!

    Thanks!
    Kevin

  2. Kevin R. Hardwick says

    Greg–

    Another claim I would much benefit from seeing in a more expansive form: You write “Madison was acutely concerned with the violation of property rights in the states, even if his concern with paper currency was just as often its use to manipulate the poor as to defraud the rich.” Emphatic agreement from me with the first part of the sentence, but less clear on the second.

    I have tended to read Madison in this regard in the context of his fear of demagogues–a fear that he shared in common with just about every republican statesman on the continent. (My current scholarship focuses in part on the rhetoric of demagoguery in Virginia in this period, so this is something that much interests me.) But many studies argue that this fear was over-wrought–that we should in other words distinguish between the fear, which was genuine and real, and the actual reality. Some scholars argue that the calls for paper currency resulted not from manipulation by devious and unprincipled statesmen (as Madison and many others feared) but rather from a genuine democratic politics. I am thinking here, for example, scholars like Risjord on the politics of the 1780s in the Chesapeake states.

    It would be most useful indeed for helping clarify my thought if you can direct me to the particular writings by Madison you had in mind when you wrote this sentence. In a blog post, you lack time to develop these things–but as someone trying to make sense of Madison’s thought, and to teach it, I would be very grateful indeed if you have time to expand a bit.

    Thanks in advance,
    Kevin

    • gabe says

      Kevin:

      You may want to take a quick look at the Shenanigans of the “Country Party” in Rhode Island between 1781 and 1790 to see how the poor did manipulate the rich out of just payment of debt. This was done not only with the approval of the country party but at their Instigation.

      take care
      gabe

  3. Greg Weiner says

    Kevin — Thanks. I’m headed off to class and hence am going to do something wholly obnoxious, which is to refer you to my book as one illustration of what I mean. On page 65 I describe Madison’s reaction to a near riot that erupted during in Philadelphia during the Convention over paper money. Madison writes about it and his sympathies plainly lie with poor people whom he thinks are being manipulated by currency speculators. Re: the accumulation of property, see the Detached Memoranda, where he discusses this, especially the accumulation of property by ecclesiastical establishments. I don’t think, for the record, this is an authority he would use loosely — I would just observe, contra Beard, that it’s there. (And in fairness to Beard, the Detached Memoranda were discovered only later.) Hope that helps.

    • Kevin R. Hardwick says

      Greg–

      It helps a great deal. And there is nothing the least bit obnoxious about referring me to your book. I hope many more people will read it!

      Warm regards,
      Kevin

  4. Ken Masugi says

    One of the worst things Beard did was to set the Declaration of Independence against the Constitution, which became the meme of much subsequent historical scholarship and political endeavor often disguised as scholarship.

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