Forrest McDonald, R.I.P.

by Richard Brookhiser

Forrest McDonald has died, just turned 89.

Forrest was significant as an academic heavyweight — his books on the founding era, E Pluribus Unum and Novus Ordo Seclorum, and his 1987 Jefferson lecture, “The Intellectual World of the Founding Fathers,” are classics — who was not shy about writing for National Review or identifying as a conservative. Another sign of his independence of mind was that, in the world of his era, he was a Federalist, this at a time when the reigning paradigms were still either Left, à la Charles Beard — the Founders were all money-grubbing aristos — or Jeffersonian, à la Arthur Schlesinger Jr. — the vessel of American idealism was the first Republican party, which blended seamlessly, via the Age of Jackson, with the New Deal. Forrest did think that Jefferson, Madison et al. were proto–New Deal-ish and he disdained them for it. Hamilton was his man, first, last, and always — so much so that he tended at first to see Washington as Hamilton’s instrument (he came around to a more balanced view of their interaction).

Forrest could be quite perky on smaller matters, too. He was one of the first serious historians to believe that Jefferson probably fathered children by Sally Hemings — although as soon as this became the orthodox view, Forrest became skeptical. As he once said to me, Jefferson was a sexagenarian with migraines when he was supposed to have sired his slave children, and what sense did that make? (Another historian said to me, of Forrest, that he wanted to be as un-PC as possible.) Another Forrest-ism: “The trouble with Franklin is he lies all the time.” That is harsh, but as one studies Franklin, one sees what Forrest meant.

Finally, Forrest was very gracious to me as an ignorant amateur, setting out on his first historical biography. Before I began reading for my Founding Father, I called Forrest for advice. We did not know each other then, but he took the time to steer me through the standard biographies and to point out the best of recent scholarship. When Michael Pack and I made our PBS documentary on Washington, we decided to stay away from talking heads — but we made an exception for Forrest, who gave us a splendid interview. The film’s editor fell in love with his sparkling eyes and the spirit of mischief that played round his face.

R.I.P.

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