The July 4th weekend turned out to be the perfect time to read historian David McCullough’s newest book The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For. This compilation of 15 speeches spanning the years 1989 through 2016 brought renewed appreciation for the wisdom of the elder statesman of America’s historians (and honorary trustee of the National Trust for Historic Preservation). The fact that it includes McCullough’s October 20, 2001, speech at the National Trust conference in Providence, Rhode Island—the most memorable of several David McCullough speeches I’ve been privileged to hear in person—is an added bonus.
Some would note that optimism is in short supply in today’s world. That was certainly the case just six weeks after 9/11. Yet in 2001, McCullough used the setting of the First Baptist Church in Providence—one of the nation’s most historic houses of worship—and the scholarship from his recently published biography of John Adams to make the case for “the importance of history as an aid to navigation in such troubled, uncertain times,” as he says in this book’s introduction. He spoke then to the importance of authentic places in helping to make a “physical, tactile contact with distant human beings. To “feel their mortality.” To “feel a common bond” with all humanity.
We think we live in difficult uncertain times (McCullough said in 2001 in Providence). We think we have worries. We think our leaders face difficult decisions. But so it has nearly always been….It is said that everything has changed. But everything has not changed….We have resources beyond imagining, and the greatest of these is our brainpower….And we have a further, all-important, inexhaustible source of strength. And that source of strength is our story, our history, who we are, how we got to be where we are, and all we have been through, what we have achieved.
Speaking in 1994 at Union College, McCullough touched on this same theme when he said,
I think what most of us want—as most people everywhere want more than anything—is to be useful. This and to feel we belong to something larger than ourselves. What is needed now…is a common understanding of what that larger something can be. What we Americans need above all is leadership to define the national ambition….Beware the purists, the doctrinaires. It has been by the empirical method largely, by way of trial and error, that we have come so far. America itself is an experiment and we must bear that always in mind.
This is a good time to remember the power of history. The power of story. And it is an especially good time to work to ensure that the story of who we are and all that we have been through to reach our achievements as people and as a nation is not lost in the uncertainty of the present.
Have a good week.
More to come…