A Barefoot Boy from Texas in the Ivy League

Posted by WDonway 8 months, 1 week ago to Education
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"A Barefoot Boy from Texas in the Ivy League"
When I attended Brown University in the mid-1960s, one of the “full professors” was Forrest MacDonald. He was a legend around the campus for hanging out with the guys. In is grand lecture room, he would finish smoking a cigarette (yes) and snap the butt in a high arc unerring out a window.
He once described himself as “a barefoot boy from Texas in the Ivy League.” He was from Orange, Texas, and did his undergraduate and graduate studies at the University of Texas, Austin.
He received his Ph.D. degree from Austin in 1955 and by 1959 was teaching at the elite, Ivy League Brown University. Now, how did the barefoot boy from Texas do that?
For his doctoral dissertation he got in his old car and travelled around the country examining all available evidence of the economic circumstances of the signers of the U.S. Constitution. Lugging back a trunkful of material, which he analyzed, he made a decisive, empirical case against the famous hypothesis of the American Marxist Charles Beard in his “An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States” (1913), which argued that the signers of the U.S. Constitution were strictly guarding their own economic class interests. For Beard, it was all class conflict: rich bond holders in opposition to the farmers and planters. It was “personal property” against “real property.”
It rapidly became Progressivist doctrine to belittle the Constitution.
MacDonald’s doctoral dissertation became a book, “We the People: The Economic Origins of the Constitution.” MacDonald brought his mass of empirical evidence to demonstrate that three-dozen identifiable economic interests forced the delegates to the Constitutional convention to bargain for their one shared interest: economic freedom.
It was powerful One of the earliest reviewers, David M. Potter, said: "He has tumbled a very large Humpty Dumpty [Beard's economic interpretation] from a very high wall of history, and American historical literature will never be entirely the same.”
And it never was. Beard’s Marxist hypothesis, gleefully greeted by academic Progressive, disappeared from the intellectual scene, slain by the barefoot boy from Texas.
Of course, Forrest MacDonald was a joker, a kidder, and a “regular guy,” but also a brilliantly informed, meticulous, and highly motivated historian wedded to empiricism in service of historical interpretation. His own theoretical base was republicanism, capitalism, and the glory of America.
He later published a book on one of America’s greatest capitalists, Samuel Insull, and his fate under the New Deal. I will be a little lazy here, quoting the wonderful conclusion from memory. It states the exact truth. Instull brought electrification to the entire Midwest. He contributed greatly to creating a national electrical infrastructure, igniting a revolution in productivity. And his grateful country (under the New Deal) allowed him to die outside of prison. (Franklin D. Roosevelt had declaimed in his election rhetoric against “The Ismaels and the Insulls whose hand is against every man’s.”)
That was the Brown University I knew. And Forrest MacDonald was far from the only one. Prof. William McLoughlin, foremost historian of intellectual and social trends in America, concluding his lectures on the first half of American history (up to 1860) by quoting line by line the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and showing how it brought together the American themes of half-a-century. By the end, we almost were singing it. And Carl Bridenbaugh, author of Cities in the Wildness, foremost historian of pre-Revolution America, making the case that values such as independence, self-government, free enterprise, and rejection of authority were forged for a century in the American wilderness and then articulated in the writings of John Locke and others.
It was the 1960s, you see, right after the 1950s, perhaps the climax of American achievement (though not ideology). In shockingly few years, the spirit of the 1950s gave way to the 1960s and the New Left, Hippie, Vietnam-protest, anti-American era of rebellion against everything essentially American. Forrest MacDonald retreated to the University of Alabama.
And what began is variously called the Postmodernism, the New Left, politically correct. It happened to Brown. I project the climax of this rejection of the mission of higher education—and of the Enlightenment values that were its foundation—in my novel “Retaking College Hill.”
My novel is a rebellion (I have been reading the “Brown Alumni Monthly all these years), an assertion of the enduring values of philosophy and education, and a deep nostalgia and abiding love for what the university once represented. (https://amzn.to/3jkgEK9)
If, with your support, in any way available to you, you can help my dramatic, action-packed, romantic novel of ideas reach a significant audience, today, then perhaps future generations may again know education at its best. It never was perfect, of course, and we complained loudly in our time. But the arguments were informed by information, embarrassed if they were not logical, rooted in share principles…
It is not so, today.


Retaking College Hill: A Novel


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