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Forrest McDonaldEditor’s Note: The great American historian Forrest McDonald (1927-2016) passed away this week at the age of eighty-nine. The following remarks by Stephen Klugewicz and Lenore Ealy, former students of Dr. McDonald, were delivered at the April 2010 national meeting of The Philadelphia Society, at a dinner in Dr. McDonald’s honor. The event was held at the National Constitution Center on Independence Mall in downtown Philadelphia. The remarks have been edited slightly for publication here.

Remarks by Stephen Klugewicz

I wish to pay tribute to Forrest McDonald—actually, to pay tribute to Forrest and his wife Ellen, for the two are indeed inseparable. I still consider my greatest claim to fame to have been a student of Forrest McDonald.  As I stand here I am fully cognizant of what a rare opportunity I have— to thank both publicly and personally one of my mentors. And not just my mentor but a man, who along with my father and a friend, is one of the three men I have most admired in my life. Forrest is certainly the most brilliant man I have ever known.

Let me tell you a little about how the book, History, on Proper Principles: Essays in Honor of Forrest McDonald, came to be. This project began with a phone call to me from Bruce Frohnen in 2003. I had recently earned my Ph.D. under Forrest, and for some reason known only to Bruce he picked me as the one who was to take charge of this project. Bruce, in his direct way, said something like, “Steve, you and Lenore Ealy ought to edit a book of essays in Forrest’s honor. Here are some people who should contribute to the book.” (He named names.) “And ISI should publish it.” Well, we decided we ought to get the McDonalds’ blessing before we commenced the project. I called down to Coker, Alabama, and Forrest answered on his phone—his rotary phone. Knowing that the McDonalds don’t like hoopla about themselves, I tentatively pitched the idea to Forrest, not knowing what to expect as a reaction. (Forrest hates talking on the phone anyway, so I am always a little nervous when I call the McDonalds. I always hope that Ellen answers.) Well, I spoke to Forrest, and his response was, “I’d be tickled!” And that was that. Ellen asked simply that the essays—with the exception of the introduction by Lenore and me—be not about Forrest or his work but be essays in the field, on subjects that are of interest to Forrest. And so they are. Ellen suggested a few other scholars who might contribute to the volume; Lenore and I contacted them, and all eagerly accepted the chance to thank Forrest and Ellen in this way. This is the first book I have edited. I was warned that my biggest challenge as an editor would be to keep our contributing scholars on schedule. (We all know that academics aren’t timely people.) Well, I can honestly say that this turned out to be the easiest part of the job. I don’t think any of our contributors ever missed a deadline. In fact, it was they who occasionally pushed Lenore and me! This project took seven years, but the responsibility for the delay was largely mine.

Our contributors’ punctuality and the fact that they have not and will not earn a penny from this project speaks to their character and is a testament to the depth of their gratitude—nay, their love—for the McDonalds. Indeed, I have been struck over the years by how many lives the McDonalds have touched. I have stumbled across such people from time to time for the last decade.

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McDonald at a Philadelphia Society meeting

Now, the McDonalds won’t tell you about all the people they have helped. So I will. The McDonalds paid for my membership in professional organizations when I was a graduate student. They gave money out of their own pocket to fellow grad students—who like me had no money—so they could do research in archives in distant states. The McDonalds fought departmental political correctness on behalf of their students; they lobbied for them—when deserving— to get departmental awards and outside fellowships. They put in recommendations for me and for others for participation in outside programs, for membership in professional associations, and, yes, for jobs. A common complaint in graduate school—one that I often heard from fellow graduate students—was how long it took for one’s dissertation director to return reviewed draft chapters of a dissertation. Well, when I was writing my dissertation in Maryland, I would send each chapter to the McDonalds down in Alabama—by U.S. Mail, as the McDonalds don’t have a computer—and I would invariably have the carefully-reviewed chapter back in my hands within a week or so. This alone speaks volumes about how much the McDonalds cared about their students. The role of mentor, teacher was to them a solemn duty.

We saw this in the History department at the University of Alabama every day. By the time I arrived there in 1995, Forrest’s status was such that he did not have to teach students if he didn’t want to. Isn’t that the goal of every academic these days? To avoid teaching? Yet Forrest not only taught a course on the Founding and one on the Interwar Period to undergrads, but he taught a writing course—a writing course, the bane of university teachers!— to graduate students. That writing course deservedly became quite famous at Alabama. So, if you expected that I would talk tonight about Forrest’s contribution to our understanding of American history, how he affected the historical profession itself, or how we should interpret and make sense of his oeuvre, well, you will have to buy the book, in which Lenore and I talk about this in the introduction.

I do, however, want to mention one outstanding characteristic of the McDonalds—both in regard to their personal and professional lives. That is their utter and complete integrity. If the McDonalds tell you something, you know it is true; if they write something, you know it is right. Their integrity has also been manifested in how they have treated others. They had no ideological litmus test for graduate students or other scholars. Rather, they judged students and fellow academics on of the quality of their scholarship. That was the McDonalds’ sole criterion.

Let me conclude. You all have had a chance to walk tonight through Signers Hall, that remarkable room which in my opinion is the highlight of the National Constitution Center. I enjoy walking through the Hall at quiet times here at the Center, when the visitors haven’t yet arrived or have left for the day. As I stroll among these men who gathered in that room across the street during those hot summer months of 1787, I often think about how they might still be talking in the next world, continuing amongst themselves the conversations they had here. I imagine that, as in 1787, they have shut the windows so that interlopers are not privy to their conversation. But I also imagine that one day, a long time from now, another, who is truly a man of their time and intellectual ability, who understands them better perhaps than they understood themselves, will join their conversation. Yes, I imagine Forrest McDonald being deemed worthy by the Almighty of entering this special corner of Heaven, of joining this select brotherhood, in whose mighty company he will surely be most welcome.

Remarks by Lenore Ealy

I enrolled at the University of Alabama in the fall of 1987 to pursue a master’s degree in history. My first semester there, I enrolled in the graduate research and writing class taught by the McDonalds, and I have been a better person— and hopefully a better scholar—for it. I suspect that the impact that Forrest and Ellen have had on me is similar to that they have had on countless other undergraduates, graduate students, professional colleagues and friends. I can best characterize that influence in terms of three mutually supportive forms: language, learning, and liberty.

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McDonald as a young professor

1) Language: Through rigorous accountability for vocabulary, grammar and syntax, the McDonalds taught me to love and better use the English language, arguably the true language of liberty. The writing and editing skills I learned from them still serve me well, and I hope are evidenced in the book we are presenting this evening. I confess I’m a bit terrified they will yet find mistakes!

2) Learning: Through example and encouragement the McDonalds taught me the tools and patience of documentary research and gave me the gift of understanding history to be not the movement of ideas and grand theory but to be at its roots the stories of living, breathing human beings possessing passions, interests, and reason that dance a delicate dance in the circumstances of their times. To see the American Founding through Forrest’s stories of the Founders is to see the well fought fight by men and women of flesh and blood to claim for themselves and their posterity the possibility of self-governance. To see the American story through the McDonald corpus is to appreciate how triumphant and yet fragile our hold on liberty is and to understand that liberty’s survival requires us all to aspire to a Constitutional temperament that can hold our own passions, interests, and reason within a proper balance.

3) Liberty: Finally, but I hope without end, the McDonalds have inspired me to appreciate properly the gift of liberty. To have greater gratitude for what each day offers and to participate in trying to hand on to the future something of myself. Gratitude and generosity are twin supports anchoring the bridge that connects our studies of the past with our hopes for the future. Gratitude and generosity are twin guidestars that will not fail any man who seeks to live as befitting a free man. Gratitude and generosity have been hallmarks of Forrest’s and Ellen’s engagement with students, colleagues, friends, and Presidents. It is with gratitude that I offer a toast, and also a challenge to all of us to aspire to the philanthropic spirit through which the McDonalds have influenced and profited so many here in the halls of Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Society, and far beyond.

Books by Forrest McDonald may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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2 replies to this post
  1. Thanks for sending this out Stephen. Undoubtedly, Forrest McDonald’s book entitled “Novus Ordo Seclorum: The Intellectual Origins of the US Constitution” is one of the best works ever written in expounding upon how the United States developed from a “[con]federative” framework (or loose league) of sovereign states into a uniquely “federative” framework of sovereign Republics.

  2. Novus Ordo Seclorum is a must! There are things to disagree with (some of his argument on Montesquieu’s influence seems slightly off), but you’re constantly learning things other historians and theorists seem to miss. He’s not afraid of complexity–he gives you the full list of “ingredients” that went into the framing. A blessing to hear he was also a mensch.

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