Friday, May 24, 2013

Reflections: An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States

Adam C. Zern shares his thoughts on Charles A. Beard's An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States:

"Academia is notorious for existing within a vacuum.  Every area of study becomes so constricted from every other subject of study it's almost as if other considerations don't exist.  Charles A. Beard's An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States could not be any more perfect of an example of that pedagogical approach.  As the name of the book implies, An Economic Interpretation attempts to explain the motivations of the framers of the Constitution and those who ratified it solely through their economic concerns and leaves mountains of historical information and context abandoned conspicuously on the floor.

To begin with, Charles A. Beard repeatedly commits an intellectual sin, which is one my greatest grumbles against academia; to wit,  he announces he doesn't have all of the data necessary to make a confident judgment and then proceeds to make judgments, conjectures, and theories, not to mention write an entire book based on his admittedly lacking foundation.  He presents some interesting facts, but it does little to provide a perspective that is anywhere near comprehensive.  Granted, that's hard to do regardless of the historical approach one takes, but An Economic Interpretation is so skewed and limited in its approach it's an absolute necessity that readers balance their reading of it with other historical works of the same time period and personalities.

One valuable thing the book does do, however, is present how important private property was to the framers.  Private property as a human right in America has undergone a brutal erosion over the past 100 years, and An Economic Interpretation does a fine job showing it was a huge consideration during the convention and during the ratification debates.  What An Economic Interpretation does not correctly illustrate is that for most of those involved the concern over private property was one based more on ideology rather than personal gain. 

I would only read An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States if one has a strong background in constitutional history or is willing to get one.  An Economic Interpretation presents a very, very warped and scanty view of the Constitution and those involved in its creation and eventual ratification.  I'm glad it's a part of my collection of constitutional and American history books so now I can definitely point at it and say confidently: ‘that's what I do not believe.’

By way of full disclosure, I first heard about An Economic Interpretation when I read Ezra Taft Benson's speech God's Hand in Our Nation's History, and his judgment of the book was not positive; therefore, my initial perception of the book was similarly not positive."


  1. You might want to take a good long look in the mirror before you label an author's arguments as "very, very warped and scanty." Judging not just by your "full disclosure" but also by the use of loaded language like "brutal erosion" - there might be many who find your views if not warped than a little bent anyway.

    Here's a quote from historian Edmund S. Morgan, who recently passed. Give it some thought.

    If you're studying the French Revolution and you come across something that surprises you, you have to ask why it surprises you. Most likely, it's because what you've read about the French Revolution before would not lead you to think that this would happen or that it had happened. So don't say, 'gee, I didn't know that' – you have to ask why you didn't know that. The likelihood is that somebody else gave you the impression it wasn't so.

    Edmund S. Morgan

    1. Meh. I'm not convinced I have to take a "good long look in the mirror" simply because I find an author's arguments warped and skewed. Based on what I have read that is my best estimation of this book's arguments. I'm certainly not ignorant in this particular field and feel totally confident using words like "brutal erosion."

      People can certainly disagree with me based on their particular knowledge level. But I feel very confident in my judgment of this book.