Forrest McDonald

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Forrest McDonald (born 1927) is leading American conservative historian who has written extensively on the early national period, on republicanism, and on the presidency. He is Distinguished University Research Professor Emeritus at the University of Alabama.

He was born in Orange, Texas, Jan 7, 1927. He earned his BA and PhD degrees (1955) from the University of Texas at Austin, where he studied under Fulmer Mood. He worked at the American History Research Center at the Wisconsin State Historical Society then taught at Brown (1959-67), Wayne State (1967-76), and Alabama (1976 to present).

Attack on Beard

A century ago historian Carl 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 slaveowners, owverthrew the capitalists and established Jeffersonian Democracy. Other historians supported the class-conflict interpretation noting the states confiscated great semifeudal 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 demonstrated that the progressive intewrpretation was factually incorrect, led by Charles A. Barker, Philip Crowl, Richard P. McCormick, William Pool, Robert Thomas, John Munroe, Robert E. and B. Kathryn Brown, and above all McDonald. 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 republicanism in stimulating the Revolution.[1]

In We The People: The Economic Origins of the Constitution (1958) McDonald used microscopic research in naional, state and local archives to demonstrate that Beard had misinterpreted the economic interests involved in writing the Constitution. Instead of just two interests, landed and mercantile interests, which conflicted, there were three dozen identifiable interests that forced the delegates to bargain.


His books

  • 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 (University of Chicago Press, 1958; new ed. Transaction, 1992)
  • Insull (University of Chicago Press, 1962)
  • E Pluribus Unum: The Formation of the American Republic (Houghton-Mifflin, 1965; new ed., 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; paperback ed., 1980) online edition; also excerpt and text search
  • The American People, textbook with David Burner and Eugene D. Genovese; Revisionary Press, 1980 online edition
  • Novus Ordo Seclorum: The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution (University Press of Kansas, 1985; paperback ed., 1987) excerpt and text search
  • 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
  • "Colliding with the Past," Reviews in American History 25.1 (1997) 13-18 on interpreting the Ameerican Revolution
  • 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

About McDonald

  • Popkin, Jeremy D. "Parallel Lives: Two Historians' Memoirs," Reviews in American History 33.4 (2005) 621-626 in Project MUSE


  1. See McDonald (1997)