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"Burn the Constitution!" (to quote Seth Ackerman)

The Constitution

Notes on a classic.— Charles Beard’s Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (1913) is still worth reading, a hundred years later. He quotes E. R. A. Seligman’s formulation of “the economic interpretation of history” and calls it “as nearly axiomatic as any proposition in social science can be.” As Seligman says, “The existence of man depends upon his ability to sustain himself; the economic life is therefore the fundamental condition of all life. Since human life, however, is the life of man in society, individual existence moves within the framework of the social structure and is modified by it. What the conditions of maintenance are to the individual, the similar relations of production and consumption are to the community. To economic causes, therefore, must be traced in the last instance those transformations in the structure of society which themselves condition the relations of social classes and the various manifestations of social life.” Sheer common sense, which only the highly educated could dispute. (Seligman doesn’t formulate it very precisely, but the Marxian intuition is compelling.)

Beard proposes to show that “substantially all of the merchants, money lenders, security holders, manufacturers, shippers, capitalists, and financiers and their professional associates” supported the Constitution, while most of the opposition came from non-slaveholding farmers and debtors. His economic interpretation of history is, therefore, corroborated by his study of the Constitution. “The direct, impelling motive [of support for the Constitution] was the economic advantages which the beneficiaries expected would accrue to themselves first…” It’s possible that Beard places too much emphasis on the crass self-interest of the Constitution’s framers and not enough on their genuine belief that what they were doing was for the common good. On the other hand, historians who reject Beardian and Marxian arguments as being reductive are wont to forget the elementary psychological truth that people find it very easy to rationalize doing what is in their interest. Nothing is easier than to convince oneself of a noble justification for doing what one wants to do. The question of personal motive, therefore, or self-interpretation, isn’t very important or interesting; the main point is that people tend to see the world, and the good, implicitly in class terms, specifically in terms of what benefits them (or the institutions they identify with). Their experience is structured in manifold ways by class; their very ideals are often little more than sublimations of class interest—as in the case of the farmers and debtors who wanted radical democracy because it would be good for them, and the bondholders and merchants who wanted an “aristocratic” and strong federal government—which they got—because it would be good for them. Anyway, the liberal article of faith that policymakers somehow levitate above vulgar economic interests and nobly acknowledge only ideas and ideals is transparently idiotic. (For refutations of such charmingly naïve liberal opinions, see the scholarship of Gabriel Kolko, Walter LaFeber, and Thomas Ferguson, for starters.)

Query: how did the “imagined community” of a single nation arise among a bunch of fragmented states in the late eighteenth century? Beard answers: “Nationalism [among Americans] was created [in part] by a welding of economic interests that cut through state boundaries.” He mentions the identity of interest between creditors and the wealthy in many different states, as opposed to “their debt-burdened neighbors at the back door.” For example, southern planters shared the interest of Massachusetts creditors in having a strong federal government that could put down insurrections, in the former case among slaves and in the latter among debtors (as in Shays’ Rebellion).

Interesting: “[The Federalist] is in fact the finest study in the economic interpretation of politics which exists in any language; and whoever would understand the Constitution as an economic document need hardly go beyond it.” It’s worth noting that James Madison was basically a historical materialist in the broad sense, as is clear from Federalist No. 10. “…The most common and durable source of [political] factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society. Those who are creditors, and those who are debtors, fall under a like discrimination. A landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a mercantile interest, a moneyed interest, with many lesser interests grow up of necessity in civilized nations, and divide them into different classes actuated by different sentiments and views.” Proto-Marxism.

In general, “the live and persistent economic force which organized and carried through the ratification [of the Constitution] was the personalty interests [i.e., mercantile, securities, manufacturing, etc.] and particularly the public security interests [bondholders]. As has been pointed out, these had the most to gain immediately from the Constitution. Continental paper bought at two and three shillings in the pound was bound to rise rapidly with the establishment of the federal government…”

I need hardly add that the processes of writing and ratifying the Constitution were the opposite of democratic. For instance, probably not more than one-sixth of adult males were allowed to vote to ratify the document. And no popular vote was involved in calling the Convention and selecting delegates. In fact, the whole process was frankly illegal, flouting as it did the provisions in the Articles of Confederation for amending that document. The Articles were simply ignored.

I also needn’t add—but will—that the Constitution itself constitutes a “marvelously dexterous system of barriers to [democracy’s] expression” (Robert Lynd). As Noam Chomsky likes to remind us, James Madison thought that government should be designed “to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.” Or, as John Jay said, “the people who own the country ought to govern it.” Thus you get the U.S.’s insane electoral college, the initially indirect voting of senators (until that was changed in the early twentieth century), the early restrictive franchise, the elitist Senate itself, the convoluted and deadlock-prone system of passing laws, and the incredible obstacles set up to prevent easy passage of new Constitutional amendments. All are more or less in the interests of the opulent, who therefore overwhelmingly supported the Constitution—so much so that, in the struggle to get it enacted, they finally even consented to adding some unsavory democratic provisions demanded by commoners, like the Bill of Rights. See Woody Holton’s Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution (2007), which substantially supports, while refining, Charles Beard’s arguments.


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