Forrest McDonald, the great historian of the American founding and early Republic, passed away on January 19 at the age of 89. Born in Orange, Texas, McDonald earned his doctorate from the University of Texas-Austin in 1955, and taught at Brown University, Wayne State University (Michigan), and the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa. He retired to his farm in Coker, Alabama, in 2002 and in 2010 ceased writing as he dealt with illness.
McDonald made a name for himself early in his career, when his dissertation became the groundbreaking book We the People: The Economic Origins of the Constitution (1958), a series of economic biographies of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention. Overturning the long-standing thesis of Marxist historian Charles A. Beard, McDonald convincingly argued that the delegates, when crafting the Constitution, did not act uniformly to promote their own economic self-interest. Though many misunderstood McDonald to deem economic motivations in history unimportant, to the contrary he thought that economic interest was simply one of many motivations of historical actors; his objection to Beard was that he made the mistake of promoting a simple, overarching explanation for a major historical event. McDonald instead believed that history is as complex as the men who make it, and that it is the task of the historian to research deeply and broadly when seeking to understand and explain events.
In his sequel to We the People, E Pluribus Unum: The Formation of the American Republic (1965), McDonald presented a narrative account of the Philadelphia convention, demonstrating how much individual personality and simple wheeling-and-dealing factored into the story of the framing of the Constitution. In 1986, he published the final volume in the trilogy, Novus Ordo Seclorum: The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution (1985). A finalist for a Pulitzer Prize and his magnum opus, this book sought to answer his critics who accused him of neglecting the power of ideas at the convention. Novus demonstrated McDonald’s vast knowledge of the intellectual world of the Founding Fathers, who, he argued, were influenced by a wide, and sometimes contradictory, set of classical, English, and Continental political theorists.
McDonald’s favorite of his own works was likely his Alexander Hamilton: A Biography (1979), the story of a man whom McDonald idolized for his intellectual brilliance, strong ambition, physical courage, and sense of public virtue. McDonald, a self-described paleoconservative, raised some eyebrows among his friends and admirers for lauding Hamilton, the architect of the first Bank of the United States and the “energetic” executive. But McDonald firmly believed that the young United States would have quickly degenerated into a bunch of “banana republics,” had not Hamilton’s designs been successful.
Hamilton, in McDonald’s view, joined George Washington as one of the two indispensable men of the American Revolution and founding. McDonald also wrote glowingly about the nation’s first president: in several academic essays, in a short volume in the University Press of Kansas series on the American presidency, and in his full-length work, The American Presidency: An Intellectual History (1994). McDonald was less enamored of Washington’s energetic secretary of state and Hamilton’s erstwhile nemesis, Thomas Jefferson, because of Jefferson’s misguided policies (especially the Embargo Act of 1808) and because of what McDonald saw as Jefferson’s personal hypocrisy and wild-eyed views of man and society.
McDonald, a contrarian who enjoyed challenging the political correctness of historians and modern political leftists, famously penned in 1985 an essay for the Southern Partisan, “Why Yankees Won’t (and Can’t) Leave the South Alone,” which connected the Puritan do-gooding impulse to direct the behavior of all to the modern Democratic Party’s drive to make everyone subservient to a centralized parent-government.
McDonald’s historical interests extended far and wide. For several years at Alabama, he taught a class on America between the world wars; wrote a book about early 20th-century electricity magnate Samuel Insull; and addressed contemporary economic policy in The Phaeton Ride: The Crisis of American Success (1974). McDonald also authored the first book-length history of the theory of states’ rights, States’ Rights and the Union, Imperium in Imperio 1776-1876 (2000).
Though he was never as well known as some contemporary historians, the conservative McDonald did attain a national reputation and was respected by his peers, no matter their political leanings. McDonald delivered dozens of talks across the country during the bicentennial celebration of the Constitution, and in 1987 the National Endowment for the Humanities appointed him as Thomas Jefferson Lecturer for the Humanities. McDonald was a guest on C-SPAN’s BookNotes with Brian Lamb (where he famously revealed that he did most of his writing at home in the nude), testified before the U.S. House of Representatives on the history of perjury during the impeachment proceedings against President Bill Clinton, and was invited to the George W. Bush White House to lecture to senior staffers and again to talk history with the President and a small group of other historians.
Forrest McDonald not only contributed much to our understanding of the American founding and the nature of our constitutional government, but, by engaging diligently in research, exercising independence of mind, and infusing the facts of the past with proper historical imagination, also set an example of how the historian should practice his craft.