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Published by EH.NET (January 2004)

Robert A. McGuire, To Form a More Perfect Union: A New Economic Interpretation of the United States Constitution. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. xii +395 pp. $24.95 (hardback), ISBN: 0-19-513970-4.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Keith T. Poole, Department of Political Science, University of Houston.

This is an important book that will be of great interest to any student of American political-economic history. It is bound to be controversial because McGuire’s analysis of voting at the Constitutional Convention and several of the state ratifying conventions shows that Charles Beard was basically correct — the economic interests of the Founders mattered in the writing and ratification of the Constitution.

McGuire’s basic approach is to analyze roll call votes at the Philadelphia convention and the ratification votes of the individual state conventions. He analyzes sixteen important votes at the Philadelphia Convention (Chapters Three, Four, and Five), the overall ratification vote in the nation (Chapter Six), and the ratification votes of seven individual states with a detailed study of the ratification votes in Massachusetts, North Carolina, and Virginia (Chapter Seven).

The votes are used as dependent variables in a series of logit regressions that are the core of McGuire’s analysis. The independent variables measure characteristics of the delegates and the constituencies that the delegates represented. The independent variables are mostly indicators (dummies) for a variety of economic and personal characteristics — for example, merchant, western landowner, farmer, debtor, creditor, slaveowner, holder of public securities, local office holder, officer in the Revolutionary War, religion, and so on. Some of the continuous independent variables are the market value of slaves in dollars, public securities holding in dollars, distance of the delegate’s home county to navigable water, percent English ancestry in the delegate’s home county, and so on. The data collection is truly impressive and lends considerable power to McGuire’s results.

Previous analyses of the voting at the Philadelphia Convention and the ratification votes by the states simply tallied the voting by various subgroups of delegates. By taking a multivariate statistical approach to the analysis of the votes, McGuire is able to accurately measure the marginal impact of important economic interests on the voting decisions of delegates. For example, suppose that there are two groups of delegates — merchants and slaveowners — at a particular convention. Suppose further that the two groups are essentially identical in all the remaining characteristics — English ancestry, service in the Revolutionary War, religion, and so on. We observe that a majority of both groups vote in favor of the Constitution — 70 percent of the merchants and 55 percent of the slaveowners. In a simple tally analysis of the voting a researcher would conclude that both groups favored the Constitution. It is exactly at this stage that the power of McGuire’s analysis kicks in. With a multivariate statistical approach McGuire is able to calculate the probability that each delegate would vote in favor of the Constitution and, holding other characteristics fixed, he is able to calculate the marginal impact of each economic and personal characteristic upon the probability of voting in favor. In the simple example above, the fact that there is a 15 percentage point difference in the voting behavior of merchants and slaveowners manifests itself in the multivariate analysis as a negative coefficient on the slaveowner indicator variable and a substantial impact upon the probability of a slaveowner voting in favor of ratification. The multivariate analysis shows that, holding everything else fixed, being a slaveowner significantly reduces the probability that the delegate voted in favor of the Constitution.

McGuire’s most robust findings are that delegates from areas with substantial commercial activities (proximity to navigable water) were much more likely to favor the Constitution than other delegates at the state conventions and to vote to strengthen the national government with respect to their interests at the Philadelphia convention. Conversely, delegates who personally owned slaves or who represented areas with greater concentration of slaves were much more likely to oppose the Constitution at the state conventions and to vote to limit the national government with respect to their interests at the Philadelphia convention. In addition, in most specifications delegates who were debtors opposed, and holders of securities favored, the Constitution.

In short, McGuire’s results are quite exhaustive. There can be no question that the economic interests of the delegates to the Philadelphia convention and to the state ratifying conventions influenced how they voted on the Constitution. However, as he points out in the final chapter, this does not mean that a narrow “Beardian” view of the founders is correct. That is, what McGuire’s results show is that the delegates cannot be easily divided into discrete groups that represent discrete narrow interests. A merchant was also an officer in the Revolutionary War, a local office holder, a slaveowner, and an owner of securities. It was the mix of these interests that affected how an individual delegate voted. Across a large group of delegates with varying mixes of interests it is possible to statistically assess the marginal impact of any particular interest. This is quite different from a simple tallying of the behavior of discrete groups.

So where does McGuire’s thoughtful analysis leave us? In my opinion it leaves us with a much more realistic but not cynical portrait of the founders. It is usually the case in legislative decision making that legislators are both self-interested and personally believe that they faithfully represent their constituents. This is not inconsistent. Merchants tend to live near and with other merchants. A merchant who is also a delegate believes that he faithfully represents the people who elected him. As McGuire notes, “it is highly unlikely that disinterested and nonpartisan constitutional changes can take place in any society” (p. 212). The founders were not saints. They fought a war on a continental scale against long odds. They prevailed and were forced to deal with its aftermath. The Constitution reflects the interests of creditors, public securities holders, merchants, and slaveowners. However, to paraphrase McGuire (p. 212), the overall result was that the government it produced was basically fair and not inefficient. It left slavery untouched until the Civil War but it put in place a representative republic with basic rights for its citizens. The Statue of Liberty is not a meaningless symbol. The Constitution has endured for over two hundred years because it created a framework that allowed people to be free and to prosper due to their own efforts. Not a bad result by any measure.

Keith T. Poole’s publications include (with Howard Rosenthal) Congress: A Political-Economic History of Roll Call Voting (Oxford University Press, 1997). Links to his recent papers and data can be found at http://voteview.uh.edu.