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Debunking a Myth

“This summer, when you become inundated with all the American bicentennial Fourth-of-July brouhaha, don’t forget you’re celebrating the fact that a bunch of slave-owning aristocratic white males who didn’t want to pay their taxes.” The line is from the 1977 movie “Dazed and Confused,” spoken by a high school teacher as she dismisses her class for the summer. It’s outrageous and funny, yes, but it reflected the attitude of some of my college professors back in the late ’60 and early ‘70s.

That attitude reverberated in the halls of academia like the echo that still reverberates in outer space from the Big Bang that gave birth to the universe. In the case of liberal academia, the Big Bang that gave birth to the idea that the Founding Fathers were little more than money-grubbing hucksters who wrote the U.S. Constitution as a means of securing their wealth, was from a book by a Columbia University professor named Charles A. Beard. Published in 1913, the book was titled “An Economic Interpretation of the United States Constitution.” Beard’s radical interpretation was immediately accepted as gospel among academics and in time began to find its way into American history textbooks. However, if anyone had examined the flimsy scholarship behind Beard’s arguments, they would have discovered a host of oversights and errors. Indeed, a good part of Beard’s scholarship was not scholarship at all, but rather a series of assumptions based on questionable evidence that supported his theory. Why was the book accepted without question by academia? Probably because it came at a time when American capitalism was being questioned for the first time, especially in the wake of the robber barons and their blatant exploitation and abuse of American factory workers prior to the rise of labor unions. Indeed, Beard’s book was published when socialism was on the rise and talk among the intelligentsia was of class struggle between the working class and private industry. Two decades later the Depression set in, yet another sign that capitalism was failing working people, furthering strengthening Beard’s interpretation.

Not everyone in academic circles bought Beard’s interpretation or believed socialism was the answer to the plight of the working class. Opposition among academics was mounting. In 1944, Frederick Hayek published “The Road to Serfdom” that presented a strong and well-reasoned case against socialism. Capitalism fosters democracy, he said, and (quoting Tocqueville) “democracy seeks equality in liberty, socialism seeks equality in restraint and servitude.” Similar writers and thinkers included Russell Kirk, Richard Weaver and Douglas Adair. In 1948, a graduate student from the University of Texas named Forrest McDonald set out to disprove Beard’s thesis by going directly to the source. He made a tour of the East Coast, digging into the actual financial records of America between 1776 and 1790. He made the rounds of all the various repositories: the Library of Congress, state archives and historical societies, and a number of libraries that had collected great quantities and catalogued them. By the end of his three-year research, he not only had more than enough evidence to invalidate Beard’s thesis as fanciful scholarship, he had his hand on the financial pulse of the early American Republic. He knew who owned what and how much, what they paid for it and what they sold it for, not only in federal and state securities, but in real estate, from the smallest dirt farmer in New England, to the largest slave plantation owner in the Deep South. Lawyers, judges, merchants, tradesmen, physicians, ministers, innkeepers, tavern keepers, surveyors, farmers, planters, no matter their occupation or position of influence—if they dealt in land speculation or traded in stocks, McDonald knew about it. McDonald wrote about his findings, published in 1958, in a book entitled “We the People: The Economic Origins of the Constitution.”

“What I objected to about Beard’s thesis,” writes McDonald in the introduction, “was not its emphasis upon the previously neglected role of economics but its simplistic determinism, its omission of the power factor, and its unwillingness to consider that the Constitution was the work of principled and prudential men.” The facts McDonald recovered did not substantiate Beard’s assumptions; the details were found to be incompatible with the broad outlines he sketched. “Beard asked the wrong questions,” said McDonald, “questions which, in the way they were phrased, were meaningless. The Philadelphia Convention, as a body, was acting neither as ‘a consolidated economic group’ nor ‘merely under the guidance of abstract principles of political science.’ The contest over ratification was neither an economic class struggle nor ‘the product of some abstract causes remote from the chief business of life—gaining a livelihood.’ By asking invalid questions Beard arrived at an interpretation that obscures rather illumines the role of economic forces in the making of the Constitution.”

Most of the delegates at the Constitutional Convention made their decisions on the basis of what they took to be the general welfare of Americans, McDonald concluded, rather than to secure or enhance their economic and/or social advantage. Not all holders of public securities favored the new Constitution, as Beard would have us believe. Indeed, a number of the largest holders who stood to greatly enhance their investments should the Constitution be ratified, actually worked against ratification. Another of Beard’s myths was that only a privileged few actually benefited from the sale of public securities after ratification, while McDonald’s evidence revealed people from all walks of life making money from their sale. George Mason, one of the wealthiest men in America (and George Washington’s neighbor) fought against ratification because the Constitution did not have a bill of rights, as did many other wealthy landowners both north and south of the Mason-Dixon line. The facts are the facts, and the facts revealed that most people acted from principles they held dearly rather than from properties they held dearly. The latter part of McDonald’s book contains a fair amount of the financial data he uncovered, including a multitude of differing economic factions that fueled the American Revolution and drove the nation’s economy and, despite their regional and social differences, created a national government that survives to this day.

Final note: there was a backlash among liberal academia when McDonald’s book was published—they stuck by their man despite irrefutable evidence that as far as historical accuracy, he was wrong, wrong, wrong. Sometimes, myths die hard. Beard’s book still sells but now at least has an intro by Forrest McDonald that sets the record straight.

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