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In Memoriam: Forrest McDonald (1927–2016)

Earlier this week the great historian Forrest McDonald (1927–2016) passed at the age of eighty-nine. McDonald was not merely a giant in his field; he was also a cherished mentor and teacher to countless members of the ISI family (and many others beyond).

As ISI noted in American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia, his distinguished career as a historian was “one long exercise in demythologizing.” McDonald made his name in the field by demolishing Charles A. Beard’s famous thesis that the U.S. Constitution was primarily the work of wealthy landowners looking to secure their economic self-interest, a perspective that had dominated the historical profession for decades. As a graduate student, McDonald immersed himself in the archival records, amassing five thousand pages of notes based on his scouring of practically every major historical archive in the original states. In We the People (1958)—the first in a series of landmark books on the Constitution that also included E Pluribus Unum (1965) and Novus Ordo Seclorum (1985)—he demonstrated the wide range of motives that animated delegates to the Constitutional Convention and the state ratifying conventions. McDonald later explained the fatal flaw in Beard’s reductionist thesis: “The very idea of economic man is in truth simpleminded. It fails to take into account the complicated motivations that impel human beings to do what they do.”

Digging into the archives to get the story right, working from the particular to the general, avoiding simplistic explanations—this approach characterized McDonald’s work throughout his long and distinguished career. A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, McDonald was chosen as the National Endowment for the Humanities’ sixteenth Jefferson Lecturer. He gave the lecture but quietly turned down the $10,000 award that came with the honor. Why? Because the NEH’s very existence offended his constitutional sensibilities.

In 2003, ISI awarded McDonald its Gerhart Niemeyer Award for Distinguished Contributions to Scholarship. Seven years later we published History, on Proper Principles, a collection of essays in McDonald’s honor. In their editors’ introduction to that book, Stephen Klugewicz and Lenore Ealy offered a fitting testament to Forrest McDonald: “His legacy will surely be a dual one: his uncompromising method of ‘doing history’ bequeathed to all who have benefited from his tutelage will stand alongside his magnificent oeuvre itself in inspiring future generations of historians.”

Requiescat in pace.

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