David McCullough, who passed away on August 7th at the age of 89, always made you feel part of something larger than yourself. It fit with his belief that history “is a larger way of looking at life,” a source of strength and inspiration. At a time in our country when fake populists are attacking history and historians, we need to hear McCullough’s voice. A sense of history, he wrote, “is an antidote to self-pity and self-importance…history is a lesson in proportions.”
Many of the tributes following his passing describe McCullough as the dean of America’s historians. The statement from the National Trust, where he served as a Trustee and an Honorary Trustee, spoke to his extensive efforts and eloquent voice on behalf of historic preservation. Those observations are certainly true. But what I saw most frequently in McCullough’s life and work was someone who believed in, and spent a lifetime chronicling, the unique American spirit.
In my more than two decades with the National Trust, I was fortunate to engage with David McCullough at various functions and hear him speak multiple times. If I remember the story correctly, David and the CEO who recruited me to the Trust, Richard Moe, had become close friends going back to Dick’s time in the Carter White House. McCullough’s The Path Between the Seas — the National Book Award–winning epic chronicle of the creation of the Panama Canal — was “required reading,” as Dick would phrase it, during the administration’s negotiations over the future of the canal.
When I heard of McCullough’s passing, I pulled out one of his more recent works, a slender volume I have reread over the past few days. Although I reviewed the book soon after it was published, I wanted to revisit it again. It reminds me of why he was such a forward-looking storyteller of the American experience, examining the past to help explain the present. As McCullough said in a 2004 speech at Ohio University, “History is both now and then, today and yesterday…. No one lived in the past, only the present.”
The book also reminds me of one of the most memorable personal interactions I had with David McCullough, at an especially difficult time in our country’s history.
The American Spirit (2017) is a collection of fifteen speeches given by the author over twenty-five years. There are a number of commencement speeches, a talk made before Congress, and a July 4th naturalization speech given at Monticello, among others.
And there is also a speech David McCullough made just weeks after the attacks of 9/11. I remember it like it was yesterday, because I was there, sitting next to him before he rose to speak.
On October 20, 2001, McCullough gave the keynote address at the Trust conference in Providence, Rhode Island, gracing us with the memorable speech included in The American Spirit. Providence is a city, as its name suggests, that celebrates its religious history. Few communities carry off having a “Steeple” street with the historical understanding that Providence brings to its houses of worship. And the most important of those sacred places in the country’s fight for religious freedom is The First Baptist Church, Providence, which was the very first Baptist church that was established in America. It was also where the opening session of our 2001 national conference was held.
I was staffing McCullough backstage before he went out to remind us of who we are and what we believe as Americans. He could have said he needed this time to collect his thoughts. Instead, he wanted to talk. I mentioned that while I had difficulty selecting a favorite from among his many works, my father had no such problem. An engineer, Tom Brown loved his book on the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, a fact which delighted David to no end. He told me that it was one of his favorite books to write. As the New York Times noted in its obituary, “The Great Bridge (1972), his exhaustive account of the technology, personalities and politics involved in building the Brooklyn Bridge, was hailed as a monument in its own right.” That day in Providence we discussed the Brooklyn Bridge as well as his recent study of John Adams, and he offered to sign a copy of the former for my father and the latter for me, a generous gift I will always treasure.
Afterwards, I sat on those hard, wooden pews as mesmerized as any young college student at the feet of a beloved professor while David McCullough made 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.
The time after 9/11 was a period of great uncertainty. But it was also a time when he could use the scholarship from his recently published masterwork on John Adams to remind us — once again — that we have worked through difficulties before in this country.
We think we live in difficult uncertain times. 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 a similar 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.
Writer and social critic Lewis Lapham has written that “What joins the Americans one to another is not a common nationality, language, race, or ancestry…but rather their complicity in a shared work of the imagination.” David McCullough, whose work was often pointing back to the Declaration of Independence and its formative role in shaping the ideals of America, spoke of the same guidestar. “Beware the purists, the doctrinaires,” he cautioned. “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.”
Protecting history was a trait we saw at the Trust, where he chose his battles over contemporary political and preservation issues carefully. But when he engaged, his skills were formidable. And his insights were right on target.
“At some point in his life,” C-SPAN founder Brian Lamb told historian Douglas Brinkley, “McCullough decided to tell the world that American history mattered.”
It was his mantra. He was the nation’s schoolteacher. I love all of his books. But McCullough was also about his persona; he was the whole package of writing skill, resonant voice and grand presence.
This is a good time to remember the importance of history and the power of history. The power of story. David McCullough often quoted a letter Abigail Adams wrote to her son, the future president John Quincy Adams, when he was eleven years old and protesting that he did not want to make the hard voyage across the Atlantic with his father. She wasn’t having it.
These are the times in which a genius would wish to live. It is not in the still calm of life or the repose of a pacific station that great characters are formed. The habits of a vigorous mind are formed in contending with difficulties. Great necessities call out great virtues. When a mind is raised and animated by scenes that engage the heart, then those qualities which would otherwise lay dormant wake into life and form the character of the hero and the statesman.
As McCullough goes on to point out, “the mind itself isn’t enough. You have to have the heart.”
Today, we are contending with difficulties. But so it has nearly always been. That makes this 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, fog, and upheaval of the present day. If we don’t, we will have forgotten the legacy of David McCullough at our peril.
More to come…
Image of David McCullough at work from his Facebook page.