The prolific and controversial constitutional historian Forrest McDonald died of heart failure on 18 January 2016 in Tuscaloosa, Ala. He was 89.
Born on 7 January 1927 in Orange, Texas, he was educated at the University of Texas, where he received his doctorate in 1955. Having taught at Brown (1959-1967) and Wayne State (1967-1976) Universities, he was best known as a faculty member at the University of Alabama, where he taught from 1976 until his retirement in 2002.
His first book was his dissertation, LET THERE BE LIGHT: THE ELECTRIC UTILITY INDUSTRY IN WISCONSIN (Madison: American History Research Center, 1957). He followed that book with a biography of the controversial business magnate Samuel Insull (University of Chicago Press, 1962). But his second book, WE THE PEOPLE: THE ECONOMIC ORIGINS OF THE CONSTITUTION (University of Chicago Press, 1958), signaled a major shift in his research interests and scholarly priorities away from business and economic history. In that book, which became the first of a trilogy, he re-examined the findings of Charles A. Beard’s landmark 1913 study, AN ECONOMIC INTERPRETATION OF THE CONSTITUTION OF THE UNITED STATES, and refuted Beard’s thesis that holders of personalty influenced the making of the Constitution to protect their financial interests in that property; at the same time, McDonald showed the effects of three dozen kinds of financial interests on the making of the document.
McDonald followed up WE THE PEOPLE with his 1965 study E PLURIBUS UNUM: THE FORMATION OF THE AMERICAN REPUBLIC (new edition, 1979, Liberty Fund), a narrative history that focused on the sectional and other political forces that shaped the creation of the Cosntitution and the government it authorized. In 1986, he published the trilogy’s third volume, NOVUS ORDO SECLORUM: THE INTELLECTUAL ORIGINS OF THE CONSTITUTION (University Press of Kansas, 1985). A finalist for that year’s Pulitzer Prize in History, NOVUS ORDO SECLORUM argued that we could divide the framers of the Constitution into two groups keyed to leading philosophers of government and politics, Montesquieuians (influenced by Charles Louis Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, and his SPIRIT OF THE LAWS) and Humeans (influenced by the Scottish philosopher and essayist David Home).
McDonald’s other works included studies of the presidencies of George Washington (1974) and Thomas Jefferson (1976) in the University Press of Kansas “American Presidents” series; a notable and admiring biography of Alexander Hamilton (Norton, 1979); two textbooks, one on American history and the other on American constitutional history; a collection of historical essays; and two other notable books, THE AMERICAN PRESIDENCY: AN INTELLECTUAL HISTORY (UP Kansas, 1994), and STATES’ RIGHTS AND THE UNION: IMPERIUM IN IMPERIO (UP Kansas 2000). He published a memoir, RECOVERINGTHE PAST: A HISTORIAN’S MEMOIR , in 2004.
McDonald was known for his vivid and acerbic writing style, his outspoken political conservatism, and his tendency to challenge conventional or received wisdom. He insisted that he was an ideological conservative, sometimes referring to himself as a paleo-conservative, and he often criticized what he regarded as too-large, intrusive government, especially at the federal level.
In his 1987 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, delivered a the Library of Congress on the occasion of the Constitution’s bicentennial, McDonald declared, “To put it bluntly, it would be impossible in America today to assemble a group of people with anything near the combined experience, learning and wisdom that the 55 authors of the Constitution took with them to Philadelphia in the summer of 1787.”
The NEW YORK TIMES reports, “He is survived by his second wife, the former Ellen Shapiro; five children from his first marriage, his daughters Marcy and Kathy McDonald, and his sons, Forrest, Stephen and Kevin; nine grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.”
In an interview with the TUSCALOOSA NEWS in 2002 on the occasion of his retirement from the University of Alabama, McDonald discussed why he wrote history.
"You've got to go back to why you do it," McDonald said in a 2002 Tuscaloosa News article at the time of his retirement. "You do it because it is fun. Learning about the past is fun.
"Now, writing history is not fun. You write because you owe the people who came before you. There's an obligation. I can't repay my teachers. They're all dead. This is how I do it."
* * * * *
R. B. Bernstein, City College of New York and New York Law School