The Pequod Review:
Charles Beard’s An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution argues that the founding fathers — especially Madison, Hamilton, Jay and Washington — were motivated primarily by their personal financial interests rather than abstract principles of general welfare or justice. To prove this, Beard examines the occupations and asset holdings of the members of the constitutional convention, showing the degree to which each stood to benefit from various constitutional proposals. Beard’s thesis has not held up well (to put it kindly), and in fact what is probably most interesting about the book is the ebb and flow of its reputation over time among historians — peaking perhaps in the 1920s and 1930s, then beginning a significant decline in the late 1960s that at this point appears to be terminal. (There are good summaries of the book's history here and here.) Despite its flaws, Beard's book has a passionate intensity, is a pleasure to read, and of course had an enormous impact on how historians think about political power and economic incentives more broadly.