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29 Constitutional Commentary 475 (2014)


A century after it was first published, Charles A. Beard’s An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution remains a significant and controversial part of constitutional scholarship and history. Just as Beard sought to historicize the Founders as they drafted and adopted the Constitution, this article attempts to historicize Beard as he researched and wrote his classic text on the Constitution. Because Beard was both a graduate student and professor at Columbia University before and while he researched and wrote his book, this article explores the particular influence that Columbia University’s institutional and intellectual climate may have had on Beard and the writing of An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution.

This article contends that Charles Beard was the product of a unique Columbia tradition of inductive, proto-institutionalist research in political economy – a tradition that at its core sought to meld serious political and historical scholarship with progressive social activism. Yet, in many ways, Columbia’s influence on Beard was more reinforcing than it was revolutionary. Columbia, in other words, facilitated an evolution rather than a dramatic transformation in Beard’s thinking. His time at Columbia provided him with new scholarly perspectives and research methods, but ultimately these new views heightened his innate tension between scholarly objectivity and political advocacy, between his belief in social scientific research and his desires for social democratic reform. In short, Beard’s time at Columbia, as both a student and junior scholar, refined his personal predilections and his early upbringing and education, rather than radically converting him into a new thinker and writer.

This article was part of a special symposium on the 100th Anniversary of Charles Beard’s An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution, hosted by the University of Virginia’s Miller Center and law school.