Blogs > HNN > Joseph Stromberg: Review of Forrest McDonald's Recovering the Past: A Historian's Memoir (University Press of Kansas, 2004)

Nov 28, 2004 10:43 pm

Joseph Stromberg: Review of Forrest McDonald's Recovering the Past: A Historian's Memoir (University Press of Kansas, 2004)

Joseph R. Stromberg holds the JoAnn B. Rothbard Chair of History at the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, AL. He has published in the Journal of Libertarian Studies, Telos, and on such websites as,, and He is a contributor to The Costs of War, Reassessing the Presidency, Secession, State, and Liberty, and The Myth of National Defense, and wrote the introduction to the new edition of Murray N. Rothbard’s Man, Economy, and State with Power and Market.

In Recovering the Past: A Historian’s Memoir, Forrest McDonald offers an interesting and entertaining summary of his career as an historian. Along with details of teaching (and other) positions – at Brown, Wayne State and Alabama - the reader will find the unfolding of McDonald’s historical thinking, his sources and methods. McDonald, who wanted to play baseball professionally, more or less backed into history after a stint in the Navy.

When McDonald was a graduate student in Texas after the Second World War, the Progressive “New History” still reigned. Addressing the “subjectivism-relativism-presentism” of that school, McDonald makes the interesting point that these features had much to do with (deserved) guilt over the historical guild’s eager enlistment in making propaganda during World War I. He writes: “For what they considered a good cause, American historians sold out. Afterward, it was but a short step to rationalize what had been done and to profess that, as mortals, historians could do no other.”

McDonald covers this matter in some detail and names names. Thus, for example, keen to prove eternal British-American solidarity, some wartime historians attributed our “misunderstanding” with Britain (1776-1783) to the fact that George III was a terrible German. This was history made-to-order – Clio in khaki uniform.

McDonald also provides a thumbnail sketch of how Progressives dealt in general with various issues in American history. His rejection of the Carl Becker-Charles Beard approach to history reflected a different notion of historical truth.

In particular, McDonald wished to “test” (and discard} Beard’s economic-historical explanation of the origins of the U.S. Constitution. Beard, famously, had seen conflict between owners of “realty” and “personalty” (personal property, including stocks and bonds, as opposed to land) - and between debtors and creditors - as the key to the struggle over the Constitution. To challenge his approach, McDonald went on to dig into underutilized state archives of Revolutionary-era primary sources.

In these explorations, McDonald accumulated materials he has deployed in many works. He writes how he was struck by the salience of public debt, rather than ordinary commercial debt, in the economic debates of the 1780s. McDonald discovered also that 18th-century statesmen consciously worked at being in “character” – that is, consciously playing a role. His implicit view of the relationship between historical sources, interpretive frameworks, and a realistic understanding of the past emerges nicely in this section.

McDonald also developed a partiality for Alexander Hamilton, which serves as the starting-point of an ideological critique of the Jeffersonian movement as the backward-looking heirs of English reactionaries. In McDonald’s view, the 18th-century financial revolution (based on monetized public debt), whose benefits Hamilton wished for the U.S., was the key to capitalism and progress. This he contrasts with the allegedly static and agrarian view of Hamilton’s opponents.

McDonald’s The Presidency of Thomas Jefferson (1976) is harsh but telling. Jefferson, as president, could not implement his ideology. In any case, republican ideology, McDonald writes, “demand[ed] eternal militance” and “was both egalitarian ... and totalitarian.” There is no dodging some of these bullets, although one might not put forward Hamiltonian’s program as the antidote.

McDonald notes the rising tide of government during the Revolution; the states “were oppressing American citizens under a burden of taxation and regulation greater than they had ever experienced .... The level of taxes during the 1780s was ten to twenty times prewar norms....” This seems more of a reason to re-evaluate the Revolution itself, rather than Jefferson.

In any event, McDonald’s critical view of Jeffersonian republicanism stands in some tension with his growing engagement with the real doctrine of states rights, as seen in Novus Ordo Seclorum (1985) and more recently in States Rights and the Union (2000). This in no way detracts from McDonald’s yeoman work as an intellectual historian of the founding and early Republic.

As the story of his life unfolds, McDonald retails some academic scandals (more interesting than the recent ones).

In 1953, McDonald was commissioned to write a history of the electrical industry in Wisconsin (Let There Be Light, 1957). For this, some people chose to regard him as “a tool of the power trust,” something which doubtless contributed to his aversion to leftist readings of U.S. history. Even so, his newfound interest in public utilities led a biography of the electrical magnate (and rival of Thomas Edison) Samuel Insull (1962).

In his dissertation, McDonald took on Beard. Taking Beard’s framework as given, he adduced evidence that severely undermined Beard’s categories and argument. In due course, the dissertation became his book, We The People (1958). In writing of this period, McDonald clearly suggests that his work, along with that of Bray Hammond, Douglass Adair and several others, heralded the beginning of a solid new historiography, which however, was derailed by the rise of New Left historical writing.

McDonald also discusses some of his most interesting work - arising from his collaboration with Grady McWhiney - on Celtic populations in the Old South. What they found was “a classic case of cultural conservatism – the tendency of a people to continue to think and behave in customary, socially conditioned, and familiar ways” absent major impetus to change. With everyone and his dog lately hailing or deploring the Scots-Irish as unthinking cannon fodder, a more careful reading of them as provided by McDonald and McWhiney might yet prove helpful.

The big issues treated by McDonald – public debt, republicanism, centralization, ethnic origins of key sections of the American population - are still with us and there is much to be learned from reading his work, even if one must sometimes disagree.

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