Recovering the Past: A Historian’s Memoir, by Forrest McDonald

As a talented college athlete in the 1940s, Forrest McDonald hoped to become a major league baseball player. He might well have succeeded, had he been able to hit a curve ball. Fortunately for students and scholars of American history, he soon discovered where his greater aptitude lay.

This is among the revelations that enliven Professor McDonald’s new memoir, Recovering the Past. For nearly half a century now McDonald, a historian, has been publishing scintillating studies of the political, economic, and intellectual origins of the American republic, along with substantial works on American economic history. Such titles as E Pluribus UnumNovus Ordo Seclorum, and Alexander Hamilton: A Biography have earned honored places on fellow scholars’ shelves. His 1987 Jefferson Lecture at the National Endowment for the Humanities (reprinted in this memoir) is a luminous introduction to the intellectual world of the Founding Fathers. If, as Richard Weaver once said, conservative intellectuals need to produce “unshakable books,” McDonald, an unabashed conservative, has more than fulfilled his quota.

On the dust jacket of his latest volume, McDonald’s publisher acclaims him as “a legend in his own time.” He has earned this reputation not only for his scholarship and productivity (more than fifteen books to date) but also for the way in which he has scaled the academic heights. In a profession long dominated by liberals and leftists, he has fearlessly challenged the regnant orthodoxy and lived to tell the tale.

Recovering the Past: A Historian’s Memoir is that tale. It is the story of a young Texas Ph.D., brimming with “boundless self-confidence and inexhaustible energy,” whose first major book, We the People (1958), dealt a devastating blow to Charles A. Beard’s “economic interpretation” of the Constitution. It is the story of “a barefoot boy in the Ivy League” (as he styles himself) who was unafraid to speak his mind, come what may. It is the intellectual adventure story of a prolific historian whose curiosity seemed never to dissipate. Each book he completed was followed by another.

Along the way, the young iconoclast made enemies. In Wisconsin, where he worked during much of the 1950s, his first book, a history of the state’s public utility industry, “elicited howls of rage” from the local Progressive newspaper and dark mutterings that he was a “tool of the power trust.” The resulting “political fracas” nearly cost him his job and his career. At Brown University, where he taught during much of the 1960s, his outspoken criticism of the university’s racial policies earned him a unanimous rebuke by the faculty and a warning by the university’s president that McDonald “would never receive another salary increase at Brown.” At Wayne State University, where he taught next, he was eventually honored as the institution’s “most distinguished faculty member” but quit after the faculty voted to unionize. Finally, he found his way to the University of Alabama, where he taught—it seems contentedly—until his retirement.

All these tempests—and more— McDonald recounts with zest in this candid and highly readable memoir. He is particularly deft at depicting the nasty academic politics that he encountered, as well as the historiographical milieu in which he worked. Deeply devoted to standards of excellence in his calling, he does not hesitate to identify historians he considers incompetents and knaves. A master practitioner of the historian’s craft, he disdains the pedants and ideologues who, to his dismay, have come to dominate his profession. In the preface to Recovering the Past he announces that he has written his book not for his colleagues in the professoriat but for “that elusive critter called the general reader, or, more precisely, for the vast number of people who genuinely love history for its own sake— which, as will become evident, I regard as eliminating a sizable majority of professional historians.”

Nor does McDonald conceal his own political sympathies. He declares bluntly in his memoir that “for all its faults, this country has more to be proud of and less to be ashamed of than any other nation on the face of the earth.” “I did not set out to prove that proposition,” he adds; “my instincts and my research led me to it, and I have little patience for those who say otherwise.” Lest there be any doubt about the matter, this cheerful contrarian has blithely illustrated his memoir with photographs of himself meeting Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, and George W. Bush. It takes a healthy supply of insouciance (and humor) to do that.

How, one wonders, was McDonald able to survive and prosper in his chosen profession? For one thing, not even his fiercest enemies could deny his intellectual attainments. He was bright and formidably learned, and they knew it. For another, he made his early reputation in the golden age of the late 1950s, when sound scholarship could still prevail over ideological purity in the distribution of academic honors and rewards. By the time the polarizing upheavals of the Sixties occurred, he was safely tenured.

Geography, too, helped to immunize him against leftist academic fashion. At the University of Texas in the late 1940s, he admits, he received a somewhat provincial education, which left him “blissfully ignorant of the subjectivist-relativist-presentist philosophy” so pervasive in history departments elsewhere. He thereby escaped indoctrination by osmosis at a critical period in his intellectual development.

Above all, McDonald survived and thrived because he was not by temperament a party-line ideologue and was unfazed by the imprecations of those who were. Unlike too many of his fellow historians who let their present-day policy agendas control their interpretation of the past, McDonald refused to distort his subjects in this way. He has studied history, he explains, “because it gives me pleasure, and I do not care whether my writing has implications for current policy.” This willingness to study the past for its own sake—coupled with a deeply ingrained independence of mind and spirit—enabled McDonald to chart his own path, free from the conformist passions of his peers.

And what a fruitful pathway it has been. As much as any American historian since 1950, McDonald liberated his profession from its thralldom to the notion that the Constitution of 1787 was the product of the selfish machinations of wealthy interest groups. More broadly, in a series of powerful books McDonald demonstrated both the intellectual complexity and grandeur of the American Founding. In the process he helped to expose what he calls the “fundamental flaw” in the scholarship of the so-called New Historians led by Charles A. Beard: “their utterly unsophisticated conception of economic activity as the exploitation by the wealthy of the poor, laborers, farmers, and small businessmen.” In his influential biographies of Alexander Hamilton and Samuel Insull, among other writings, McDonald helped to combat the condescending hostility toward capitalism that long afflicted the writing of American history.

McDonald was less successful at slaying the simplistic world view that underlay the “progressive” historians’ approach: their belief that history at bottom is a struggle between “good people” and “bad people,” between victims and victimizers, and that the duty of the historian is to side with the aspirations of the “good.” It is a mental habit that remains all too seductive today. But thanks in part to the scholarly labors of McDonald, at least one stultifying manifestation of it—crude economic determinism—is no longer in vogue among historians. The historiography of the American experience is much the richer for its demise. For this, conservatives especially, as defenders of the American regime of ordered liberty, have reason to be grateful to Professor McDonald.

This does not mean that McDonald’s own brand of conservatism is neatly predictable. Although a Texan by birth and a farmer by avocation (he once bought a tractor with his lecture earnings), he is clearly no Southern Agrarian. Among the Founding Fathers his hero appears to be Hamilton, whose zealous commitment to creating a dynamic, money-based, private enterprise economy— McDonald tells us—helped to energize and revolutionize American society. Indeed, this reviewer once heard McDonald remark that the United States would have become a bunch of banana republics had it not been for Hamilton’s vision and genius.

Conversely, McDonald is no venerator of the Jeffersonians, whom he describes in his memoir as privileged reactionaries, “swimming against the tide of history” and “determined to resist the emergence of the modern world.” Nor does he march to the dissident beat of antistatist libertarianism, as his magisterial book The American Presidency: An Intellectual History (1994) attests. There he concludes that the institution of the presidency “has been responsible for less harm and more good, in the nation and the world, than perhaps any other secular institution in history.” In Recovering the Past he reveals that he agrees with Alexander Hamilton that the Bill of Rights was “unnecessary and pernicious.” These are not the convictions of a simon-pure libertarian.

McDonald, one suspects, enjoys being a provocateur. Like many intellectuals on the Right after the Second World War, he has cherished his independence and has refused to become an organization man, particularly when the “organization” (in his case, the history profession) was full of liberals and leftists.

One puzzle, though, he does not quite resolve in his memoir: how did he become, to use his own word, an “archconservative”? By his own admission he was not always one. In 1948, he tells us, he voted for Harry Truman for President; in 1952, for Adlai Stevenson. By 1964, however, he was a public supporter of Barry Goldwater. Why this transition? He does not explicitly say.

To be sure, an alert reader of Recovering the Past can make some educated guesses. In “progressive” Madison, Wisconsin in the 1950s, the young Texan ran afoul of an “extremely left wing” subculture which distrusted Southerners in general and McDonald, a friend of the “power trust,” in particular. It did not help that McDonald was believed to be writing a critical book about Charles A. Beard, a patron saint of Progressive intellectuals. A frank desire to show up the “Wisconsin crowd” helped motivate McDonald to write We the People, as he acknowledges in a marvelous anecdote in his memoir. Exposure to Wisconsin-style leftism undoubtedly drove him to the Right.

Still, one wishes that McDonald had expatiated on his evolution as a conservative— an unusual trajectory, to say the least, for an upwardly mobile scholar of his generation. This leads us to the one limitation (a self-imposed limitation, we suspect) of this otherwise excellent memoir: it is focused almost exclusively on McDonald’s career as a professional historian. About his youth, personal life, and extracurricular interests we learn comparatively little.

By and large, this is probably as it should be. It is, after all, as a professional historian that he has made his mark. At times, however, one finds oneself yearning for glimpses of the scholar at ease, beyond the confines of his purely professional pursuits. McDonald, for instance, has long been associated with the conservative intellectual community, yet his book contains almost no references to conservative leaders or causes. Such conservative luminaries as Russell Kirk and M. E. Bradford—whom McDonald knew— go unmentioned. Similarly, he informs us that he found Richard Nixon (whom he met for dinner in 1992) to be “awesomely learned about history; it was rather like spending an evening with, say, John Adams.” From a historian of McDonald’s stature this is a remarkable tribute; it leaves this reader hungry for substantiating detail. Perhaps, in some future book or essay, McDonald will favor us with such broader reminiscences.

For now, we can savor this latest addition to his oeuvre. “Men hit only what they aim at,” said Thoreau. Throughout his career Forrest McDonald has aimed well and consistently hit his target. In Recovering the Past we learn with pleasure how he did it.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This essay is reprinted here with the gracious permission of Modern Age (Spring 2005).

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