The Background of the Constitution

Where Historians Disagree - The Background of the Constitution

The Constitution—America's most powerful symbol of national identity and the nation's most important source of authority—has inspired debate from the moment it was drafted. Today, as throughout American national history, views of the Constitution reflect the political views of those who seek to interpret it. Some argue that the Constitution is a flexible document intended to evolve in response to society's evolution. Others argue that it has a fixed meaning, rooted in the "original intent" of the framers, and that to move beyond that is to deny its value.

Historians, too, disagree about why the Constitution was written and what it meant; and their debate has also reflected contemporary beliefs about what the Constitution should mean. To some scholars, the creation of the federal system was an effort to preserve the ideals of the Revolution by eliminating the disorder and contention that threatened the new nation; it was an effort to create a strong national government capable of exercising real authority. To others, the Constitution was an effort to protect the economic interests of existing elites, even at the cost of betraying the principles of the Revolution. And to still others, the Constitution was designed to protect individual freedom and to limit the power of the federal government.

The first influential exponent of the heroic view of the Constitution as the culmination of the Revolution was John Fiske, whose book The Critical Period of American History (1888) painted a grim picture of political life under the Articles of Confederation. The nation, Fiske argued, was reeling under the impact of a business depression; the weakness and ineptitude of the national government; the threats to American territory from Great Britain and Spain; the inability of either the Congress or the state governments to make good their debts; the interstate jealousies and barriers to trade; the widespread use of inflation-producing paper money; and the lawlessness that culminated in Shays's Rebellion. Only the timely adoption of the Constitution, Fiske claimed, saved the young republic from disaster.

Fiske's view met with little dissent until 1913, when Charles A. Beard published a powerful challenge to it in An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States, which became one of the most influential works of American history in the twentieth century. According to Beard, the 1780s had been a "critical period" not for the nation as a whole but only for certain conservative business interests who feared that the decentralized political structure of the republic imperiled their financial position. Such men, he claimed, wanted a government able to promote industry and trade, protect private property, and perhaps most of all, make good the public debt—much of which was owed to them. The Constitution was, Beard claimed, "an economic document drawn with superb skill by men whose property interests were immediately at stake" and who won its ratification over the opposition of a majority of the people. Were it not for their impatience and determination, he argued in a later book (1927), the Articles of Confederation might have formed a perfectly satisfactory, permanent form of government.

Beard's view of the Constitution influenced more than a generation of historians. As late as the 1950s, for example, Merrill Jensen argued in The New Nation (1950) that the 1780s were not years of chaos and despair, but a time of hopeful striving. He agreed with Beard that only the economic interests of a small group of wealthy men could account for the creation of the Constitution. To them, the Constitution was notable chiefly for the way it abridged the democratic possibilities of the new nation.

But in the 1950s—in the aftermath of a great world crisis that many scholars believed called into question the desirability of giving free rein to popular passions—a series of powerful challenges to the Beard thesis emerged. The Constitution, many scholars now began to argue, was not an effort to preserve property, but an enlightened effort to ensure stability and order. Robert E. Brown, for example, argued in 1956 that "absolutely no correlation" could be shown between the wealth of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention and their position on the Constitution. Forrest McDonald, in We the People (1958), looked beyond the convention itself to the debate between the Federalists and the Antifederalists and concluded similarly that there was no consistent relationship between wealth and property and support for the Constitution. Instead, opinion on the new system was far more likely to reflect local and regional interests. Areas suffering social and economic distress were likely to support the Constitution; states that were stable and prosperous were likely to oppose it. There was no intercolonial class of monied interests operating in concert to produce the Constitution. The cumulative effect of these attacks greatly weakened Beard's argument; few historians any longer accepted his thesis without reservation.

In the 1960s, a new group of scholars began to revive an economic interpretation of the Constitution—one that differed from Beard's in important ways but that nevertheless emphasized social and economic factors as motives for supporting the federal system. Jackson Turner Main argued, in The Anti-federalists (1961), that supporters of the Constitution, while not perhaps the united creditor class that Beard described, were nevertheless economically distinct from critics of the document. The Federalists, he argued, were "cosmopolitan commercialists," eager to advance the economic development of the nation; the Antifederalists, by contrast, were "agrarian localists," fearful of centralization. Gordon Wood's important study, The Creation of the American Republic (1969), de-emphasized economic grievances but nevertheless suggested that the debate over the state constitutions in the 1770s and 1780s reflected profound social divisions and that those same divisions helped shape the argument over the federal Constitution. The Federalists, Wood suggested, were largely traditional aristocrats. They had become deeply concerned by the instability of life under the Articles of Confederation and were particularly alarmed by the decline in popular deference toward social elites. The creation of the Constitution was part of a larger search to create a legitimate political leadership based on the existing social hierarchy; it reflected the efforts of elites to contain what they considered the excesses of democracy.

In recent years, as contemporary debates over the Constitution have intensified, historians have continued to examine the question of "intent." Did the framers intend a strong, centralized political system; or did they intend to create a decentralized system with a heavy emphasis on individual rights? The answer, according to Jack Rakove's Original Meanings (1996), is both—and many other things as well. The Constitution, he argues, was not the product of a single intelligence or of a broad consensus. It was the result of a long and vigorous debate through which the views of many different groups found their way into the document. James Madison, generally known as the father of the Constitution, was a strong nationalist, who believed that only a powerful central government could preserve stability in a large nation and keep narrow factionalism in check. Alexander Hamilton, Madison's ally in the battle, also saw the Constitution as a way to protect order and property, as a way to defend the nation against the dangers of too much liberty. But if Madison and Hamilton feared too much liberty, they also feared too little. And that made them receptive to the vigorous demands of the "Antifederalists" for protections of individual rights, which culminated in the Bill of Rights.

The framers differed as well in their views of the proper relationship between the federal government and the state governments. Madison favored unquestioned federal supremacy, and even tried to insert a clause in the Constitution giving Congress the right to invalidate state laws. Many others involved in the debate wanted to preserve the rights of the states and saw in the federal system—and in its unusual division of sovereignty among different levels and branches of government—a guarantee against too much national power. The Constitution is not, Rakove argues, "infinitely malleable." But neither does it have a fixed meaning that can be a reliable guide to how we interpret it today. - Review of Beard, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States - Beard, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (Full Text) - Beard Excerpt, "Framing the Constitution"


One of the most famous interpretations of the Constitution of the early twentieth century was made by Progressive historian Charles Beard. Read the excerpts from his work above and summarize his basic argument. Do you concur? If not, which of the other interpretations listed do you find most persuasive? - "Republicanism," From Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy - Republicanism at Digital History


One of Bernard Bailyn's most important contributions to American historiography was his articulation of the "republicanism" of the Founding Fathers in The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. Using the links above, summarize the tenets of republicanism. How does it differ from democracy as a political philosophy? How is the Constitution a "republican" document? Do you believe it to be more "republican" or more "liberal"?