- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 7, 2004

RECOVERING THE PAST: A HISTORIAN’S MEMOIR

By Forrest McDonald

University Press of Kansas, $24.95, 200 pages, illus.

REVIEWED BY STEPHEN GOODE

Forrest McDonald is that rarest of creatures — an American academic who is an outspoken conservative. He is also a first-rate historian, the prolific author of such indispensable works of American history as “We the People: The Economic Origins of the Constitution” (1958) and “Novus Ordo Seclorum: The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution” (1985).

In his new book, Mr. McDonald, now a distinguished university research professor emeritus at the University of Alabama, offers precisely what his subtitle promises, “a historian’s memoir.” Readers will find little about this great historian’s boyhood seven decades ago in Texas or his private life outside his chosen profession.

But they will encounter much about his career in history, the serious study of which he began to pursue with his characteristic vigor and thoroughness over a half-century ago. Mr. McDonald wrote this intellectual autobiography not with his fellow academics in mind, but for “the elusive critter called the general reader, who genuinely loves history for its own sake,” which, he concludes, “I regard as eliminating a sizeable majority of professional historians.”

As that wry comment suggests, Mr. McDonald believes that a number of his fellow historians fall far short of the standards of scholarly rigor and basic honesty he believes they should be judged by.

“Professional historians can fail the laity if they are impelled by contemporary motivations,” he writes, and points out that many in the field today do have such motivations, often political (almost always left-wing) and social (women’s rights, homosexual rights, among others).

Yet Mr. McDonald, who describes himself as “a natural-born Pollyanna, constitutionally disposed toward optimism,” notes that amid all the bad history that is being done, good history is still written. Today’s solid scholars include Eugene Genovese, the historian of American slavery and religion; his wife, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese; and a few others.

Early on in this well-written little book, Mr. McDonald admits that deep down he thinks “the main — and the purest — reason for studying history is that one finds it pleasurable.” That claim may sound startling — until we understand that by “pleasurable” Mr. McDonald doesn’t mean easy and instantly gratifying.

He means that the pleasures we derive from history are intellectual, moral and aesthetic and come from knowing something about the past and those who lived in it, making sense of the often voluminous (and conflicting) data that the past has left us as evidence about itself. The pleasures are those derived from any highly creative endeavor successfully carried out.

Mr. McDonald offers an excellent definition of what history is. “History is a mode of thinking that wrenches the past out of context and sequence, out of the way it really happened, and reorders it in an artificial way that facilitates understanding and remembering.”

The wrenching out of context and the reordering of the past Mr. McDonald describes require great skill and hard work if they are to become valuable history; Mr. McDonald is one of the hardest-working and most skillful of contemporary historians.

As a young man, he writes, he “had a couple of special gifts going for me: boundless self-confidence and inexhaustible energy.” He also hardly needed sleep, getting by on very little every night. These qualities allowed him to work non-stop.

Mr. McDonald describes the demands made on him by his graduate adviser: “He had me read and take notes on every statute enacted by the British Parliament between 1763 and 1783. He had me do the same with the statutes of each of the thirteen colonies/states. He had me read and record the votes, by members, of every state legislative session from 1781 to 1790.”

And that was just the bare beginning of the work Mr. McDonald was to put into what ultimately became “We the People,” a groundbreaking study that undermined the class-struggle interpretation of the origins of the U.S. Constitution, an interpretation that had dominated the history profession since 1913 (when Charles Beard published his “An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States”).

Mr. McDonald says that he profited enormously from the lighter course loads that professors had when he began teaching in the 1950s, from time off that departments allowed professors to do research, and from the generous research grants that began to proliferate after World War II.

But those benefits only partially explain his success, which ultimately depended on his passion for history and his endless capacity for the hardships of serious, detailed research, the staying power the German language so accurately sums up in the word Sitzfleich — “sitting flesh.” Mr. McDonald’s Sitzfleich is exceptional even among historians, who may require it more than most.

More exceptional by far is his unabashed love for the United States, whose history is the subject of his research and writing. At a time when most historians march lock-step in the ranks of America-bashers, he can write:

“[F]or 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 globe. I did not set out to prove that proposition; my instincts and my research led me to it, and I have little patience for those who say otherwise.”

What other contemporary historian, for example, would include in a book about himself photographs of the author with Ronald Reagan, with Richard Nixon (Mr. McDonald writes that Nixon was “awesomely learned about history”) and with George and Laura Bush in front of a Christmas tree in the White House?

Mr. McDonald acknowledges the central role his wife, Ellen Shapiro, has played in his career: “She has come up with the ideas for most of my books, and she edits what I write.” And in one of his rare forays into his life outside of history, he describes how much he loved to play baseball as a young man, and how good he was at it.

“I believed, and believe to this day, that as an outfielder I was of major league caliber.” The problem was that he couldn’t hit a curveball if his life depended on it, which meant no career in baseball for him. So it can truly be said that baseball’s loss was history’s definite gain.

Mr. McDonald tells us of the mendacities and many pettinesses of his fellow academics. One of his professors took a paper Mr. McDonald had done for him and published it under his own name without a mention of its true author. Mr. McDonald came across it years later in a learned journal but decided to do nothing. He had long since changed his mind about much that he had said in the paper.

He also describes how his right-wing politics (he describes himself as an “archconservative”) and his frequent writing in defense of capitalism and capitalists sometimes got him in hot water with his left-leaning colleagues.

And he has no use at all for such well-known historians of America as Gabriel Kolko (“Main Currents in American History,” published in 1976) and the late Page Smith, the author of “A New Age Now Begins: A People’s History of the American Revolution,” which also appeared in 1976.

The work of both men he finds tendentious. The case of Smith is one Mr. McDonald finds especially sad. After mainstream work, Smith embraced “radical chic,” the author concludes.

Things were to get even worse for history, however. Charges of plagiarism (leveled at Doris Kearns Goodwin and Stephen Ambrose) and downright lying and falsification of evidence (Michael Bellesiles’ 2000 book “Arming America” famously contained many references that didn’t check out) have wracked the field of history, undermining the credibility of honest historians, Mr. McDonald charges.

He has a great deal to say about his own research, too. He’s written books on subjects as varied as the history of electric utilities, states’ rights and the American presidency. Toward the end of the memoir, there’s a section on his very productive collaboration with then-fellow University of Alabama historian Grady McWhiney (author of “Cracker Culture,” 1988) which shows how many interesting ideas two bright guys can come up with when they compare notes and work closely together.

“Recovering the Past” isn’t a particularly ambitious work, compared to Mr. McDonald’s others. But it does offer an excellent bird’s-eye view of what’s happened in the writing and teaching of history over the past 50 years. It offers only brief glimpses of the man himself, while whetting our appetite for more.

Stephen Goode is a Washington writer.

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