In praise of Forrest McDonald

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Late last night I learned about the passing of Forrest McDonald. For U.S. historians, especially those that study the Revolution, the Constitution,  and the Early Republic, he is well known as one of our most important historians. Why? Because he was instrumental in totally demolishing and finishing off Charles Beard’s “progressive school” interpretation of the Founding Fathers. In fact, in some ways he may have been the most important historian in causing the shift in historiography away from Beard to become more or less permanent. He was unabashedly conservative and thus had his own critics, but anyone that writes on the subject still has to deal with his interpretations.

When I began working on a Phd, I came to the University of Alabama primarily to study the Civil War with George C. Rable. One of the added bonuses however, (other than coming back to my home state and indulging in the sports program that I was raised to love) was that I got to take Revolutionary America and Early Republic classes with Forrest McDonald. Honestly, I was star struck on the first day of class, but was amazed that a man that had lectured both Congress and the president seemed humbly in his element surrounded by young students. He was near to retirement by then, so his devoted wife Ellen was his close partner in running the class (she did the grading). He would come in, perch himself on the edge of a table, and then start reeling off incredibly well constructed, humorous, and intellectually stimulating lectures. I didn’t always agree with him and recall once challenging him openly in class in regards to his interpretation of Shay’s Rebellion. I also recall him saying something about slavery once that was so ridiculous that I won’t repeat it here. Further, as a Civil War historian, his thoughts on secession and the Constitution (and Lincoln) were hard for me to digest. Still, he was unmistakably a fan of the Federalist Party and Alexander Hamilton (before Broadway made him cool), and was no fan of Jefferson–things on which I was in full agreement. He never glossed over the human failings of the Founders, and in fact it was those details that were often the best highlights of his lectures. Much of my “take” on the Founders now in my own classroom is rooted in the things he taught me in his books and lectures.

However, the best thing about McDonald was that he was extremely approachable, always treated you and your opinions with the utmost of respect (even when you were disagreeing with him), and almost always had something profound and funny to say. He was a very confident (nay cocky) man, but yet he never made you feel small or unimportant. The last time I saw him was about two years ago. He had been retired for several years at that point, but I happened to run into him in the elevator one day when he came on to campus to pick up some mail. I was amazed that he remembered me, asked me about my book and the classes I was teaching, and had me laughing in just the few short minutes that we talked. As we parted, I knew it would probably be the last time that I saw him and I felt a pang of sadness.

Listen, I don’t want to create the wrong impression; I was not close to Forrest McDonald, he was not my dissertation director, and I can’t say that we ever really talked all that much. I was just one of the thousands of students that took his classes during his long career, and yet he still had an impact on me that I won’t ever forget. In the end, that is probably the best praise I can give the man.

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