Constitutional Elitism


Were the 55 Constitutional Framers a) patriotic geniuses versed in and committed to rugged individualism, minimalist government and free market economics or b) an oligarchy of landed baron robbers bent on lining their own coffers and creating an elitist, pro-business ruling class?

The question reads more like a Fox News teaser for an anything but fair and balanced piece on the perils of unpatriotic, revisionist history than the central thesis of a handful of serious if scorned thinkers across three-plus centuries.

Indeed, so threatening are such polemics to the nation’s most beloved seminal myths (manifest destiny, egalitarianism, exceptionalism, divine favor) that only the most adventuresome of economists and historians have dared publish on them – and almost to a one, only in times of gross wealth disparity.

But there are exceptions to the unofficial gag rule on evidence-based deconstruction of the Continental Convention and its modus operandi, among them the work of Charles A. Beard.

With a nod to fellow progressive historian Howard Zinn, Beard (1874-1948) was the most prolific of historians from the last century to challenge accepted Convention mythologies, beginning with the notion the attendees were infallible visionaries, huddled up in Independence Hall to receive the law of the land from on high.

A reluctant convert to the deconstructionist reading of the Convention, Beard in his controversial book from1913, An Economic Reading of the Constitution of the United States, used documents from the period suggesting the gathered were less invested in political philosophy than personal economics.

As described by author and free speech advocate Robert Downs, “The heart of Beard’s “economic interpretation” is that the Constitution as adopted by the [Convention’s] delegates … represented a triumph of personal property interests, i.e., moneylenders, capitalists, security holders, and manufacturers, over the interests of farmers and debtors.”

In An Economic Reading, Beard further points out prior to the gathering the appointees – each part of and/or connected to major colonial industries – were in fact lobbied and “… constantly urged to support the Constitution on the ground that their economic security depended upon the establishment of the new national government.”

Beard cites a long list of sources as supporting evidence for his hypothesis, including the fourth Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Marshall who just 20 years after ratification wrote that economic tensions among the British, colonial business interests and agrarian colonists were the primary agents behind the Convention itself. (Beard lists various uprisings within the states, especially those in Massachusetts, as clear evidence for Marshall’s thesis.)

Beard denies his purpose is to replace the popular myths about the Convention with a purely one-dimensional interpretation of the events and participants. He finds other indications some attendees did indeed embrace a more philosophical/theological vision of an America, light unto the nations, born of a holy war and made mighty by God himself.

Yet Beard cannot ignore the obvious facts that 1) The elite, without any sanction from the masses, appointed themselves arbitrators of the most fundamental document in the land and 2) The interests of the nation as stated in the new constitution were very much in keeping with the privileged few that made it law.

We should draw from Beard the reminder no tribe can take form, let alone flourish without its myths. Myths serve to give a people its reason for being and its champions of faith, secular as well as sacred; and to lift the veil between those operative narratives and unbidden insight is to risk losing identity – perhaps even that precious if costly luxury, innocence.

But rather than rue the loss of innocence, perhaps it’s time we took into account the historical reality classism and wealth inequality were present in the Constitutional fire mist of the new nation.

We cannot undo that reality. But neither must we deny it by continuing to venerate the clay-footed whose invaluable gift to the nation and world is yet to deliver on its definitive promise: equality.

Don Rollins is a juvenile court program coordinator and Unitarian Universalist minister living in Jackson, Ohio. Email

From The Progressive Populist, March 1, 2015

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