Interview with Stephen M. Klugewicz, editor of
History, on Proper Principles
Why a book on Forrest McDonald?
Anyone who is interested in American history or the historical profession will want to read this book. McDonald’s integrity as a historian and the soundness of his approach to “doing history” illustrates what has gone wrong in the historical profession over the last fifty years. McDonald’s work has exerted a tremendous influence on historical interpretation, most particularly in his overturning of the influential Marxian theory of Charles Beard. The introduction to the book represents perhaps the only intellectual biography of McDonald ever penned. The essays that constitute the meat of the book address a wide variety of approaches and topics in American history, and a couple are truly provocative. The book also includes an unpublished paper, “The Founders and the Economic Order”, which McDonald delivered to the Economics Club of Indianapolis in 2006.
Why are these essays important?
McDonald's scholarship helped spur a revival of serious attention to the study of American history and to a better understanding of the Founders. Many of these essays further this type of research by delving more deeply into the life and work of important historical figures such as Alexander Hamilton, Gouverneur Morris, John Taylor of Caroline, and John Witherspoon. McDonald’s work also encouraged research into such important historical forces as the English Common Law tradition’s impact in America and the development of a unique culture in the American South.
According to McDonald, what is wrong with the modern historical profession?
McDonald laments the fact that too many historians often try to use the past to further their own “political or ideological agenda.” The phenomenon of using the past to justify the present, called “presentism,” is a serious transgression in McDonald’s view, for it impedes the historian’s ability to see the past objectively. “The best historians,” McDonald writes, “are those who enjoy searching the record of the past for its own sake.” Such an approach is “the purest motivation possible” for the study of history and mitigates the danger of misreading history for one’s own purposes: “Though it does not guarantee accuracy, it is proof against conscious or unconscious warping of the truth.”
You talk about McDonald’s integrity and cite a couple of examples of how it manifested itself during his career. Could you explain?
Early on in his career, when composing a history of the Wisconsin utility companies, he found that the people he interviewed for the project—who would also be subjects in the manuscript—tried to sway his opinion of them for history by buying him drinks or meals. McDonald soon realized why they were treating him so nicely: “They saw my coming as the Day of Judgment, and thus to them my memory was the memory of History; it was the memory of mankind; perhaps it was even the memory of God. This is what everyone, in his own way, sought to buy.” Right from the outset of his career, however, McDonald refused to compromise his principles of scholarship. “I am both fallible and corrupt,” McDonald writes in recalling the experience, “but my memory, though fallible, is incorruptible.”
McDonald’s rigorous allegiance to what he conceives as the proper principles of historical research has indeed been one of his most outstanding attributes. He never cuts corners. After completing the first five chapters of his biography of Alexander Hamilton, McDonald decided that his approach was all wrong and that he would have to start over. Most scholars, having already invested so much work in a project, would have simply forged ahead and settled for an imperfect end product, or at the very least have reworked what was already written. McDonald, however, threw the nascent manuscript into the fireplace, and he and Ellen watched it burn.
Does McDonald eschew interpretation per se? Is he an antiquarian?
McDonald believes that interpretation is a legitimate aspect of what a historian does. In fact, he rejects the notion that the job of the historian simply is to relate history as it happened. Such an approach produces long, tedious, and unmemorable accounts of the past. “History is a mode of thinking that wrenches the past out of context and sequence,” McDonald counters, “out of the way it really happened, and reorders it in an artificial way that facilitates understanding and remembering.” Imagination is a key skill of the historian.
Imagination, however, is best facilitated by immersing oneself in the historical sources themselves. McDonald believes that the historian has to be on guard against being influenced by what previous historians have written.
Which essays in the book are provocative?
Steve Ealy’s “Publius on ‘Liquidation’ and the Meaning of the Constitution” challenges readers to reconsider the standing given to the Federalist papers, by historians, political scientists, and legal scholars, as the sole authoritative interpretation of the American Constitution. Ealy suggests that we should see the Federalist “not as the definitive interpretation of the Constitution, but . . . as one of the initial efforts at liquidating the meaning of the Constitution.” Ealy thereby implicitly challenges the idea of original intent, championed by many conservatives, which holds that the Founders’ understanding should be given preeminence when deciphering the meaning of the document. Ealy’s provocative and iconoclastic essay is just the kind of piece in which McDonald delights.
The second provocative essay is “Jefferson Un-Locked: The Rousseauan Moment in American Political Thought,”by Richard K. Matthews and Elric M. Kline. The authors argue for the similarities of thought between Thomas Jefferson and the French radical thinker, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Matthews and Kline do not go so far as to suggest that Rousseau and Jefferson had any direct effect on each other’s thinking, but they demonstrate how both men challenged in their own ways the political and social views of the influential English theorist, John Locke.
Explain how small-government conservative like McDonald can idolize Alexander Hamilton, whom most scholars credit as the architect of modern big government?
Though McDonald himself detests modern big government, he shares Hamilton’s view that a government bigger—or at least, a stronger—than that created by the Articles of Confederation was a necessity for the nascent American nation, at least through the first quarter of the nineteenth century. If the Antifederalists and their intellectual successors, the Jeffersonians, had had their way, McDonald believes that the United States would likely have devolved ultimately into “a collection of banana republics.” Hamilton’s achievement was to create stability and credibility for the young nation through the strategic use of the inherent and “necessary and proper” powers of the National government. As a result, the conditions for the emergence of a market economy were created in America, ensuring “that the United States would become the richest, most powerful, freest country the world has ever known.” McDonald clearly sees Hamilton’s achievement in light of its historical significance, not as a justification for modern policies of centralization gone awry.
Like Hamilton himself, then, McDonald is no admirer of Thomas Jefferson?
McDonald has been highly critical of Thomas Jefferson, both as a man and as a statesman. McDonald views Jefferson as both a hypocrite (the man who praised those who labored in the earth “had never labored in the earth himself, having had slaves to do it for him”) and a “many-faceted man who was given to extreme and sometimes crackpot utterances.” Worse, Jefferson was a starry-eyed idealist. He was “backward-looking, determined to resist the emergence of the modern world.” He and his followers were “reactionaries, swimming against the tide of history, for the world aborning was the depersonalized world of money, machines, cities, and big government.” McDonald, deems Jefferson’s second term as president a “shipwreck” and a “calamity,” particularly because of the president’s tyrannical enforcement of the disastrous Non-Importation Act of 1807.