- Recovering the Past: A Historian’s Memoir
- University Press of Kansas, 200 pp.
THE MAN WHO SAVED AMERICAN HISTORY
In the appendix of his latest book, Recovering the Past: A Historian’s Memoir, Forrest McDonald described the men who not only wrote the United States Constitution but also, those that ratified and opposed it as the, “…product of America’s Golden Age, the likes of which we shall not see again.”1 Thus, in one short, plain, and simple sentence, written fifteen years before former NBC anchor, Tom Brokaw, espoused the addlepated notion that those Americans who had endured Franklin Roosevelt’s Depression and the horrors of World War II were the Greatest Generation, Forrest McDonald had already set the record straight. But then, that’s pretty much what Forrest McDonald, the historian, has done throughout his career.
“When I entered the game in 1949,” McDonald writes, “Beard and Becker were in the ascendancy, and the New History reigned supreme.” McDonald was faced with an historical milieu that preached the doctrine that history is decipherable from a subjectivist-relativist perspective, that the “driving force was economic rivalry between contending groups of good guys and bad guys. Arrayed in the good guys camp were farmers, debtors, frontiersmen, laborers, the poor, and their reform-minded leaders. Among the bad guys were merchants, manufacturers, owners of transportation facilities and utilities, speculators, and the well-off in general, together with the reactionary political hacks who toadied to them.”
So successful was the New History that such disciples as Vernon L. Parrington, Carl Becker, Arthur Schlesinger, J. Franklin Jameson, Orin G. Libby, and “the avowed Marxist Algie Simmons,” had rewritten “…American history from end to end.” But, these works, as effective as they were, served only as a foundation from which historian, Charles A. Beard, launched his “blockbuster,” An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (1913).
Beard was top dog-historically speaking- and he labored fiercely and jealously to guard his position. In sum, Beard argued that the Constitution was a product of the economic interests of the delegates; that is, people vote their purse. The problem was the Beard’s thesis was mere left wing presumption. He couldn’t prove it.
Forty years later, after the establishment of the National Archives, the collection of historical data by the WPA, improvements made in state historical collections, and the invention of microfilm, Forrest McDonald, while digging through dusty and dimly lighted archives, gathered a mountain of hard data to decisively debunk Beard’s speculations. Now, McDonald is the first to give credit to those historians, and there were several, who blazed the trail that led to the discrediting of Beard, but McDonald’s book, We the People, had the serendipitous good fortune of being a smashing success with the public. Perhaps, McDonald’s definition of the New Historian’s celebration of “economic man” as “simpleminded” covers everything the public needs to know about these “intellectuals.”
McDonald’s memoir is very good because Professor McDonald writes for those of us who delight in history; he does not write for his colleagues. His exegetical analysis of history’s evolution, as well as his presentation of the various historical schools, is simple, clear, concise, and brilliant. But then, that’s how the man writes.
McDonald’s fecund mind is always busy. His work with the “distinguished southern historian,” Grady McWhiney related to their “Celtic thesis” has led me to Amazon.com searching for McWhiney’s book, Attack and Die: Civil War Military Tactics and the Southern Heritage (co-authored with Perry D. Jamieson) and his second book on the subject, with a twenty-one page prologue by McDonald, entitled Cracker Culture: Celtic Ways in the Old South.
Perhaps, McDonald’s most important gift is his ability to make the reader (or student) think. I don’t agree with him on all the historical issues and I suspect had I the opportunity to sit in his class there’d be much to learn and much to say. In the end, however, I think Forrest McDonald, the teacher, would enjoy the exchange. I know I would!
McDonald is conservative but, to be honest with you, he’s not radical enough to suit me. However, I agree with his conclusion that the “…Jeffersonians were backward-looking, determined to resist the emergence of the modern world.” But, I think, Jefferson challenged Hamilton and the manufacturers because he understood that the best chance for a truly federated-republic, for liberty, lay in the bosom of the independent farmer, and the agrarian lifestyle that underscored and defined an independence that rejected statism. And, in this regard, Jefferson’s vision, his understanding of the corruption of power, was profoundly prescient.
Forrest McDonald’s memoirs, Recovering the Past, is informative, delightful to read, and a page-turner for any American who loves history. He is honest and direct about his successes, failures, and the challenges he faced in his long and distinguished career. He is a man who diligently applied hard work and dedication to his God given talents. The result is America’s most eminent and trusted historian.
1 The essay, The Intellectual World of the Founding Fathers, is found in his book, co-authored with his wife, Ellen, titled, Requiem: Variations on Eighteenth-Century Themes (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1988) pgs. 1-12.