Forrest McDonald

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Forrest McDonald (born January 7, 1927) is an American historian who has written extensively on the early national period of the United States, on republicanism, and on the presidency. He is widely considered one of the foremost historians of the U.S. Constitution and of the early national period.


McDonald was born in Orange, Texas. He took his B.A. and Ph.D. degrees (1955) from the University of Texas at Austin, where he studied with Fulmer Mood. He taught at Brown University (1959–67), Wayne State University (1967–76), and the University of Alabama (1976–2002), and is now retired from teaching. He was for a time the President of the Philadelphia Society.[1]

Historical beliefs[edit]

In his book We The People: The Economic Origins of the Constitution, McDonald argued that Charles A. Beard (in his book An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States) had misinterpreted the economic interests involved in writing the Constitution. Instead of just two interests, landed and mercantile, which conflicted, there were three dozen identifiable interests that forced the delegates to bargain.

McDonald and the late Grady McWhiney presented the "Celtic hypothesis" stating that the distinctiveness of Southern culture derives largely from the majority of the Southern population being descendants of Celtic herdsmen while the majority of the Northern population was the descendants of farmers.

In 1987, the 200th anniversary of the United States Constitution, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) selected McDonald for the Jefferson Lecture, the U.S. federal government's highest honor for achievement in the humanities. His lecture was entitled "The Intellectual World of the Founding Fathers".[2] In a New York Times article after his selection, McDonald was quoted as saying that the federal government had "lost its capacity to protect people in life, liberty and property, to provide for the common defense, or to promote the general welfare."[3] However, in interviews and in his Jefferson Lecture, McDonald opposed the idea of a new constitutional convention: in part because he felt that such a convention would become a "runaway" and a "catastrophe";[4] in part because he thought the inefficiency of the American government was a saving virtue limiting its capacity for oppression;[5] and in part because he felt that in the present day it would be impossible to assemble a group as capable as the 55 delegates who attended the Constitutional Convention of 1787, which took place in an era McDonald called "America's Golden Age, the likes of which we shall not see again."[4]

McDonald's lecture was later described by conservative historian George H. Nash as "a luminous introduction to the intellectual world of the Founding Fathers."[6] However, McDonald faced criticism for not acknowledging the imperfection of slavery in the original constitutional framework. The New York Times pointedly noted that on the same day as McDonald's Jefferson Lecture, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall gave a speech criticizing "complacent belief" in the perfection of the Constitution, given the stain of slavery. The Times quoted McDonald's answer that at the time of the Constitutional Convention, "Slavery was a fact. It had simply not crossed many people's intellectual or moral horizons to question it," and his further comment, "The condition of the French peasants was far worse than that of the American slaves, and that was heaven compared to the Russian serf."[4]

"The Intellectual World of the Founding Fathers" was republished in the essay collection, Requiem: Variations on Eighteenth-Century Themes.[7] In a 1994 interview, McDonald noted that at the time he was selected for the Jefferson Lecture, he was on record in favor of abolishing the NEH, so he had refused to accept the $10,000 award that went with the honor, although he had not made this refusal public at the time. In the same interview, asked about his political views, McDonald described himself simply as a "conservative"; when the interviewer followed up by asking, "How conservative?" McDonald responded, "Paleo."[8]


  • Let There Be Light: The Electric Utility Industry in Wisconsin (Madison: American History Research Center, 1957)
  • We The People: The Economic Origins of the Constitution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958; new ed. New Brunswick: Transaction, 1992)
  • Insull (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962)
  • E Pluribus Unum: The Formation of the American Republic (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1965; new ed., Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 1979)
  • The Presidency of George Washington (University Press of Kansas, 1974, paperback ed., 1985) excerpt and text search
  • The Phaeton Ride: The Crisis of American Success (Doubleday, 1974)
  • The Presidency of Thomas Jefferson (University Press of Kansas, 1976; paperback ed., 1987) excerpt and text search
  • Alexander Hamilton: A Biography (Norton, 1979) online edition
  • The American People, university textbook with David Burner and Eugene D. Genovese; Revisionary Press, 1980 online edition
  • A Constitutional History of the United States (1982), short textbook
  • Novus Ordo Seclorum: The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution (University Press of Kansas, 1985) excerpt and text search (1986 Pulitzer Prize Finalist)
  • Requiem: Variations on Eighteenth-Century Themes (University Press of Kansas, 1988), with Ellen Shapiro McDonald
  • The American Presidency: An Intellectual History (University Press of Kansas, 1994; paperback ed., 1995) excerpt and text search
  • States' Rights and the Union: Imperium in Imperio, 1776–1876 (University Press of Kansas, 2000) excerpt and text search
  • Recovering the Past: A Historian's Memoir (2004), autobiography excerpt and text search


  1. ^
  2. ^ Jefferson Lecturers at NEH Website (retrieved January 22, 2009).
  3. ^ Leslie Maitland Werner, "Washington Talk; If Jefferson et al. Could See Us Now," New York Times, February 12, 1987.
  4. ^ a b c Irvin Molotsky, "One Man's Constitution: If It Isn't Broke, Don't . . . ," New York Times, May 11, 1987.
  5. ^ Rushworth M. Kidder, "Don't mess with success, says Constitution scholar," Christian Science Monitor, May 12, 1987.
  6. ^ *George H. Nash, "A conservative Historian's Memoir,", Modern Age , Spring 2005, p. 153 (also available here).
  7. ^ Forrest McDonald & Ellen Shapiro McDonald, Requiem: Variations on Eighteenth-Century Themes (University Press of Kansas, 1988), ISBN 978-0-7006-0370-1.
  8. ^ Brian Lamb, Booknotes: The American Presidency: An Intellectual History by Forrest McDonald, Booknotes, May 15, 1994.

Further reading[edit]

  • Berthoff, Rowland; McDonald, Forrest; McWhiney, Grady. "Celtic Mist over the South," Journal of Southern History, Nov 1986, Vol. 52 Issue 4, pp. 523–46
  • Coleman, Peter J. "Beard, McDonald, and Economic Determinism in American Historiography," Business History Review, Spring 1960, Vol. 34 Issue 1, pp. 113–21
  • Main, Jackson T. and Forrest McDonald. "Charles A. Beard and the Constitution: A Critical Review of Forrest McDonald's 'We The People,' with a Rebuttal by Forrest McDonald," William and Mary Quarterly, Jan 1960, Vol. 17 Issue 1, pp. 86–110 in JSTOR
  • Schuyler, Robert Livingston. "Forrest McDonald's Critique of the Beard Thesis," Journal of Southern History, Feb 1961, Vol. 27 Issue 1, pp. 73–80 in JSTOR

External links[edit]