Sad news yesterday of the passing of one of the great conservative historians of our time, Forrest McDonald, at the age of 89. He taught for many years at the University of Alabama, and was the author of several important revisionist works on American history, including a favorable biography of the great electric utility executive Sam Insull (one of the “economic royalists” that FDR hunted down with mixed success during the New Deal), and We, The People: The Economic Origins of the Constitution, which is the definitive takedown of Charles Beard’s egregiously wrong Economic Interpretation of the Constitution, the Progressive Era tract that put many a flutter in the hearts of America-hating leftists. There was nothing left of Beard after McDonald got finished exposing Beard’s shoddy work. (You might might say he reduced Beard to stubble.) It was the beginning of a trilogy; McDonald’s Novus Ordo Seclorum: The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution, and E Pluribus Unum are also essential reading about the Founding.
I thought to mention McDonald earlier this month in my post about William Leuchtenberg’s lamentable new book on the presidency, because McDonald is the author of one of the better books ever written about the presidency, The America Presidency: An Intellectual History. This book is way better than most popular textbooks and histories of the presidency.
But one of my favorite McDonald titles is one that is usually overlooked and forgotten—The Phaeton Ride: The Crisis of American Success. Written in the mid-1970s, it was McDonald’s one foray into contemporary punditry, and while the book has some doubtful judgments and was too pessimistic, its originality and sparkling prose (McDonald was a much better writer than most historians) made it an engaging read.
I didn’t know McDonald well, but met him several times and corresponded with him a few times. He was never anything less than a perfect gentleman and generous scholar.
PAUL adds: My high school history teacher, who had McDonald for a course in college, introduced me to the work of the great historian. McDonald’s specialty, as you can see from Steve’s post, was America in the era of the Founders. McDonald’s sympathies were unabashedly with the Federalists.
Thus, it seems odd, or at least quirky, that the University Press of Kansas selected him to write about Thomas Jefferson’s presidency in its “The Presidency of” series. McDonald delivered what I think was a reasonably balanced assessment, though Jefferson’s more ardent admirers probably disagree.
McDonald also wrote The Presidency of George Washington for the same series. You can get a flavor of this book from my Washington’s Birthday post of a few years back, in which I quote McDonald freely.