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America in the early twentieth century had just come through the so-called "Gilded Age" (1865-1900), a period in which urbanization, industrialization, and immigration wrought changes so quickly that old institutions, values and ways of living crumbled or became outmoded. We moved into an era of a national market economy, revolutionary developments in transportation and communications, and at the same time, tremendous anxiety over the state of public morality and economic opportunity. By 1900 America was deeply concerned with the flagrant political corruption that had characterized the "Gilded Age."
It was a time of machine bossism in the cities and states, when the Senate was sneeringly referred to as the "Millionaires' Club," and lackluster presidents reigned. Every politician, it seemed, had his price, and political democracy appeared a sham. Economic mobility by 1900 also looked highly restricted, for big businessmen, sometimes called "robber barons," had piled up huge personal fortunes and apparently had monopolized most of the nation's wealth.
Governors and elite groups in the states often found themselves confronted with legislative mandates and laws from which there was no recourse. Under the Articles of Confederation, the central government was so weak that it had virtually no control over the nation's fiscal affairs or the powerful assemblies representing the people in the states. Smith, studying the backgrounds of the 55 delegates at Philadelphia, believed they constituted an economic elite. The new Constitution erected at Philadelphia greatly enhanced the fiscal powers of the national government, and so he concluded the founding fathers were acting out of natural, economic self-interest.
When the convention was held at Philadelphia in 1787 it was under strict instructions from the Continental Congress only to prepare a list of amendments to the Articles of Confederation; the convention was not authorized to draw up a whole new Constitution, but only to advise the Continental Congress about what it should do to meet the needs of the Union. Therefore the delegates had exceeded their instructions and were acting illegally.
Here Smith took particular note of the nature of the new central government. Whereas under the Articles its laws could do little to interfere with the internal workings of the states, the Constitution designated federal law as the supreme law of the land. Only the federal government, for example, could pass tariff legislation or issue currency. The powers of the states had been reduced and, consequently, so had that of the people through their state legislatures. Moreover, Allen viewed the check and balance system of the federal government as largely an attempt to restrict the influence of the new House of Representatives, the institution closest to the people on the federal level
What gave Beard's writing the appearance of particular credibility was the fact that he had just unearthed new historical evidence on which he based his indictment of the founding fathers. He had found some old Treasury Department records of the 1790's which listed the names of several prominent Federalist leaders and also those of many other delegates to the Constitutional Convention. He discovered that several of these leaders held varying amounts of old Continental notes, the paper money used to pay the colonial militia in the Revolutionary War. These had rapidly depreciated from the outset because the Continental Congress had not secured them with gold or silver. During the 1780's, there existed a large national debt, and few if any steps were taken to pay it off or to redeem the Continental notes. They consequently decreased in value to only about twenty cents on the dollar. This produced a rash of speculation, wherein many people bought up the paper money for a fraction of its original worth, hoping that the federal government might someday pay off the bills at a higher rate. Now Beard had found a number of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention who held the notes in the early 1790's, just when Alexander Hamilton, as Secretary of the Treasury, proposed a fiscal program which included paying them off at full face value.
Of course, Beard noted that Hamilton had been at Philadelphia in 1787, and that one of the new central government's first steps was to make good the paper money it had issued during the Revolutionary War. And it was made good at one hundred percent face value, something which few people had dreamed would occur. The implications of vested financial interest and conspiratorial action on behalf of the founding fathers were fully developed in Beard's work and appeared to be solid because of his new historical evidence:
The members of the Philadelphia Convention who drafted the Constitution were, with a few exceptions, immediately, directly, and personally interested in, and derived economic advantages from, the establishment of the new system.
The leaders who supported the Constitution in the state ratifying conventions represented the same economic groups as the members of the Philadelphia convention, and in several instances they were also directly and personally interested in the outcome of their efforts.
The Constitution was essentially an economic document based upon the concept that the fundamental private rights of property are anterior to government and morally beyond the reach of popular majorities.
The entire process, from the calling of the Philadelphia Convention to the ratifying of the Constitution, was unrepresentative and undemocratic; there was no popular vote on calling the convention; the masses of small property holders were not represented at Philadelphia; and only a small minority in each state voted for delegates to the ratifying conventions.
A small band of highly organized men with particular economic and political interests shaped and directed the drive towards holding a Constitutional Convention.
The delegates at Philadelphia wrote a document which was in their direct economic and political interests; the new government would be in their hands and its fiscal policy helped directly to enrich the personal fortunes of the original Philadelphia delegates.
The delegates at Philadelphia met in secrecy and not in an open forum which was subject to public scrutiny. Moreover they never wanted publication of their debates or even the minutes of the convention. All the records were given to George Washington to take home with him at the end of the meeting in the belief that the great patriot of the Revolution would never be challenged for them. Conspiracy historians point out that by getting Washington into their camp, the pro-Constitution forces went a long way in fending off critical opposition. In fact Washington is portrayed as a pawn in the hands of those organizing the drive for holding a convention in Philadelphia.
The ratification procedure was patently illegal: According to the Articles of Confederation, which was the fundamental law of the land at the Constitutional convention, any change in the powers of the central government had to have the unanimous approval of all thirteen states as represented in the Continental Congress. The founding fathers changed this because they knew they could not get ratification under this procedure, so they said that the new Constitution would take effect for all the states when nine of them had registered their approval. The Continental Congress was completely sidestepped, it being asked to send the proposed Constitution along to the states immediately and without any debate or discussion.
The ratification procedure was also clearly undemocratic: The most Democratic procedure would have been to have each state hold a popular referendum on the Constitution, with the people merely asked to indicate acceptance or rejection. Instead, the people were not directly consulted in any of the states. State constitutional conventions were held which decided the question of whether to approve the Constitution or not. In most instances the people were asked to elect the delegates to these conventions, but this was not universal. Under these schemes it has been estimated that only about 15 to 25% of the people even voted in the elections held to send delegates to the state conventions.
Finally, with regard to ratification , it has been pointed out by several historians that in key states like New York and Virginia those opposing the Constitution were in a clear majority at the beginning of the state conventions, but in the end were outvoted. What happened? Some say bribery and other illegal or at least immoral tactics were used to push the Constitution through.