Charles Beard, Economic Interpretation, and History

BookCoverImageIt’s been a century since Charles Beard published An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States. That book has a central role in more or less every overview of the historiography of the constitution and the founding. Just what that role is, though, is still open to debate. That Pauline Maier’s Ratification (2010) has no listing for Charles Beard in the index might have been taken as a sign that scholars no longer have to deal directly with his towering legacy. But that Seth Cotlar called her out on it in a recent William & Mary Quarterly forum, and took her to task for the “absence of any direct engagement” with Beardian, “conflict-oriented” interpretations of the period, reminds us just the opposite. As Saul Cornell put it, in light of powerful and varied strands of contemporary neo-Beardian scholarship, from Robert McGuire to Woody Holton and Terry Bouton, “one wonders if we have fully laid the ghost of Charles Beard to rest.” Well, if you have to wonder…

In April, I’ll be very proud to host a conference at the Rothermere American Institute in Oxford, UK, to celebrate, assess, and interrogate Beard’s work and impact—and to frame new research agendas in light of the continuing relevance of the questions he raised: questions of interest, class, law, political economy, and interpretation. With the generous support of the Economic History Society and the Royal Historical Society the conference will bring together some of the foremost scholars in the field, as well as graduate students and early career researchers. I hope readers of this blog won’t mind, then, if I use my slot to share with you the programme for this upcoming event (including the two amazing keynotes!), and to encourage all those who can make it to the UK to consider coming and mark your diaries accordingly. It’ll be exciting.

Charles Beard, Economic Interpretation and History
22nd-23rd April 2013, the Rothermere American Institute, Oxford, UK


Charles Beard, More Than a Historian

Lawrence Goldman – “Beard in Britain: the Making of a Progressive?”
Eleanor Thompson – “Beard, the AHA, and Radicalism in US Education, 1934-1943”
Richard Drake – “Beard and Robert La Follette: Contrasting Progressives”

Beard Beyond Marx

Clyde Barrow – “From Marx to Beard: The Theoretical Foundations of An Economic Interpretation
David Brown – “The Old American: Charles Beard and the Money-Power”
Marc-William Palen – “The Open Door’s Beardian Legacy”

History and Law

Victor Cazares-Lira – “The Role of Pluralist Lawmaking in Beard’s Vision of Politics and History”
Gabrielle Clark – “Law and American Capitalism: A Relationship in Historiographical Perspective”
Calvin Johnson – “The Peculiar Perseverance of Beard and Antifederalism Among Progressives”

First Keynote

Jack Rakove – “Two Centennials: Charles Beard and Max Farrand”


The International Constitution and the International Beard

Tom Girn – “Colonial Cohesion and the Shaping of American Foreign Policy”
Max Edling – “Beard and the International Interpretation of the Constitution”
Peter Thompson – “The Rise of American Civilization and the International Turn”

New Approaches to Economic Interpretation

Tom Cutterham – “Charles Beard, That Noble Dream, and the Historical Uses of Subjectivity”
Nicholas Cole – “Corruption in the Founding Mind”
Saul Cornell – “The Economic Interpretation of the Constitution and the Problem of Antifederalism Reconsidered”

Second Keynote

Woody Holton – “What Beard Could and Couldn’t See”

[This information, as well as instructions for registration, is online here.]

7 responses

    • Speaking for myself, we spent a week on An Economic Interpretation during the Oxford Masters course in US History, and then came back to it again in relation to the critiques of Hofstadter and Benson. We weren’t compelled to read any of his other work, although obviously I have a personal interest, and wrote one of my Masters essays on his theoretical ideas.

  1. This is one conference I really hate to miss. The historiography was one of the main things that got me interested in early American history. Long before I went to undergrad, I had read back through a lot of late 19th and 20th-century historiography like Bancroft, Fiske, Beard, Becker, Turner, Schlesinger, etc… That exposure to the early historiography of the period has been invaluable to me in my graduate studies and in my research.

    To Alec’s question, my sense is that more graduate students are aware of Beard than they are familiar with his work on a first-hand basis. For many, his work, like much early historiography, has been reduced to the equivalent of a 15-second soundbite usually included cursorily in an early footnote. That is highly unfortunate. Though I guess it is inevitable, especially when one considers the sheer avalanche of scholarship produced in the field every year, let alone since the postwar boom of the field in the 1950s.

    Though I understand the reasoning behind seminars’ preoccupation with the most recent scholarship, I find it a bit short-sighted when I take graduate seminars that ignore any works more than 10 years old. I’ve had a few that began with a 1 or 2 classic works and they usually end up providing a reference point for the rest of the semester. Personally, I think one needs an understanding of (as well as the experience of) reading classic works and older historiography. Just like historians develop what I call “inner chronologies” of their period, an inner chronology of the historiography is just as essential if one wishes to engage in the kind of broad (dare I say, grand) debates that have shaped the field in which we now work and to which we seek to contribute.

  2. I agree with Michael!

    When I did graduate work I seriously engaged with older histories and read Beard and it got me very excited. It is a delightful book to teach for it foments great conversations with students. Their cynicism however, must be tempered by new scholarship. However, one could just as easily argue that the Bailyn/Wood school is overly sanguine about the origins of the US. Not a surprise that their interpretation holds sway since it does tell a really happy story about the US.

    When I told one professor (at Yale, not my advisor) I had just read Beard he retorted: “No one reads Beard any more!”

  3. I can tell you that, on Thursday, 13 June, at the 19th OIEAHC conference in Baltimore, the first session will be about the centennial of Beard’s book:

    Opening Plenary
    An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution after One Hundred Years: A Roundtable on Charles Beard
    110 Hodson Hall

    Chair: Richard B. Bernstein, New York Law School and City College of New York

    Beard and Radical History
    Tom Cutterham, University of Oxford

    Beard and the International Interpretation of the Constitution
    Max Edling, King’s College London

    The Political Economy of the Constitution
    Robin Einhorn, University of California, Berkeley

    Culture, Context, and Beard’s Constitution
    Eric Slauter, University of Chicago

    Beyond Beard, Beyond Bailyn: The Madisonian Moment and the Problem of Slavery
    David Waldstreicher, Temple University

    Comment: Richard B. Bernstein


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