Society & Culture

An Historian of Imagination

Forrest McDonald, the great historian of the American founding and early Republic, passed away on January 19 at the age of 89.  Born in Orange, Texas, McDonald earned his doctorate from the University of Texas-Austin in 1955, and taught at Brown University, Wayne State University (Michigan), and the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa.  He retired to his farm in Coker, Alabama, in 2002 and in 2010 ceased writing as he dealt with illness.

McDonald made a name for himself early in his career, when his dissertation became the groundbreaking book We the People: The Economic Origins of the Constitution (1958), a series of economic biographies of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention.  Overturning the long-standing thesis of Marxist historian Charles A. Beard, McDonald convincingly argued that the delegates, when crafting the Constitution, did not act uniformly to promote their own economic self-interest.  Though many misunderstood McDonald to deem economic motivations in history unimportant, to the contrary he thought that economic interest was simply one of many motivations of historical actors; his objection to Beard was that he made the mistake of promoting a simple, overarching explanation for a major historical event.  McDonald instead believed that history is as complex as the men who make it, and that it is the task of the historian to research deeply and broadly when seeking to understand...

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