Charles Austin Beard (1874-1948) was a more complicated and interesting thinker than the Progressive sage commemorated during the centennial of his An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States. Perhaps that’s the problem with writing a book with a thesis so simple and straightforward as to discourage careful consideration of the work as a whole.
In this, its centennial year, Charles Beard’s 1913 An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States retains its hold on both the publication market and, at least in certain circles, the popular imagination. Its claim that the Founders were possessive aristocrats out to protect the property of the privileged has, to be sure, been demolished in the scholarly literature, most notably by Forrest McDonald. But it may be time for those who respect the Framers to acknowledge at least one deep vein of truth in Beard’s thesis and reply with an even deeper one. Call it “the Seinfeld defense”: Yes, they wanted to protect property—not that there’s anything wrong with that.
The idea that the Founders had to be redeemed from Beard’s charge has so framed the response to the Progressive historian that the charge itself has been too little examined. But while Beard’s assessment of the personal economic stakes of the Philadelphia delegates was, as McDonald and others have shown, mistaken, his deeper point cannot and indeed ought not be dismissed: One purpose of the Philadelphia project was the protection of property.
After some hesitation, the American Political Science Association (APSA) has cancelled its annual four-day, pre-Labor Day convention, with Hurricane Isaac bearing down on its New Orleans venue. Even proud contemporary political science must eventually submit to “the laws of nature and of nature’s God” in practice, while remaining resistant in theory.
Causing consternation for several days, the APSA, which was founded in New Orleans in 1903, had wanted to defy the laws of nature and proceed to meet in the city of its makers. (To be fair, several hundred convention participants, of the 6000 or so anticipated, were already in New Orleans prior to the long-scheduled Thursday, August 30 formal opening.)
Musing on a catastrophe of Katrina proportions, one person involved in organizing the Annual Meeting joked about a political science version of “Hunger Games.” However satisfying the vision of political scientists spearing each other might be (after making rational choice calculations), the APSA finally acknowledged the sovereignty of the laws of nature and likely averted disaster.
But the confrontation with brute nature brings attention to how political science scholarship set out to manipulate human nature. The first two decades of the APSA produce shocking examples of open assault on the American founding and the Declaration of Independence in particular. The APSA’s first presidents sought counterrevolution against the natural rights and the limited government that flows from them.