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Revisiting Forrest McDonald’s Jefferson Lecture in praise of the Constitution

In the office, Bob Luebke and I got into a recent discussion on the late historian Forrest McDonald (1927-2016). McDonald was a professor who spent much of his time at the University of Alabama and wrote extensively on early America and its founding. Luebke mentioned the importance of McDonald’s 1987 Jefferson Lecture, an event he was present at while working in the Reagan administration.

McDonald, a conservative, was selected by the National Endowment for the Humanities to give the Jefferson Lecture on the bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution. While I’ve read his book “The American Presidency: An Intellectual History,” I’ve not delved deeply into his other works but I’m familiar with some of the themes. Here is a great line from his book on the American presidency:

Though the caliber of people who have served as chief executive has declined erratically but persistently from the day George Washington left office, the presidency has been responsible for less harm and more good, in the nation and in the world, than perhaps any other secular institution in history.

McDonald might be most notable for his takedown of Charles Beard’s progressive-minded “An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States,” which argued that the document came about because of self-interested financial reasons and to preserve an elite hierarchy. Another notable work is Novus Ordo Seclorum,”  a book that examines the intellectual thought and influences of the American Founders.

That book is related to this lecture and after the discussion with Luebke, I decided to read and watch McDonald’s Jefferson Lecture from 1987. You can watch it at the C-SPAN site or find a PDF here. The title is “The Intellectual World of the Founding Fathers.” (A little side note: McDonald delivered the lecture but quietly turned down the $10,000 prize because he believed the NEH was unconstitutional).

It’s worth highlight the opening lines from the lecture below for its brilliance and I’ll do that at the end. McDonald’s words are just as relevant now as then. One of the major takeaways is that the Founders were less interested in politics or ideological fervor. Instead, their interest stemming from history and philosophy was primarily oriented towards limiting governmental overreach and the abuse of power. They wanted a system that maximized self-government, which requires wisdom and virtue within the people. McDonald points out that 20% of the document specifies what the government may not do. Most of the rest of the document commits to putting further limits on the government by placing it under the rule of law.

It’s an important read given that many of the American Founders are maligned today for not being sufficiently woke. Yet, McDonald’s entire point is we can’t improve upon their overall vision and insight about government and human nature. We abandon their wisdom and insights at great peril. Here’s the start of his remarks and again, the entire speech is worth your attention.

It has been suggested by various intellectuals that the best thing Americans could do to commemorate the 200th anniversary of our Constitution would be to rewrite it to reflect the realities of the twentieth century. It has been suggested by various jurists that the Supreme Court is, and should be, doing just that. The assumption underlying both notions is that our pool of knowledge and understanding about human nature and political institutions is far more sophisticated than any that could have been available in the simple frontier society of eighteenth-century America.

That assumption is as presumptuous as it is uninformed. To put it bluntly, it would be impossible in America today to assemble a group of people with anything near the combined experience, learning, and wisdom that the fifty-five authors of the Constitution took with them to Philadelphia in the summer of 1787.

 

Ray Nothstine / Opinion Editor, Carolina Journal

Ray Nothstine is opinion editor at Carolina Journal. He previously served for over seven years as managing editor of Religion & Liberty, a publication of the Acton Institu...