David McCullough has spent his professional lifetime exploring the people and events that form a goodly part of what we call American history. He’s fascinated by the history of the United States, but it’s a fascination that doesn’t preclude understanding of or excuse things that need to be criticized. His reach and interest are as broad as they is deep.
McCullough – editor, teacher, lecturer, television host – is the author of numerous works of history and biography, including The Path Between the Seas (1978); Mornings on Horseback (1982); The Johnstown Flood (1987); Brave Companions: Portraits in History (1992); Truman (1993); John Adams (2002); 1776 (2005); and The Wright Brothers (2015); among several others. He’s won two National Book Awards, two Pulitzer Prizes, and two Francis Parkman Awards.
In other words, he’s an eminence in American historical letters.
He gives speeches, and when he does, it’s worthwhile to listen and ponder. He’s assembled 15 of those speeches, stretching from 1989 to 2016, in The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For. The volume is a gem of understanding, and of American history, the words and insights spoken by one of our pre-eminent American historians.
He’s a master of the telling detail, such as that of Simon Willard’s clock, which sits within a statue in Congress and has been there since 1837. “Its inner workings ticked off the minutes and hours through debate on the Gag Rule, the annexation of Texas, the Mexican War, tariffs, postal service, the establishment of the Naval Academy, statehood for Arkansas, Michigan, Wisconsin, matters related to immigration, the Gold Rush, Statehood for California, the fateful Kansas-Nebraska Act, and the final hours of John Quincy Adams,” he writes. These were events and actions not only important for the United States but indeed the world.
And we read the story of John Quincy Adams, who returned as a congressman from Massachusetts after he served as our 6th President. Adams, the educated and experienced son of John Adams, would die in Congress, stricken while in the House of Representatives and carried to the speaker’s office, where he died two days later. Henry Clay held his hand as he died.
In these speeches, McCullough talks of buildings and commemorations, historical figures known and not-so-known, and events that we’ve heard so often they seem trite but in his hands become living things.
One of the common themes is education – why it’s important and why it needs to be a lifelong pursuit; it’s not a monopoly of the institutional classroom. Here his speeches show a shift, however. From 2005 on, McCullough begins to note what he sees happening in the classroom – that we are not teaching American history as it has been taught or even at all. And citizens, and the country, are both poorer for it.
During a time like now, when divisiveness, rage, and outrage are the political order (or disorder) of the day, The American Spirit is a potent reminder of what we have had, what we’re risking, and what we might need to do to recover.
Top photograph by Frank McKenna via Unsplash. Used with permission.