Edited and written by David Gordon, senior fellow of the Mises Institute and author of four books and thousands of essays.

The New History: A Cover For War

Recovering the Past: A Historian’s Memoir

Forrest McDonald

University Press of Kansas, 2004

vii + 198 pgs.


Forrest McDonald takes no prisoners. He has been one of the leading American historians since the publication of We The People in 1958; and much of the present book is an engaging account of his life as a historian. He often passes acerbic judgments on other historians; he knows where the bodies are buried and is willing to disclose at least some of what he knows.

I propose to pass by most of the personal details. McDonald has also given us most valuable remarks on the nature of historical writing and on specific issues in American history, and it is on these that I will concentrate.

First, though, a small sample of what we will be missing. Carl Bridenbaugh, a leading authority on the American colonial period, was "a sorry excuse for a human being" (p. 111). He tried to destroy the careers of students of McDonald and another historian who had opposed him in a faculty dispute. Merle Curti, a leading American intellectual historian, had "apparently been a communist" in the 1930s, until the 1939 Hitler-Stalin Pact (p. 65). Samuel Eliot Morison, a famed Harvard scholar, "gutted the materials [a graduate student entrusted to him] and published an article based on them" (p. 65). Perhaps the latter revelation should not be accepted at face value; the student in question, Fulmer Mood, who became McDonald’s dissertation adviser, was later diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic.

Enough of this: I am no gossip. One issue that McDonald raises of far more than personal importance concerns the nature of historical writing. From the 1930s until McDonald became a historian in the 1950s, by far the most influential approach to the philosophy of history by American historians was the New History of Carl Becker, Charles Beard, and James Harvey Robinson.

According to the New History, historical objectivity was impossible: the historian was inevitably guided by his value judgments. McDonald terms this view the "subjectivist-relativist-presentist position" (p. 22). Also, the New Historians "spurned the traditional emphasis on war and politics and stressed economic and social forces as the ‘real’ driving forces in history" (p. 22).

McDonald asks a pertinent question: why did the New History become so popular among the historical profession? The movement stemmed from an influential essay by Frederick Jackson Turner, written in 1891, which stressed the importance of present conditions on the historian’s point of view. But the movement did not really "take-off" until after World War I. McDonald thinks that this was no accident.

Woodrow Wilson, who took America into the war, "was a man with a rigidly uncompromising psyche, and he could imagine no war but an all-out war" (p. 23). In order to avoid divisions in public opinion, Wilson was determined to act. "Prosecuting it [the war] successfully, he believed, would hinge upon the creation of a ‘proper war spirit,’ by which he meant dedication bordering on the hysterical" (p. 23).

 To promote this spirit, Wilson established a propaganda bureau, the notorious Committee on Public Information, headed by George Creel. "But for President Wilson that was not enough: as a historian, he regarded it as essential to control what historians thought about the past. Accordingly, a Division of Civic and Educational Cooperation, better known as the history subcommittee, was established. The list of historians who wrote propagandistic history for the division reads like a scholars’ all-star team" (p. 25).

Among these scholars were Beard and Becker, two of the leading proponents of the New History. McDonald suggests that these historians favored value relativism in order to justify ex post facto their propagandistic endeavors. "What the profession had done clearly called for justification. This Lost Generation of historians needed an authoritative voice or voices to say to them, ‘There, there. It’s nobody’s fault. You’re human, and therefore you can’t help yourselves’" (p. 26).

We can imagine Becker and Beard replying to McDonald in this way: "Even if you are right that our defense of the New History stemmed from a guilty conscience, this does not invalidate our arguments. Are not the historian’s activities necessarily affected by the questions he asks? And are not these questions in large part determined by the subjective values of the historian?"

To this, McDonald responds in a philosophically interesting way. Why assume, he asks, that a historian’s research must always be an effort to answer a question that has been set in advance? Can he not investigate the documents of a particular period without a theoretical apparatus set in advance that determines the answers to his questions?

McDonald’s bold move restores old-fashioned inductivism: followers of Karl Popper will no doubt rise in wrath, telling us that there is no direct knowledge of the world without concepts. We cannot even recognize simple objects without possessing concepts of color and shape. Is not the inductivism that McDonald has sought to restore naïve?

The imagined objection to my mind fails. No doubt concepts are required to experience the world. But it hardly follows that controversial theories must be assumed in advance before a scholar can engage in research. If a historian must know what "property" means before he can study the economic interests of the drafters of the Constitution, he need not commit himself before his studies to a position on the economic interpretation of history or the merits of socialism.

McDonald’s ideas on this matter derive in part from an outstanding thinker, James Malin, to whom our author pays generous tribute. "In 1946 the brilliant if eccentric historian James C. Malin . . . attacked the notion that one begins with a theory or hypothesis, which underlay the thinking of Becker and Beard. Malin’s teacher F.W. Hodder . . . taught that ‘history should be studied as it is lived, as a whole’ [i.e., without a preconceived hypothesis]" (p. 31). Incidentally, Murray Rothbard admired Malin’s work.[1]

In two respects, though, McDonald’s arguments can be challenged. If McDonald is right that a historian need not begin with a hypothesis, it does not follow that to do so is to surrender all hope of objective history. Why should the fact that one is trying to test a theory, as McDonald indeed tells us he has sometimes done, mean that the results of that test are infected with the historian’s subjective assessments? Further, McDonald has in one respect misstated Beard’s view. He did not deny that the historian should try to tell the truth fully and fairly: he did not say, "because everyone is governed by his value judgments, you might as well distort what you discover without compunction." Rather, he thought that the historian should try to state the truth but would not fully succeed in doing so.

For our prolific author, meditations on historiography are but a sideline. He first achieved fame as a critic of Charles Beard’s interpretation of the Constitution. Beard, an early-twentieth-century Progressive, advanced a thesis that proved useful to those who wished to counter judicial efforts to block as unconstitutional interference with freedom of contract. To the Progressives, insistence on the rule of law was blind "Constitution worship." Beard supported them by arguing that the authors of the Constitution were not impartial statesmen seeking to apply the wisdom of the ages to the task of governing a newly independent country. Quite the contrary, they were motivated by economic self-interest. If so, why need deference be paid to their views? If people wish to overturn economic arrangements, they should not let the paper barriers of the Constitution stop them.

McDonald undertook a careful investigation of Beard’s claims. In particular, Beard argued that a division between real and "personalty" property interests was of crucial importance for the drafting and ratification of the Constitution. By "personalty," Beard meant in essence money: "capital as opposed to land" (p. 34). Those in this group feared that state legislatures, under debtor influence, would pass laws interfering with their property rights. To prevent this, they established a new form of government. In it, states are expressly forbidden from "impairing the obligation of contract."

Beard’s iconoclastic An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution created a sensation on its appearance in 1913 and was immediately denounced by conservatives. William Howard Taft "reputedly . . . privately remarked, ‘Of course it’s true, but the damned fool shouldn’t have been allowed to publish it’" (p. 35).2 Although Beard’s book was first greeted with horrified gasps, its interpretation became dominant in the next half century. McDonald ascribes this dominance in part to a false picture of American history: Progressives saw the American past as a struggle over democracy between the poor and those who sought to dominate them. This view reflected a Marxist disdain for capitalism. The Progressive historians looked on businessmen as exploiters; they failed to grasp that the free market promotes gains for all participants in it.

As Beard admitted, many of the documents needed to verify his claims were not available at the time he wrote. McDonald, who is capable of Herculean labors in research, used many more records than Beard did. He found no support for Beard’s main contention: neither in the Constitutional convention nor in the ratification conventions did personalty interests favor the Constitution more than landed ones. McDonald’s work has led to the overthrow of Beard’s account among mainstream historians. Unfortunately, though, McDonald does not discuss the important book by Robert A. McGuire, To Form a More Perfect Union (Oxford University Press, 2003). McGuire claims to show, by the use of sophisticated statistical techniques, that Beard was right after all: personalty interests did indeed support the Constitution to a greater extent than did owners of land. 3

Regardless of how the battle over Beard ultimately turns out, McDonald deserves great credit for his efforts to combat the Progressive bias against capitalism. In one respect, though, his own picture of the free market neglects a vital point. He fails to distinguish the free market from state-guided capitalism. Thus, his hero is Alexander Hamilton. As McDonald sees matters, Hamilton wished to promote individual enterprise, liberating the static agricultural society that Jefferson and his followers supported: Hamilton "saw that his adopted country was made weak and despicable by its citizens’ narrowness of vision and lack of drive. These shortcomings were reinforced by a social order in which status was derived not from the marketplace, where deeds and goods and virtues could be impartially valued, but from birthright. . . . Hamilton saw that by infusing money into a static agrarian order, it would become the leaven . . . that would stimulate growth, change, prosperity, and national strength. . . . Thus he was the champion of liberty, of freedom under law, as opposed to those—the Jeffersonians—who defended privilege and authoritarianism" (pp. 146–47).

Is this not a confusion of two very different things? In what way are protective tariffs and expansive government financed through taxation ways of promoting liberty? McDonald’s defense of liberty is a welcome change from the banalities of the left, but he fails to see that promoting individual enterprise does not require state action. Rather, if the state gets out of the way and leaves individuals free to act, free enterprise will take care of the rest.

Unfortunately, there is another place in which McDonald fails adequately to distinguish loyalty to the American tradition of liberty from support for American statism. He attacks William Appleman Williams and other critics of the Cold War. "Williams," he complains, "did not entirely subscribe to Charles A. Beard’s theory that Roosevelt conspired to get the United States into the war [i.e., World War II]—nor, for that matter, to Harry Elmer Barnes’s and Charles Tansill’s conspiracy theories of American entry into World War I—but his interpretation differed in detail, not in general substance" (p. 122).

Why is opposition to war taken to be a sign of anti-American bias? Has not involvement in war been the foremost instrument for the destruction of the liberty that McDonald supports? Has he so soon forgotten what he has told us about the effects of Wilson’s drive for war on the historical profession? What, by the way, is wrong with Tansill’s account of American entry into World War I? Tansill, a legendary figure on the American Right, can certainly not be dismissed as an anti-American leftist.

Despite these difficulties, even his severest critics must recognize that McDonald is an insightful historian, never afraid to challenge conventional opinion. Two examples of his swimming against the current must here suffice. He tells us that advocates of the doctrine of states’ rights "were justified by the history of the Founding and that the position was held not only by John C. Calhoun and various southern spokesmen but also, and as frequently, by northerners when they were displeased by the activities of the federal government" (p. 156).

If states’ rights is not in fashion, the glories of Reconstruction are most definitely a key element in the regnant orthodoxy. McDonald will have none of it: "Of the white historians of American blacks, some turned out works that were as inane as the fantasies conjured by the black-is-beautiful school. Kenneth Stampp . . . rewrote the history of Reconstruction with a radical twist. His account of the course of events was the same in almost every detail as the older versions, but he turned the interpretation upside down. Earlier versions depicted reconstruction as a tragedy because Radical Republicans had tried to go too far, too fast, and had left the white South devastated as a result. Now radicals were attacked because they did not go far enough" (pp. 117–18). Against the new interpretation, McDonald invokes the weighty authority of C. Vann Woodward. He "belittled the speculations of armchair revolutionaries . . . he pointed out that everything desired for the freedmen had been put in place in regard to the western Indians, yet they fared worse than the blacks" (p. 118). Readers of Recovering the Past will gain a clear sense of the personality of a historian never lacking in enterprise and courage. n MR

[1]A book of Malin’s has one of my favorite titles: Confounded Rot About Napoleon.

2Elsewhere, McDonald says that Taft "had the personality of a dead halibut" (p. 44).

3McGuire’s book might have appeared too late for McDonald to address; but it was based on influential articles that had appeared years before.


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