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Charles Beard and the growth of modern American liberalism

By Robert S. Sargent, Jr.
web posted May 1, 2006

In my article of 3/27/06, "The Birth of Modern American Liberalism," I argued that modern American liberalism was born in the late 1800s as a reaction to the perceived plutocracy at the time. In this paper, I suggest that liberalism, (I'll define it generally, as opposed to specific policy issues, as the use of a strong central government to achieve social reform, usually of an egalitarian nature) was greatly aided in its growth with the publication in 1913 of the historian Charles Beard's An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution.

Charles Beard(Charles Beard has to be understood as an enormously influential writer. His textbook, published in 1910, American Government and Politics went into ten editions. He was President of the American Political Science Association. He was President of the American Historical Association. His A History of the American People in 1918 sold over a million copies. His The Rise of American Civilization and America in Mid-Passage, both written with his wife Mary, were both selected for the Book of the Month Club, and James J. Martin, in his tribute to Mr. Beard, estimates that his books sold in excess of 12,000,000 copies.)

Before the publication of An Economic Interpretation, there was a dichotomy in liberal thought: A sense of needed reform in society, and recognition of society's great respect for our Constitution. The reason for the dichotomy, of course, is that the Constitution greatly limits the ability of the Federal Government to reform society. The 10th Amendment says: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people," and social reform is not a delegated power.

But Charles Beard changed the way reform-minded leaders thought about the Constitution. In An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution, Professor Beard argued that it wasn't political philosophy, or idealism which influenced the Founding Fathers, but selfish economic greed. What's important about this book is what the great historian, Samuel E. Morison wrote: "…An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution, was written apparently to break down [the] excessive respect for the Federal Constitution which [Beard] believed to be the main legal block to social justice." By discrediting the Constitution, Beard gave the intelligentsia, especially in academic circles, the ammunition to attack the Constitution in ways that would allow the centralized Federal Government to not only participate, but to take the lead in reforming society.

Reformers could now argue that the economic conditions of the 20th Century were vastly different from the agrarian interests of the Founding Fathers. The Constitution must adapt and change with the times, hence: the "living" Constitution.

It wasn't long before FDR and his "New Deal" put the Federal Government at the center of social change, and, in the late 1930s, the Supreme Court accepted this new expanded role. Many of the New Deal programs were legislated in the name of the Commerce Clause, and the interpretation of the Commerce Clause was greatly expanded to incorporate programs that, before the idea of a "living" Constitution, would not have been allowed. (It wasn't until the Rehnquist Court, decades later, that any Congressional statutes were struck down as overreaching the Commerce Clause.)

So, the growth of modern American liberalism matured with the "New Deal," and continued through the 20th Century with the, at first, concurrence of the Supreme Court, and then, beginning with the Warren Court, the leadership of the Supreme Court. Without the cooperation of the Supreme Court, I would argue that the liberal agenda would never have achieved the success that it did. And, I would argue, Charles Beard paved the way for that cooperation. Now the question is, to continue the analogy, has modern American liberalism passed its maturity and grown into old age? And, if so, where does it go from here?

There is a trend. In FDR's day, all the branches of government were Democratic. Then Republicans started winning the Presidency, the Senate became more Republican, and now, of course, the Senate, Congress, and the Presidency belong to the Republicans. We also see a Supreme Court that is more Conservative. Is liberalism dying of old age, and is conservatism the wave of the future? It seems so, if one believes that the Republican Party is indeed conservative.

But, if one defines conservative as a general philosophy of a small, limited central government, I don't see today's Republican Party as being very conservative. We have seen a great expansion under Bush 43, with the cooperation of Congressional Republicans, of the Federal Government in Medicare, in the No Child Left Behind program, and in many other areas, (sometimes making us conservatives long for the good old Clinton days).

In 1895, Brooks Adams wrote in The Law of Civilization and Decay that "…the movement of energies in society is inexorably toward centralization," and perhaps Brooks Adams was right: This is going to happen and it doesn't matter who is in power. Perhaps liberalism in its old age will keep developing into a more centralized socialistic, or limited socialistic government, European-style. I don't see many ways of stopping the inexorable movement.

Robert S. Sargent, Jr. is a senior writer for Enter Stage Right and can be reached at rssjr@citcom.net.

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