Sep 1, 1982

Charles A. Beard: Power vs. Authority

“Beard believed that in attempting to disperse power, the framers also destroyed authority.”

John Patrick Diggins
Department of History, University of California, Irvine

“Power and Authority in American History: The Case of Charles A. Beard and His Critics.”American Historical Review 86 (October 1981): 701–730.

Reassessing Charles A. Beard involves understanding that his basic concern was the problem of authority and that he believed that legitimate government ought to be based on moral “ideas” rather than on class “interests.” It was the divorce between power and authority that led Beard, in the Economic Interpretation of the Constitution (1913) and elsewhere, to criticize the framers of the Constitution and the historians who uncritically accepted its foundations.

Contemporary critics charge that Beard’s Economic Interpretation reads into the 18th century a conflict between property and liberty that does not exist in the Constitution. However, the meaning of both these concepts changed between the Declaration (1776) and the Constitution (1789). Madison and Hamilton defined “property” less as a natural right than as a “present possession.” “Liberty” had also shifted its meaning, no longer signifying the collective will of popular majorities, but rather something that needed to be safeguarded by the Constitution’s mechanisms.

Beard was also charged with erring in interpreting the Constitution as a violation of the spirit of the Declaration of Independence. However, the meaning of “authority” had shifted from 1776 to 1787, from grounding rights on nature and contract to grounding the Constitution on power and interests.

The neo-Whigs criticized Beard for neglecting the concepts of virtue, independence, and deference, upon which the 18th century based its defense of property. However, neither Madison nor Hamilton believed that the demands of property stimulate independence. These constitutional theorists rather believed that property brought one into a whole network of power relationships, and in this respect, Beard followed their lead.

Another charge against Beard is that he failed to understand that the Founders were acting on the basis of “ideas” rather than “interests.” However, the authors of the Federalist Papers did not regard principles and ideals as controlling man’s passions; rather, they asserted that ideas could not compel man’s mind unless such ideas reflected the interests men were inclined to obey. Economic interests were primary in providing the motive for political obedience. Most of Beard’s critics inferred that the Constitution’s “framers were men of ideas because they cited the works of European political thinkers, and intellectual historians assume that they can overcome Beard’s dualisms [between ‘idea’ and ‘interest’ or ‘theory’ and ‘practice’] by employing the analytic methods of language philosophy—a dubious assumption that avoids the whole issue of causation.” Professor Diggins charges J.G.A. Pocock (as a representative of this linguistic and contextualist school) with substituting linguistic determism for Beard’s alleged economic determinism and with confusing description, based on semiotics and structuralism, for explanation and causation. He promises a fuller discussion of this issue in a forth-coming History and Theory article, “The Oyster and the Pearl: The Problem of Contextualism in Intellectual History.”

Finally, Beard has been charged with an uncritical commitment to a theory of economic determinism, but this ignores the attention he devoted to the thoughts and lives of the individual Federalists and their opponents. It also ignores the sense in which Beard wanted to deny that the Constitution had to be a necessary “stage” in America’s history.

Ultimately, Beard believed that in attempting to disperse power, the framers also destroyed authority. He therefore assumed that the interests of those exercising authority must contradict the interests of those being ruled. It is this assumption that Prof. Diggins believes we need to question, for how can the Constitution have survived if American society is not based, in large part, on consensus?