- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 24, 2016

Forrest McDonald, perhaps the greatest student of the American founding, passed away late last week at the age of 89. His scholarship and work have had more impact on the understanding of the intellectual and historical context that produced the Constitution and the creation of the United States than most people appreciate.

Mr. McDonald burst onto the scene in 1958 with the publication of “We the People: the Economic Origins of the Constitution” which utterly destroyed the arguments of Charles A. Beard’s economic determinist view of the Founders that had held sway since the publication of Beard’s “An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution” 45 years earlier. Beard is little known today, but was a favorite of the academic left and his belief that the Founders were just a bunch of wealthy colonialists who drafted the constitution for their own benefit dominated academic thinking until Mr. McDonald went to work on him.

All in all, Mr. McDonald taught for 50 years, authored numerous incredibly influential books and biographies and was beloved by all who knew him. I had read his books, of course, but first met him at meetings of the Philadelphia Society, an association of American conservatives of which he was a proud member and over which he once presided. He was a fascinating man who was the subject of a three-hour in depth CSPAN interview broadcast as part of the network’s Independence Day programing in 2004. On hearing of his death, I went back and spent a morning watching it again.

Mr. McDonald was an unrepentant patriot who loved the country and delighted in both teaching and the study of history. He didn’t set out to become a historian. He did his undergraduate work at the University of Texas where he went not because of its history department, but to play baseball. He had set his sights on the major leagues and thought he had the defensive skills needed to make it in the bigs as a center fielder, but quickly learned that he couldn’t handle a good curve ball and had to give up his dream. He decided instead to write “The Great American novel.”

That novel, if he ever started it, was never finished. Eventually, Mr. McDonald sensed that the vitriol over whether Beard was right or wrong about the founding was worth further study and the results of that study altered the way academics forever after viewed the founding and produced one of our greatest historians.

As he pursued this calling into which he seems to have stumbled by accident, Mr. McDonald made his living teaching, learning and doing research at the University of Wisconsin, Brown University, Wayne State University and, finally and most rewardingly, at the University of Alabama, where he settled in and taught until his retirement in 2002. He famously once told an interviewer that since he and his wife lived quietly in an isolated rural part of the state, they could live and work as they wanted which meant, he said, that he could do most of his writing in the nude. It seemed to work.

In 1997, he delivered the 16th annual National Endowment for the Humanities Jefferson Lecture in Washington and met President Ronald Reagan who he admired. Although he didn’t want to make a scene, but since he had earlier called for the abolition of the NEH as a waste of taxpayers’ money, he didn’t think he could accept the $10,000 honorarium that went with being selected to give the lecture and quietly and privately refused to accept it. Within days, The New York Times, without much checking and assuming he had taken the cash, attacked him as a hypocrite for criticizing the NIH and then accepting the award. He found that both amusing and saw it as further proof that one has to take what one reads in the paper with a grain of salt.

He was asked in that CSPAN interview about the influence of the left-wing dominance of the academy and the influence of liberal or Marxist professors on their students. He said they didn’t much worry him because in his experience the students at most of the universities at which he had taught may have written papers and given answers to please their professors, but didn’t necessarily believe or accept them. “A student who turns in an apparently Marxist paper to get through a course taught by a Marxist isn’t necessarily a Marxist,” he said “but one who understands the market.”

Then he corrected himself by telling his interviewer that Wisconsin was an exception as many University of Wisconsin students actually were as left-wing as their professors. As one who attended school in Madison, I could personally attest to the fact that Mr. McDonald had nailed it.

Most importantly, Forrest McDonald loved life, made a difference and enjoyed the people he knew.

Forrest McDonald will be missed.

David A. Keene is Opinion editor at The Washington Times.

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