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The Legacy of Forrest McDonald ~ The Imaginative Conservative

Forrest McDonald demonstrated that the historian above all must be a pragmatist who looks at the reality of the past as it was, who gets his hands dirty by putting in long hours of research, who makes sense of vast quantities of data, and who then communicates what he has found in an understandable and interesting way to the general reader.

Forrest McDonald did not set out to be a historian. Had he been able to hit a curveball, he would likely have been a professional baseball player. “I believed, and believe to this day,” McDonald wrote in 2004, “that as an outfielder I was of major league caliber.”[1] Born in Orange, Texas, on January 7, 1927, McDonald decided upon graduation from high school to enter the University of Texas to play baseball. Soon realizing that he was a “good-field, no hit” type of player, McDonald gave up on baseball despite his love of the game, and in so doing displayed perhaps his most defining personal and professional trait—a clear-headed willingness to see things as they are, when looking at himself, at others, or at facts.

When McDonald returned to the University of Texas after a brief stint in the navy at the end of World War II, he thought his powers of clear-headed observation and his talent for writing were the right combination for a career as a novelist, so he enrolled as an English major. It was his encounter with a scholarly conflict between two of his history teachers that convinced him to pursue the field of history instead. “If learned scholars could disagree about as fundamental a subject as the formation of the United States Constitution,” McDonald recalls thinking at the time, “the field of American history must be absolutely wide open.”[2]

The scholarly disagreement that McDonald witnessed as an undergraduate centered on the influential thesis of Charles A. Beard. In his 1913 work, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States, Beard had argued that the Constitution was written by wealthy landowners with a view toward securing their property against their less affluent countrymen. Beard dismissed the role of ideology in the founding and in history in general as the product of economic interest. Beard’s thesis was both trendsetting and trendy, in that it appealed to and fueled the Progressive school of thought—with its emphasis on hidden motivations and conspiracies—that was on the ascendant in academia and throughout American society at the time.

As a graduate student, McDonald boldly decided to test the Beard thesis, a decision that led him to conduct research in every major historical archive on the East Coast, from Georgia to New Hampshire, over a seven-month period in 1951. Living on a meager budget and out of his automobile, McDonald spent every possible minute taking notes “of anything I could find pertaining to the political, economic, social, constitutional, and legal developments, state by state, from the Revolution to 1790.”[3] By the end of 1951 he had compiled five thousand pages of notes that would provide the material for the books and articles he would write over the next five decades.

we the people forrestIn 1958, the University of Chicago Press published We The People: The Economic Origins of the Constitution, the book that grew out of McDonald’s graduate research. The heart of the book was a series of economic biographies of the delegates to the Philadelphia Convention of 1787–88 and of the delegates to the state ratifying conventions. McDonald shows that voting in these conventions did not reflect, as Beard had alleged, a divide between the wealthy (holders of public securities and owners of vast tracts of land) and the less well-off (debtors and small farmers). The case was much more complicated than that. “Some delegates, a dozen at the outside,” McDonald concludes, “clearly acted according to the dictates of their personal economic interests, and about as many more to their philosophical convictions, even when these conflicted with their economic interests. But the conduct of most of the delegates, while partly a reflection of one or both of these personal considerations, was to a much greater extent a reflection of the interests and outlooks of the states and local areas they represented.”[4]

McDonald’s demolition of the Beard thesis led some observers to conclude that he had unjustifiably downplayed, if not dismissed, economic motives in the actions of men. This was far from the case, however. What McDonald rejected was Beard’s reliance on economic motivations as the exclusive impulse in human action. “The very idea of economic man,” McDonald explains, “is in truth simpleminded. It fails to take into account the complicated motivations that impel human beings to do what they do.” Among these McDonald cites “the love of power” and patriotism, either of which “can override selfish considerations of economic gain.”[5]

For McDonald, Beard’s mistake lay not only in a faulty reductionist view of man but also in a faulty historical methodology. Beard had begun with a single, overarching thesis and then searched for facts that conformed to it. In We The People, McDonald warns that “no single system of interpretation can explain all historical phenomena; it is even unlikely that that a single system can adequately explain all aspects of a single historical event.”[6] McDonald equates those historians—he means Beard and the Progressives—who look for a single, hidden explanation for a complex historical event with medieval alchemists. Such scholars failed to do the meticulous research necessary to draw conclusions the proper way—that is, from the evidence. In We The People, McDonald urged his peers to get their hands dirty by doing research in dusty state archives, where the records of the past held the only reliable evidence by which to draw a reliable historical interpretation. Ensuring that his students knew how to uncover and engage first-hand with the records of the past would become one of the hallmarks of his teaching career.

McDonald’s contribution to American historiography has been great by any measure.[7] There is no doubt that his refutation of Charles Beard’s Marxian interpretation of the founding and McDonald’s subsequent writings on the Constitution—including E Pluribus Unum: The Formation of the American Republic (1965) and Novus Ordo Seclorum: The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution (1985)—have changed the nature of the debate among historians and better informed the educated public about the origins and workings of American constitutional government. His biography of Alexander Hamilton (1979) was groundbreaking, presenting an interpretation of this important founder that remains the standard to this day, despite the appearance of several subsequent biographies by others. His studies of the presidencies of George Washington (1974) and Thomas Jefferson (1976) and his book-length treatment of the presidency itself, The American Presidency (1994), are lasting contributions to the literature. His work on the Celtic Thesis, undertaken during the 1970s with his colleague Grady McWhiney, called into question the long-standing Frontier Thesis and caused historians to reexamine the idea of cultural persistence.[8] States Rights and the Union: Imperium in Imperio, 1776–1876, published in 2000, remains the only full-length treatment of the history of states rights, and as such fills an important gap in American historiography.

As an interpreter of American constitutional government, McDonald has achieved a national reputation among historians, statesmen, and the literary public that began with the publication of We The People in 1958. Respected historians David M. Potter and C. Vann Woodward praised We The People in the pages of the Saturday Review and the New York Times, and shortly after the book’s publication McDonald appeared on NBC’s “Continental Classroom” television show.[9] He delivered dozens of talks across the country during the bicentennial celebration of the Constitution, and in the 1980s Novus Ordo Seclorum was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. In 1987, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) called upon McDonald to serve as the sixteenth Thomas Jefferson Lecturer in the Humanities. McDonald has met privately with at least three American presidents[10] and has provided congressional testimony in two of the most significant episodes in modern history: the 1987 Robert Bork Supreme Court nomination hearings in the U.S. Senate and the impeachment proceedings held by the Judiciary Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives against President Bill Clinton in 1998, where he testified on the background and history of impeachment. During the presidency of George W. Bush, Deputy White House Chief of Staff Karl Rove invited McDonald to the White House on three occasions—to give a lecture on the presidency to some twenty-five senior White House staffers, again for dinner, and on the third occasion to talk history with the president as part of a small group of eminent historians.[11]

Despite the attention his work has received, McDonald has never been willing to compromise his intellectual integrity, as other historians routinely do, in return for plaudits or pecuniary rewards. The NEH honor included a $10,000 prize check, which McDonald, true to form, discretely declined, since he believed that the very existence of the NEH offended constitutional principles. He did give the talk, however, on “The Intellectual World of the Founding Fathers.” In 1991, during the bicentennial celebrations of the Bill of Rights, McDonald delivered a talk in Washington, D.C., titled “The Bill of Rights: Unnecessary and Pernicious,” which reflected his view—held also by his hero Hamilton—that an enumerated list of rights actually works to restrict liberty. McDonald rightly predicted that he would not be invited again to give a talk on the sacred document.

Perhaps McDonald’s most endearing moment of public honesty came in 1994 when he was Brian Lamb’s guest on C-SPAN’s Booknotes program to discuss The American Presidency. Lamb, seeking some insight into the historian’s craft, asked, “If we could see you in your environment writing this book, what would we see?” McDonald replied, with a gleam in his eye quite familiar to those who know him, “You’d see me writing in the nude most of the time.”

Those who know McDonald and his wife, Ellen Shapiro McDonald, speak fondly of the couple’s eccentricities. The McDonalds detest having machinery in their home. They have resisted over the years, with varying degrees of success, among other modern conveniences: a microwave; a washing machine and dryer (Ellen washes the laundry with a washboard in the bathtub); a CD player (the first they owned came with a truck they bought); and, most successfully, a computer (McDonald writes not only sans clothing but also in longhand on legal yellow legal paper, and Ellen converts these drafts into printed manuscripts by way of an electric typewriter).

McDonald met Ellen while teaching summer school at Columbia University in the early sixties. He reports that he fell in love with “truly the best student I have ever had.” Ellen would become his second wife and professional partner. Over the years, many a student first sitting in a lecture course given by McDonald would spend a couple of days wondering who the woman was who would correct McDonald’s slips and errors mid-sentence. Those who were fortunate enough to take the graduate-level research and writing course with the McDonalds endured and enjoyed rigorous training as Forrest sharpened their documentary and analytical skills and Ellen honed their writing with steely resolve. Since 1962, the couple has worked seamlessly as a team on every article, speech, and book, although Ellen has rarely consented to be formally credited for her efforts.[12] When McDonald accepted a job at the University of Alabama in 1976, he and Ellen bought a small farm in Coker, Alabama, some fifteen minutes from the main campus in Tuscaloosa, where the couple live and work to this day in splendid isolation.

Great scholars, like all great men, usually defy simple categorization. In McDonald’s case, he would come to study some of American history’s greatest men with an intensity that made him more intimate with these past statesmen than with most of his contemporaries. Examining McDonald’s evaluations of these men and their careers may be the best way to shed light on McDonald’s own character and career.

While on the faculty at Wayne State University, where he taught from 1967 to 1974, McDonald authored two entries in the University Press of Kansas’s series on the presidency, The Presidency of George Washington and The Presidency of Thomas Jefferson. The nation’s first president would become a subject of great interest to McDonald, and the nation’s third president would become one of his favorite whipping boys.[13] It would be Alexander Hamilton, however, whom McDonald most came to admire among the founding generation. McDonald’s work on these three great men deserves some commentary.

McDonald’s unique contribution to the literature on Washington was to get at the very essence of the man, who was generally viewed by contemporaries and historians alike as distant, aloof, and unknowable at his core—a marble man. McDonald, to the contrary, sees the great Virginian as very human in many respects; for example, he possessed a strong ambition and a violent temper. In explaining Washington’s nearly flawless public persona, McDonald points to the early-eighteenth-century play Cato, by Joseph Addison, which depicts the life of the eponymous republican hero of the Roman Empire. Noting that General Washington staged the play numerous times for his troops during the Revolutionary War, McDonald suggests that Washington consciously decided to adopt as his own the persona of Cato. McDonald posits that the public Washington “was self-consciously playing a role” most of his life. In the eighteenth century, “one picked a role, like a part in a play, and contrived to act it unfailingly, ever to be in character. If one chose a character with which one was comfortable and if one played it long enough and consistently enough, by little and little it became a ‘second nature’ that in practice superseded the first. One became what one pretended to be.”[14] Historians across the political spectrum—Gary Wills and Joseph J. Ellis among them—have echoed McDonald’s characterization of Washington.[15]

While McDonald clearly admires Washington as one of the “giants” of the period, he has been highly critical of Thomas Jefferson, both as a man and as a statesman. McDonald views Jefferson as both a hypocrite (the man who praised those who labored in the earth “had never labored in the earth himself, having had slaves to do it for him”) and as a “many-faceted man who was given to extreme and sometimes crackpot utterances.”[16] Worse, Jefferson was a starry-eyed idealist. He was “backward-looking, determined to resist the emergence of the modern world.” He and his followers were “reactionaries, swimming against the tide of history, for the world aborning was the depersonalized world of money, machines, cities, and big government.”[17] McDonald deems Jefferson’s second term as president a “shipwreck” and a “calamity,” particularly because of the president’s tyrannical enforcement of the disastrous Non-Importation Act of 1807, which made full use of the president’s power as commander-in-chief to keep American commercial ships off the high seas and thus the United States out of war with France and England.[18]

If his antipathy toward Jefferson, the supposed champion of individual liberty, has surprised many of McDonald’s conservative readers, his admiration for Jefferson’s nemesis, Alexander Hamilton, has raised even more eyebrows. American proponents of limited government have often cast Hamilton as the godfather of big government. It was Hamilton, after all, who spoke in favor of a life term for the nation’s new chief executive at the Constitutional Convention, who masterminded the creation of the First Bank of the United States, and who championed the public debt, paper money, protective tariffs, and publicly financed internal improvements. Modern liberals have been no warmer to Hamilton, seeing him, in McDonald’s words, “as a champion of plutocracy” who was in large part responsible for creating a modern American society “composed of grubby, materialistic, self-seeking, acquisitive individualists.”[19]

Alexander Hamilton A BiographyAlexander Hamilton: A Biography, penned in the 1970s, testifies to McDonald’s determination to let the records of the past speak to the present. McDonald introduces a new paradigm by which to make sense of the momentous struggle in the early republic between Hamilton and Jefferson. McDonald’s history has less to do with our modern political alignments and more to do with the circumstances that shaped those of the eighteenth century. To McDonald, Hamilton was the great egalitarian, the midwife of a new economic system that threatened to destroy the privilege and wealth of the old, landed aristocracy embodied by Jefferson.

McDonald describes how Hamilton’s own personal history influenced his vision for America. Born in the West Indies as a bastard child, he worked himself out of poverty by means of his keen intellect and unrelenting hard work. As secretary of the treasury under Washington, he sought to create opportunity for all like himself who had talent and gumption. “Hamilton’s audacious mission in life,” McDonald writes, “was to remake American society in accordance with his own values. . . . To transform the established order, to make society more fluid and open to merit, to make industry both rewarding and necessary, all that was needed to be done was to monetize the whole—to rig the rules of the game so that money would become the universal measure of all things.” Money, in Hamilton’s view, was the great equalizer. “For money is oblivious to class, status, color, and inherited social position; money is the ultimate, neutral, impersonal arbiter.” [20]

Though McDonald himself detests modern big government, he shares Hamilton’s view that a government bigger—or at least stronger—than that created by the Articles of Confederation was a necessity for the nascent American nation, particularly through the first quarter of the nineteenth century.[21] McDonald shares with Hamilton the belief that by 1787 the Articles had proved to be a failure, yielding a central government far too weak to settle disputes between and among states. As a result, the Union was in peril a mere decade after American independence. In essays six through nine of the Federalist papers, Hamilton painted a dire picture for his readers, contending that since the end of the Revolutionary War the states had engaged in petty bickering that retarded the economic and political development of the county and reduced “the national dignity and credit” to a “point of extreme depression.” Anti-Federalist reassurances that a loose confederation would guarantee peace among the states better than would a federal system with a strengthened central government was a “deceitful dream of a golden age.” Here is Hamilton the hard-headed realist, the type of historical figure that McDonald admires.[22]

If the Anti-Federalists and their intellectual successors, the Jeffersonians, had had their way, McDonald believes that the United States would likely have devolved ultimately into “a collection of banana republics.” Hamilton’s achievement was to create stability and credibility for the young nation through the strategic use of the inherent and “necessary and proper” powers of the national government. As a result, the conditions for the emergence of a market economy were created in America, ensuring “that the United States would become the richest, most powerful, freest country the world has ever known.”[23] McDonald clearly sees Hamilton’s achievement in light of its historical significance, not as a justification for modern policies of centralization. When pressed by modern critics of Hamilton who believe he paved the way for today’s leviathan state, McDonald defends Hamilton’s firm commitment to limited government: “He was the champion of liberty, of freedom under law, as opposed to those—the Jeffersonians—who defended privilege and authoritarianism.”[24]

McDonald’s affinity for Hamilton crosses the boundaries of mere affection into a deeper psychological identification. On at least one occasion in the classroom, McDonald stated—apparently at least half-seriously—that he himself was the reincarnation of Alexander Hamilton. McDonald seems to picture himself as bound together with Hamilton in eternal partnership. He concluded another classroom lecture by stating, “And that’s why Jimmy Madison will be in Hell and Alex Hamilton and I will be in Heaven.”[25]

McDonald’s identification with Hamilton can be illustrated in terms of four traits the two men share:

(1) A powerful intellect: Like Hamilton, McDonald easily grasps the complexities of economics and financial matters. This ability, McDonald believes, is evidence of “superior intellect.” In his preface to Hamilton, McDonald explains that Hamilton had previously been misunderstood even by his biographers because so few historians who wrote about him understood or liked economics: “It is as if study of Napoleon be done by people with no knowledge of military affairs, or of Bach by people with no interest in music.”[26]

(2) A strong ambition: Hamilton began life as a bastard child in the West Indies. By means of his intellectual abilities and a tireless work ethic, he came to the attention of two businessmen who sent him to America for an education. From there, Hamilton made himself into one of the best lawyers in America, a distinguished officer in the Continental Army, and the right-hand man of the first United States president. McDonald’s beginnings were not quite as humble as Hamilton’s, but he too succeeded spectacularly in his chosen career path, becoming an accomplished and nationally known historian through his own self-described “boundless self-confidence and inexhaustible energy.”[27] McDonald also benefited from the attention of mentors, such as Eugene Barker and Fulmer Mood at the University of Texas, who encouraged a talented and rather brash young man in his ambitions.

(3) Physical courage: Hamilton served in the Continental Army during the Revolution and led charges at Monmouth and Yorktown. During his lifetime, he challenged many men to duels, ultimately dying in one such contest, felled by a bullet from the pistol of Aaron Burr. McDonald has often ridiculed the likes of John Adams, Jefferson, and Madison for their lack of physical courage. As governor of Virginia, for example, Jefferson fled when the British invaded the commonwealth, and during his lectures McDonald loved to recount the story of the diminutive President Madison attempting to mount his horse at the approach of the British during the War of 1812, only to be urged by his wife Dolly to get down before he hurt himself.[28] McDonald, who was a navy volunteer during World War II, who had no fear of incoming fastballs in his years as an outfielder, and who has exerted much physical labor farming over the years, has little patience for such unmanly behavior.

(4) Public virtue. This is to be distinguished from private virtue. Hamilton certainly failed spectacularly in the latter, but McDonald, like the founders themselves, seems to put a higher emphasis on the importance of rectitude in public affairs than in private matters. As secretary of the treasury under Washington, Hamilton infamously became involved in an extramarital affair with one Maria Reynolds, whose husband then blackmailed Hamilton. If Hamilton did not make secret payments, James Reynolds threatened to reveal all. Despite Hamilton’s quiet cooperation with the blackmail scheme, rumors of the affair and the blackmail payments leaked out, and soon his Jeffersonian enemies were accusing Hamilton not only of the affair but of using public funds to pay the blackmail. It was here that Hamilton risked his own marriage and sacrificed his personal reputation—called “character” in the eighteenth century—so as not to bring discredit upon his public character, the government, and indeed his country. Hamilton confessed the affair and laid open his private financial accounts to prove that not one penny of public funds had been used to pay the blackmail.

McDonald likewise puts a great emphasis on his professional integrity. Early on in his career, when composing a history of the Wisconsin utility companies, he found that the people he interviewed for the project—who would also be subjects in the manuscript—tried to sway his opinion of them for history by buying him drinks or meals. McDonald soon realized why they were treating him so nicely: “They saw my coming as the Day of Judgment, and thus to them my memory was the memory of History; it was the memory of mankind; perhaps it was even the memory of God. This is what everyone, in his own way, sought to buy.” From the outset of his career, however, McDonald refused to compromise his principles of scholarship. “I am both fallible and corrupt,” McDonald writes in recalling the experience, “but my memory, though fallible, is incorruptible.”[29]

McDonald’s rigorous allegiance to what he conceives as the proper principles of historical research has indeed been one of his most outstanding attributes. He never cuts corners. After completing the first five chapters of his biography of Alexander Hamilton, McDonald decided that his approach was all wrong and that he would have to start over. Most scholars, having already invested so much work in a project, would have forged ahead and settled for an imperfect product. At worst, they would have reworked what was already written. McDonald, however, threw the manuscript into the fireplace, and he and Ellen watched it burn.[30]

novos ordo seclorumOnce settled at the University of Alabama, McDonald penned the work that many consider to be his magnum opus, Novus Ordo Seclorum: The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution, published in 1985. The book was the last in McDonald’s planned trilogy on the founding that began with We the People and E Pluribus Unum. Up to that time, McDonald had been wary of writing intellectual history per se, as it “tended to be the history of intellectuals, with but little relationship to real people.”[31] In Novus, McDonald avoids this pitfall of intellectual history while also avoiding the Beardian trap of seeking a single, overarching perspective or worldview by which to explain complex events.[32]

Novus is a strange intellectual history in some ways, for McDonald at many points downplays the role of ideas—or at least ideology—in tracing the history of the Revolution and the framing of the Constitution. Much of the book deals with the economic and power interests of the founders. “In the whole corpus of the ideological literature,” McDonald complains in the preface to Novus, “there is scarcely a mention of what used to be called social, political, and economic ‘reality,’ or of such practical men of affairs as George Washington and Robert Morris, without whom, arguably, there might have been no founding.”[33] McDonald’s “intellectual” history of the founding, therefore, includes chapters titled “Systems of Political Economy,” “The Lessons of Experience: 1776–1787,” and “The Framers: Principles and Interests.”

In declaring independence and in forming a government, McDonald argues in Novus, the founders adhered to no single intellectual theory or political theorist. Rather, they spoke a common political and legal language derived from the authors they all had read: Polybius, Cato, John Locke, William Blackstone, Montesquieu, John Trenchard, Thomas Gordon, James Harrington, David Hume. They drew selectively on these thinkers whenever convenient to buttress their arguments. Indeed, the framers of the Constitution, McDonald demonstrates, never let established political theory or intellectual consistency stand in the way of a good, practical solution to a thorny political/constitutional problem. An example is Hamilton’s articulation of the idea of “divided sovereignty” to justify the Constitution’s division of power between the state and the federal governments, each being supreme in its own sphere. Such an arrangement contradicted the great English legal scholar Blackstone’s admonition that supreme lawmaking authority can rest only in one place.[34] McDonald sees the framers as ultimately practical men—that is, men like himself—who trusted historical experience above speculative theory.[35]

the american presidencyMcDonald tried his hand at his brand of intellectual history again in 1994 with the publication of The American Presidency: An Intellectual History. McDonald was spurred to write the book because of his work on the presidencies of Washington and Jefferson and because of his conversations with Presidents Reagan and Nixon. “Though the caliber of people who have served as chief executive,” McDonald concludes in the work’s final chapter, “has declined erratically but persistently from the day George Washington left office, the presidency has been responsible for less harm and more good, in the nation and in the world, than perhaps any other secular institution in history.”[36]

When McDonald realized that no one had ever written a history of states’ rights, despite the significance of the subject in United States history, he wrote States Rights and the Union: Imperium in Imperio, 1776–1876 (2000). McDonald concludes that the doctrine of states’ rights is historically justifiable, and he notes that it was often articulated by northerners despite its exclusive association with southerners in the contemporary mind.

In his 2004 memoir, Recovering the Past, McDonald reflects not merely on his own life and career as an historian but also comments on the practice of the profession itself. McDonald laments the fact that too many historians try to use the past to further their own “political or ideological agenda[s].”[37] The phenomenon of using the past to justify the present, called “presentism,” is a serious transgression in McDonald’s view, for it impedes the historian’s ability to see the past objectively. “The best historians,” McDonald writes, “are those who enjoy searching the record of the past for its own sake.” Such an approach is “the purest motivation possible” for the study of history and mitigates the danger of misreading history for one’s own purposes: “Though it does not guarantee accuracy, it is proof against conscious or unconscious warping of the truth.” [38]

McDonald does believe that interpretation is a legitimate aspect of the historian’s task. In fact, he rejects the notion that the job of the historian simply is to relate history as it happened. Such an approach produces long, tedious, and unmemorable accounts of the past. “History is a mode of thinking that wrenches the past out of context and sequence,” McDonald counters, “out of the way it really happened, and reorders it in an artificial way that facilitates understanding and remembering.”[39] Imagination is a key skill of the historian.

Imagination, however, is best facilitated by immersing oneself in the historical sources themselves. McDonald believes that the historian has to be on guard against being influenced by what previous historians have written. Modern history departments are obsessed with ensuring that their faculty and graduate students master the “literature”—that is, with ensuring that they know what other scholars have said about a historical topic. A corollary of this obsession is the tendency for historians today to identify with a certain school of thought before they have even done research into the primary sources. From the beginning of his career as a historian, McDonald was fortunate to be spared, by mere chance of time and place, immersion into the intellectually confining paradigm of warring schools of thought: “I emerged from graduate school entirely ignorant of what had been happening in the profession over the course of the preceding three or four decades.”[40] McDonald has consistently avoided being overly concerned with what other scholars have said on a subject. When contemplating writing a book or essay on a topic for the first time, his modus operandi is to ask Ellen to find the best three or four secondary works on the subject, to review them briefly, and to report to him on their central arguments. In this way, McDonald obtains a general idea of what has been written on a topic while preserving a clean-slate approach to his examination of the past.[41]

In the end, Forrest McDonald seems to be a bundle of contradictions: a southern agrarian who dislikes Thomas Jefferson; a proponent of states’ rights who believes that the centralizing Federalist Party had the better policies; an advocate of limited government who adores Alexander Hamilton. The devotee of no particular school of historical thought, his work is underappreciated by those scholars who are obsessed with looking at history through various interpretative schools. The impossibility of neatly summarizing McDonald’s thinking hints at his greatness.

history on proper principlesBy working from the particular to the general, McDonald has shown how simple explanations for the matrix of human actions, themselves the product of many and sometimes conflicting motivations, are always flawed or incomplete. He has demonstrated that the historian above all must be a pragmatist who looks at the reality of the past as it was, who gets his hands dirty by putting in long hours of research, who makes sense of vast quantities of data, and who then communicates what he has found in an understandable and interesting way to the general reader.

“History, on proper principles,” McDonald told his audience in his address to the last class he taught as a regular faculty member at the University of Alabama, can help us “abandon our fragmented, problem-solving approach to knowledge and take up a holistic view of human affairs.”[42] History, on proper principles, is that study which helps each of us both escape the provincialism of the present and receive the present with an attitude of gratitude and joy. It is with this attitude that Forrest McDonald has embraced life and love and learning, and it has been infectious. His legacy will surely be a dual one: his uncompromising method of “doing history” bequeathed to all who have benefited from his tutelage will stand alongside his magnificent oeuvre itself in inspiring future generations of historians.

This essay first appeared as the introduction to History, On Proper Principles: Essays in Honor of Forrest McDonald, published by ISI Books (2010), and is republished here with gracious permission.

This essay was first published here in January 2016.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.


[1] Forrest McDonald, Recovering the Past: A Historian’s Memoir (Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press, 2004), 50. This work provides a good overview of McDonald’s biography and bibliography in his own words.

[2] Ibid., 54.

[3] Ibid, 56.

[4] Forrest McDonald, We The People: The Economic Origins of the Constitution (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Press, 1992), 415–16.

[5] McDonald, Recovering the Past, 73.

[6] McDonald, We The People, 413.

[7] A bibliography of McDonald’s major works is included at the end of this book.

[8] Turner’s Frontier Thesis, promulgated in 1893, argued that Americans were defined by the existence of the rugged, open western frontier. which molded the people who lived on it into democratic individualists and which made American culture distinct from the culture of Europe. In contrast, McDonald and McWhiney held that the great mass of Celtic peoples who migrated to the American southern frontier, retained their European folkways. Rather than being changed by their environment, these Celts preserved their way of life upon coming to America. “The New World did not create a new man,” McDonald argued. “It enabled men to remain what they had been” (Recovering the Past, 130).

[9] McDonald, Recovering the Past, 86–88.

[10] McDonald met Ronald Reagan in 1987 in conjunction with his recognition as Jefferson Lecturer, had a private dinner with Richard Nixon in 1992, and was a guest at the White House during George W. Bush’s first term.

[11] From a conversation with Ellen McDonald.

[12] Ellen Shapiro McDonald is credited as coauthor of Requiem: Variations on Eighteenth-Century Themes (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1988) and as coeditor of Confederation and Constitution, 1781–1789 (New York: Harper & Row, 1968).

[13] McDonald would write again about both men in numerous articles and in his books Novus Ordo Seclorum: The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1985), Requiem, and The American Presidency (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1994).

[14] McDonald, Novus Ordo Seclorum, 194; Requiem, 14.

[15] See Gary Wills, Cincinnatus: George Washington and the Enlightenment (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1984); Joseph J. Ellis, His Excellency (New York: Random House, 2004).

[16] McDonald, Recovering the Past, 137.

[17] Ibid., 137, 139.

[18] Forrest McDonald, The Presidency of Thomas Jefferson (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, paperback edition, 1987), 167 and chapter 7. McDonald became the author of the Jefferson volume in Kansas’s presidency series only after the publisher was unable to enlist a Jefferson scholar to do the book. McDonald believes that those scholars, “Jeffersonians all, did not wish to touch the presidency because Jefferson was by no means a Jeffersonian president.” See McDonald, Recovering the Past, 137. It should be noted, however, that in his 1994 C-SPAN interview with Brian Lamb, McDonald listed Jefferson’s first four years in office as one of the most successful presidential terms in American history. (Jefferson’s second term, however, McDonald characterized as one of the worst.)

[19] McDonald, Recovering the Past, 147.

[20] Forrest McDonald, Alexander Hamilton: A Biography (New York: Norton, paperback ed., 1980), 4.

[21] McDonald once declared to one of us (Klugewicz) that the Federalist Party’s vision was the correct prescription for the United States up to the year 1830.

[22] Alexander Hamilton, Federalist 6, in Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison, The Federalist, ed. George W. Carey and James McLellan (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2001), 25. As he explained in his classes, McDonald blamed the growth of the federal government not on the Federalists, not on Abraham Lincoln, not even on FDR and the New Dealers. Rather, he blamed Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society for the creation of the leviathan state.

[23] McDonald, “The Founding Fathers and the Economic Order,” speech before the Economic Club of Indianapolis, April 19, 2006.

[24] McDonald, Recovering the Past, 147.

[25] From personal recollection (Klugewicz).

[26] McDonald, Hamilton, 209, xi.

[27] McDonald, Recovering the Past, 51.

[28] From personal recollection (Klugewicz).

[29] Quoted in McDonald, Recovering the Past, 95.

[30] McDonald, Recovering the Past, 145.

[31] McDonald, Recovering the Past, 149.

[32] See Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1998); J. G. A. Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1975). Both Wood and Pocock see Americans’ pursuit of virtue as the key to understanding the events of the late eighteenth century.

[33] McDonald, Novus Ordo Seclorum, viii.

[34] For example, the founders created the idea of “divided sovereignty.” See McDonald, Novus Ordo Seclorum, 277–78.

[35] For example, the Federalist essays are replete with examples from history that supposedly buttress the points made by the authors.

[36] Forrest McDonald, The American Presidency, 481.

[37] McDonald, Recovering the Past, 11.

[38] Ibid.

[39] McDonald, Recovering the Past, 5.

[40] McDonald, Recovering the Past, 20.

[41] From personal recollection (Klugewicz).

[42] See the concluding paragraphs of Recovering the Past, 165, where McDonald excerpts “The Speech” and provides a note about its provenance and unique career. “The Speech” is available in its entirety online here.

The featured image is a picture of Forrest McDonald by The New York Times (18 June 2019). This file is licensed under the Creative CommonsAttribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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