Forrest McDonald (January 7, 1927 – January 19, 2016) was an American historian, who wrote extensively on the early national period of the United States, on republicanism, and on the presidency, though he is possibly best known for his polemic on the American South. He was a professor at the University of Alabama, where together with Grady McWhiney he developed the hypothesis that the South had been colonized by "Anglo-Celts", rather than the British Protestant farmers who populated the North. This, in turn, was an important impetus for neo-Confederates and white supremacists like Michael Hill, whom McDonald later denounced for his racism.
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), before retiring. He was for a time the President of the Philadelphia Society. He died in Tuscaloosa, Alabama on January 19, 2016, twelve days after his 89th birthday.
Historian Carl L. Becker in History of Political Parties in the Province of New York, 1760-1776 (1909) formulated the Progressive interpretation of the American Revolution. He said there were two revolutions: one against Britain to obtain home rule, and the other to determine who should rule at home. Charles A. Beard in An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (1913) and An Economic Interpretation of Jeffersonian Democracy (1915) extended Becker's thesis down to 1800 in terms of class conflict. To Beard, the Constitution was a counter-revolution, set up by rich bond holders (bonds were "personal property"), in opposition to the farmers and planters (land was "real property.") The Constitution, Beard argued, was designed to reverse the radical democratic tendencies unleashed by the Revolution among the common people, especially farmers and debtors (people who owed money to the rich). In 1800, said Beard, the farmers and debtors, led by plantation slave owners, overthrew the capitalists and established Jeffersonian democracy. Other historians supported the class-conflict interpretation noting the states confiscated great semi-feudal landholdings of Loyalists and gave them out in small parcels to ordinary farmers. Conservatives, such as William Howard Taft were shocked at the Progressive interpretation because it seem to belittle the Constitution. Scholars, however, adopted it and by 1930 it became the standard interpretation of the era among academic historians, but was largely ignored by lawyers and jurists. Beginning about 1950 revisionist historians led by Charles A. Barker, Philip Crowl, Richard P. McCormick, William Pool, Robert Thomas, John Munroe, Robert E. Brown and B. Kathryn Brown, and above all McDonald demonstrated that the progressive interpretation was factually incorrect. Controversy raged, but by 1970 the Progressive interpretation of the era was dead. It was largely replaced by the intellectual history approach that stressed the power of ideas, especially republican in stimulating the Revolution.
In We The People: The Economic Origins of the Constitution, McDonald argued that 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. Reviewer David M. Potter said: "He has tumbled a very large Humpty Dumpty [Beard's economic interpretation] from a very high wall of history, and American historical literature will never be entirely the same."
McDonald and his colleague Grady McWhiney (1928–2006) 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". 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." 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"; in part because he thought the inefficiency of the American government was a saving virtue limiting its capacity for oppression; 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."
McDonald's lecture was later described by conservative historian George H. Nash as "a luminous introduction to the intellectual world of the Founding Fathers." 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."
"The Intellectual World of the Founding Fathers" was republished in the essay collection, Requiem: Variations on Eighteenth-Century Themes. 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."
He stated in 2011: "I am an unreconstructed Hamiltonian Federalist, and out of my admiration for Alexander Hamilton I have long been disposed to believe the worst about Thomas Jefferson."
Steven Siry says:
- Most important, his books have revised Charles Beard's economic interpretation of the Constitution, challenged the robber baron stereotype of American industrialists, offered a critical view of Thomas Jefferson's presidency, praised Alexander Hamilton's vision for America's economic development, and, as a co-author with Grady McWhiney, developed the Celtic thesis that offered a new perspective on the Civil War era.
Andrew Ferguson stated:
- McDonald’s specialty was the Founding Fathers and he was unapologetically conservative. He once said the two facts were closely related, because a proper understanding of the Founders' concerns and intentions – particularly their obsession with constraining and dispersing political power – inevitably pointed one toward an appreciation of the conservative virtues.
- 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); full text free
- The Presidency of George Washington (University Press of Kansas, 1974, paperback ed., 1985) excerpt and text search; full text free
- 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; full text free
- 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; full text free
- States' Rights and the Union: Imperium in Imperio, 1776–1876 (University Press of Kansas, 2000) excerpt and text search; full text free
- Recovering the Past: A Historian's Memoir (2004), autobiography excerpt and text search
- "Michael Hill". Southern Poverty Law Center. Retrieved October 7, 2015.
- "Forrest McDonald, Historian Who Punctured Liberal Notions, Dies at 89". mobile.nytimes.com. Retrieved 2016-01-27.
-  Archived February 23, 2010, at the Wayback Machine.
- "Forrest McDonald Obituary – Tuscaloosa, AL". Legacy.com. Tuscaloosa News. Retrieved 2016-01-25.
- Forrest McDonald, "Colliding with the Past," Reviews in American History 25.1 (1997) 13-18.
- Potter quoted in Stuart Gerry Brown, ed. (1971). Revolution, Confederation, and Constitiution. p. 186.
- Jefferson Lecturers at NEH Website (retrieved January 22, 2009).
- Leslie Maitland Werner, "Washington Talk; If Jefferson et al. Could See Us Now," New York Times, February 12, 1987.
- Irvin Molotsky, "One Man's Constitution: If It Isn't Broke, Don't . . . ," New York Times, May 11, 1987.
- Rushworth M. Kidder, "Don't mess with success, says Constitution scholar," Christian Science Monitor, May 12, 1987.
- *George H. Nash, "A conservative Historian's Memoir,", Modern Age , Spring 2005, p. 153 (also available here ).
- Forrest McDonald & Ellen Shapiro McDonald, Requiem: Variations on Eighteenth-Century Themes (University Press of Kansas, 1988), ISBN 978-0-7006-0370-1.
- Brian Lamb, Booknotes: The American Presidency: An Intellectual History by Forrest McDonald Archived 2012-05-17 at the Wayback Machine., Booknotes, May 15, 1994.
- Forrest McDonald statement in The Jefferson- Hemings Controversy: Report of the Scholars Commission, ed. Robert F. Turner, p. 311 (Carolina Academic Press, 2001, 2011)
- Steven R. Siry, "Recovering the Past: A Historian's Memoir (Book)" in History: Reviews of New Books (Fall 2004) 33#1 pp 7-8.
- Andrew Ferguson, "Forrest McDonald, 1927-2016" The Weekley Standard Jan. 22, 2016
- 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
- Popkin, Jeremy D. "Review: Parallel Lives: Two Historians' Memoirs Reviewed Works: A Life with History by John Morton Blum; Recovering the Past: A Historian's Memoir by Forrest McDonald," Reviews in American History (2005) 33#4 pp. 621–626 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
- Online Bio-Bibliography at the Wayback Machine (archived October 4, 2006)
- Appearances on C-SPAN