Though modern Americans spend many years as students, most will readily admit that a good teacher is rare and thus memorable. I had the good fortune to have a great one in Forrest McDonald, who passed away last month at the age of 89. Others more qualified than I can speak of his tremendous scholarly achievements; and his personal friends, I am sure, can praise his virtues. I wish to honor Professor McDonald as a teacher. He was great because of his devotion to the discipline of history and his generous spirit.
In this, its centennial year, Charles Beard’s 1913 An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States retains its hold on both the publication market and, at least in certain circles, the popular imagination. Its claim that the Founders were possessive aristocrats out to protect the property of the privileged has, to be sure, been demolished in the scholarly literature, most notably by Forrest McDonald. But it may be time for those who respect the Framers to acknowledge at least one deep vein of truth in Beard’s thesis and reply with an even deeper one. Call it “the Seinfeld defense”: Yes, they wanted to protect property—not that there’s anything wrong with that.
The idea that the Founders had to be redeemed from Beard’s charge has so framed the response to the Progressive historian that the charge itself has been too little examined. But while Beard’s assessment of the personal economic stakes of the Philadelphia delegates was, as McDonald and others have shown, mistaken, his deeper point cannot and indeed ought not be dismissed: One purpose of the Philadelphia project was the protection of property.