Forrest McDonald’s recent death brought to mind some of the key moments in my intellectual development. He was perhaps my favorite recent historian, and he contributed to our understanding of the American Revolution and Early Republic more significantly than any but one or two of our contemporaries.
I first encountered McDonald’s work in the summer of 1987. Having completed a year of study at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, University of Texas at Austin, I was in the District of Columbia for the public-policy internship that was part of my MPAff program. When I wasn’t working for a then-unknown Texas congressman named Dick Armey, I spent my time seeing the DC sights and reading, reading, reading.
As it was the bicentennial of the Philadelphia Convention, bookstores brimmed with tomes on that subject. Among them was McDonald’s masterwork, Novus Ordo Seclorum: The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution, recently nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Right next to it on many Washington bookstore shelves was Charles A. Beard’s An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States, in a new edition with an introduction by McDonald. Although I’d been assigned several essays of The Federalist in my high school government class and in an introductory class in the same field at the University of Texas, I’d never read any secondary scholarship on the Revolutionary era before.
I started with Beard. I had seen the book mentioned here and there, but often dismissively. Unbeknownst to me, McDonald had established himself as a major scholar in the field decades before by completely demolishing this, the leading Progressive book on the Constitution. Beard’s tendentious argument held that the Constitution had been drafted by government creditors who intended to benefit themselves by empowering the federal government to tax, which was how they planned to repay people who had loaned the Continental Congress or the Confederation money to finance the Revolution. McDonald’s evidence showed that supporters of strengthening the central government in the 1780s were no more likely than their opponents to be government creditors. For several decades—really, from his book’s appearance a half century ago until the Age of Gruber—Beard’s thesis was considered passé.
If the Constitution was not simply a mechanism for transferring money into the pockets of the connected few, then what was it? Novus Ordo Seclorum provided the answer, to my mind better than any other book has done. Master of the revolutionaries’ intellectual milieu, McDonald showed what roles Hobbes, Montesquieu, and other prominent wellsprings of American republican thought had in shaping the thinking underlying the creation of the New Order for the Ages. It remains a brilliant, though by no means an easy, book.
Quite rightly, McDonald began this, his second most influential book, with a chapter on “The Rights of Englishmen.” Here he explained how the English inheritance lay at the root of North American colonists’ dissatisfaction with imperial policy in the wake of the French and Indian War. Next, in a chapter on “Systems of Political Theory,” he progressed from the colonists’ choice of Locke over other natural-law theorists (because Locke alone provided a justification for independence) through the other strains of thought whose influence one can demonstrate in the surviving materials. What might have seemed complicated or dry becomes in the hands of this master stylist a pleasure to plumb.
Most pertinent to our concerns, perhaps, is his final chapter, “Powers, Principles, and Consequences,” in which much of later American history is explained as a kind of extended ramification of the Philadelphia Convention. McDonald sympathizes with John Dickinson, the great Pennsylvanian who insisted in the Convention that experience, not theory, was the surest guide. Dickinson is apt to be far more congenial to a conservative such as McDonald than the bookish, theoretical James Madison; M. E. Bradford devoted considerable attention to Dickinson too.
Yet, McDonald held Madison in high regard as well. In fact, surveying the likes of Gouverneur Morris, James Wilson, Ben Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Madison, Dickinson, George Washington, Roger Sherman, Oliver Ellsworth, John Rutledge, and the other participants in the Federal Convention, McDonald more than once noted that it would be impossible for America in his day to assemble anything like so able and experienced a group. I might add that they were amazingly principled and brilliant, as well.
McDonald wrote other landmark works, too. Essentially Jeffersonian thinker though I am, I have to give him credit for having written the best biography of Alexander Hamilton. Yes, he recounts Hamilton’s role in the Revolution, his role in the Publius project, his cabinet disputes with Jefferson, and his newspaper fights with Madison, but the great virtue of McDonald’s Alexander Hamilton: A Biography lies in making Hamilton’s brilliant (I’m not saying I approve of it!) economic program completely understandable. Given the economic ignorance prevalent among historians—which leads them in most cases simply to parrot bygone party propaganda—it is a rare scholar who both understands complex financial policy and lays it out clearly. McDonald was one such scholar.
McDonald’s other finest books are his acerbic, witty, insightful contributions to the University Press of Kansas’s American Presidencies series. Whoever had the idea of recruiting academia’s most vociferous, accomplished Hamiltonian to write The Presidency of Thomas Jefferson, in particular, deserves some kind of prize. The Washington volume is nearly as memorable. Consider this concluding passage, which at once summarizes the book and clearly expresses McDonald’s authorial personality:
We end, then, where we began. George Washington was indispensable, but only for what he was, not for what he did. He was the symbol of the presidency, the epitome of propriety in government, the means by which Americans accommodated the change from monarchy to republicanism, and the instrument by which an inconsequential people took its first steps toward becoming a great nation.
No one who followed Washington in the presidency could escape the legends that surrounded his tenure in the office, but the more perceptive among them shared a secret: Washington had done little in his own right, had often opposed the best measures of his subordinates, and had taken credit for achievements that he had no share in bringing about.
They kept the secret to themselves. After all, other people had to be president, too.
My first personal interaction with McDonald came nearly twenty years ago. Sitting at my kitchen table working away on my University of Virginia history dissertation, I heard the phone ring. “Hello,” I said. “Hello,” came the southern-accented voice on the other end of the line, “this is Forrest McDonald. I’m a history professor at the University of Alabama.”
There was something a bit surreal in having McDonald call me. Having him tell me who he was made this exchange just about perfect. I still laugh at the idea that I had to be told who he was. Likely he knew I didn’t need to be told. He proceeded to tell me that the Philadelphia Society would be having its regional meeting in 1998 at Williamsburg, and then he invited me to present a paper. The topic he assigned was “James Madison and the Compound Republic.”
McDonald had been one of the judges who had awarded me the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s Henry Salvatori Fellowship, besides naming me winner of a Richard Weaver Fellowship a couple of years earlier. I suppose he had then found my critical take on James Madison in a journal article interesting, and so wanted more. I delivered an entirely critical take on Madison and federalism, and, as I recall, he quite liked it.
My next interaction with Prof. McDonald came four years later. By then I had been an assistant professor for three years, and at last he had decided to retire. I had repeatedly told people while I was in graduate school at UVA that McDonald would probably retire at about the time I received my PhD, and that it would be wonderful if I could succeed him in his position at Alabama. Seeing the job advertised, I applied for it, was asked to come interview at the 2002 American Historical Association Conference in San Francisco, and found myself a finalist flying down to Tuscaloosa for the interview.
If “interviewing debacles” were a game, I would have won. Throughout the visit, it was impossible for me to tell anyone what I was thinking: that I had long had my eye on this post. Four of his colleagues told me at various points that they didn’t want to be at Alabama, and two others conducted a lengthy discussion in a car ride with me on the question why on earth he had stayed there. I saw McDonald only briefly. He expressed surprise at my presence, hurrying to tell me that no one had informed him I was coming or he would certainly have planned to attend my research talk. I told him, truthfully, that I didn’t mind and was quite happy to have seen him.
When I heard several weeks later by a curt email that they had decided not to hire me, I wrote McDonald with the news. I wrote McDonald again when, a decade later, my Madison biography appeared. Having heard he was in ill health, I had not asked him for a blurb, but I enclosed a copy and said I hoped he’d find my take on the Virginian congenial. Mrs. McDonald, who played an active role in his professional career, said he thanked me. He expected the book to be a success but was unable to read it due to his health situation. They were happy they had ended up in Alabama, she said. They liked the situation at the school, the students, and the local people. Their situation there was optimal, because McDonald had insisted as a condition of moving there that he not have to perform any administrative duties.
Mrs. McDonald’s comment about the local people reminded me that McDonald had been involved for years, along with Prof. Grady McWhiney, in writing about “cracker culture.” The theory was that the folkways brought to North America by people from the north and west of Great Britain and from Ireland in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries went far to explain differences among American regions. Alabamians were McDonald’s people, not just his neighbors. That was why he never left.
And then I heard he’d died.
Forrest McDonald was, like me, a product of the University of Texas. He wrote great books, authentically great books. He lamented declining standards, declining mores, and the loss of the virtue that the Romans called pietas. He put considerable effort into vindicating the work of the flower of American history, the people who wrote the US Constitution. He said that the historian’s work of learning about the past was a joy but that the historian’s task of writing about the past was hard work. I certainly agree with him, here as in much else, though I confess that his style far surpassed mine. Forrest McDonald was, all in all, what a conservative historian ought to be.
Kevin R. C. Gutzman is the New York Times best-selling author of four books and Professor of History at Western Connecticut State University. He holds a bachelor’s degree, a master of public affairs degree, and a law degree from the University of Texas at Austin, as well as an MA and a PhD in American history from the University of Virginia. Happy to be a former attorney, Gutzman devotes his intellectual energy to teaching courses in the Revolutionary and constitutional history of the United States, to writing books and articles in these fields, and to public speaking on related topics. Dr. Gutzman’s first book was the New York Times best-seller, The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Constitution, an account of American constitutional history from the pre-Revolutionary days to the present. Gutzman’s most recent book is James Madison and the Making of America, and he is already at work on a fifth monograph, Thomas Jefferson–Revoutionary (forthcoming). Gutzman has edited new editions of John Taylor of Caroline’s Tyranny Unmasked and New Views of the Constitution of the United States.