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Forrest McDonald, RIP

January 21, 2016

I learned of the passing on January 19 of Dr. Forrest McDonald, eminent historian and good friend.  Forrest served as a Trustee and later President of the Philadelphia Society and that is where I met him. When I invited him in 2000 to join the “Founding Faculty” of Yorktown University, an online institution, Forrest told me that, at best, he only knew how to use a typewriter. He mentioned some other aspects of technology that led me to conclude that Forrest wouldn’t be joining us.

One of the foremost historians of the U.S. Constitution and the early national period, McDonald earned his Ph.D. in history in 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).  In 1987 the National Endowment for the Humanities awarded McDonald the Thomas Jefferson Lectureship.

One of Forrest’s best achievements was to correct the historical record by refuting the Progressive’s economic interpretation of the Founding of the Constitution of the United States.  This summary places Forrest’s work in context:

“Beginning about 1950 revisionist historians argued that the progressive interpretation was factually incorrect; they were led by Charles A. Barker, Philip Crowl, Richard P. McCormick, William Pool, Robert Thomas, John Munroe, Robert E. Brown and B. Kathryn Brown, and especially Forrest McDonald. McDonald in We The People: The Economic Origins of the Constitution (1958) argued that Beard had misinterpreted the economic interests involved in writing the Constitution. Instead of two interests, landed and mercantile, which conflicted, McDonald asserted that there were three dozen identifiable interests that forced the delegates to bargain. Evaluating the debate, historian Peter Novick concluded:’By the early 1960s it was gnerally accepted within the historical profession that …Beard’s Progressive version of the …framing of the Constitution had been decisively refuted. American historians came to see ….the framers of the Constitution, rather than having self-interested motives, were led by concern for political unity, national economic development, and diplomatic security’.

The Progressive interpretation of the era was largely replaced by the intellectual history approach that stressed the power of ideas, especially republicanism in stimulating the Revolution.

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