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University of California Davis




One hundred years after Charles Beard’s An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States, few scholars attend actively to that book or its specific claims. Yet it has become conventional wisdom that the movement for a new Constitution in 1787 was no democratic movement but a conservative effort to rein in the allegedly reckless policy impulses of the state governments. Power would be transferred substantially to the center, where an elite might better control the direction of policy. This conservative movement had important, Beardian economic dimensions, particularly its determination to secure the rights of the propertied against the supposed desires of the unpropertied to redistribute wealth.1 But closely allied to this economic conservatism was necessarily a legal conservatism, perhaps even a legal counterrevolution, as Aaron Knapp’s essay for this Symposium argues.2 The Contracts Clause of the new Constitution was only the most explicit protection in the document for traditional rights of property and contract as against the state governments’ demonstrated readiness to interfere with contract performance and debt collection. The triumph of the Framers of 1787, then, appears to some an abiding victory for a fundamentally conservative structure of American law and a major defeat for serious advocates of equality and democracy.3

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