Origins of the Constitution

Edmund Morgan vs. Charles Beard

 by Erin Klitzke

            Politics during the American Revolution were unstable, at best.  While hostilities began, debates over the law of the land, the Articles of Confederation, still raged in various states.  As time wore on, it became apparent to many upstanding citizens and leading patriots – the men known today as the founding fathers – that the Articles just would not work.  Thus, after the close of America’s War for Independence, the call went out to every state in the nation for a meeting in Philadelphia.  Most men who arrived representing their states did not know that the meeting would irrevocably change the fate of the nation in the writing of the Constitution of the United States of America.  In the last three chapters of The Birth of the Republic, Edmund Morgan seeks to refute the argument of prior historian Charles Beard that the founding fathers wrote this Constitution as it was because of financial interests.

          Things were a mess in the years following the American Revolution.  During this “critical period,” as some historians call it, the central government was left powerless in the face of state governments that saw no reason to honor the Articles of Confederation.  Economically, the fact that it depended on the states for money crippled the central government.  Politically, “American diplomats in Europe felt…the full meaning of their country’s impotence.”[1]  The states further hampered the fledgling nation’s diplomatic affairs as many began to sign their own trade agreements and treaties with various nations without the leave of the central government, sometimes ignoring diplomatic actions taken by selfsame central government.  These acts went against the Articles of Confederation.[2]  As time wore on, it became increasingly clear that the United States could not survive much longer under the Articles of Confederation.

          Shay’s Rebellion was an event that really began to put things into perspective for legislators and leading figures in early America.  It was shortly after this 1786 event that Virginia called a convention to discuss a “uniform regulation of commerce.”[3]  Instead, this ended up as a Constitutional convention.  This is where Morgan makes his argument against Beard’s theory.  Beard’s theory states, essentially, that the motivation for the founding fathers to write the Constitution the way they did was due to economic self-interest.  Morgan argues that it was because of the same principles that caused the American Revolution.  Beard bases his argument on the careers of these statesmen, their words, their investments, and their lives.  He believed that the founding fathers all had a vested interest in “strengthening public credit” and therefore found their motivation in economic self-interest.  Morgan disagrees and bases his argument mostly on the words of the founding fathers and their apparent beliefs.[4]

          Whatever the reason, whether it was economic self-interest or principles, the founding fathers wrote the Constitution of the United States of America.  In May of 1790, Rhode Island was the last state to ratify the Constitution.[5]  Since then, for the past 212 years, the Constitution has been the highest law in the land.  It is a triumph of revolutionary ideas and beliefs, ideas and beliefs that rule the United States even today.

          In his book, Edmund S. Morgan set out to refute a theory stated in 1913 by Charles Beard regarding what motivated the founding fathers to write the Constitution the way they did.[6]  Morgan offers a compelling argument and does an excellent job of reexamining the facts, reinterpreting them to gain a better understanding of them and refuting Beard’s theory through the words and deeds of the founding fathers, rather than looking at their pocketbooks and ledgers.

[1] Edmund S. Morgan, The Birth of the Republic, 1763-1789 (Chicago, 1956) p. 122

[2] Ibid, p. 123-125

[3] Ibid, p. 129

[4] Ibid, p. 131-144

[5] Ibid, p. 155

[6] Ibid, p. 131