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The simple but brilliant words of David McCullough


The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For

By David McCullough

Simon & Schuster, 176 pages, $2

One does not expect to find a deep sense of history in a small, unassuming package. Think of Winston Churchill’s “The Second World War,” or Bruce Catton’s Civil War masterpiece, or Ulysses S. Grant’s wonderful personal memoirs. All of formidable length, to be sure.

Nor does one anticipate profundity clothed in plain talk, without the trappings of exhaustive explanation.

So when this critic, almost on a lark, picked up a small new book – less than 200 pages – of collected talks and lectures, he didn’t expect much.

What a mistake.

Acclaimed historian David McCullough’s “The American Spirit” is as inspirational as it is brilliant, as simple as it is sophisticated. It will at the same time make you laugh and give rise to tears of despair.

McCullough’s latest work is a selectively chosen and edited collection of 15 talks from hundreds he has given over a 27-year period in such diverse venues as the U.S. Capitol, a small college in Schenectady and a lecture hall in Hillsdale, Mich.

Each as been chosen, the publisher tells us, because each brings a different view, at a different time and through a different audience of who we are as Americans and what we are as a nation.

This is not patriotic boilerplate. McCullough is a historian and a realist. He sees his nation with all its warts, beginning with its indelible birthmark of slavery and continuing through to today’s government dysfunction and political polarization. Yet he remains confident and upbeat.

Shortly after 9/11, he reminded a Providence audience: “We are still the strongest, most productive, wealthiest, the most creative, the most ingenious, the most generous nation in the world.”

At 83, McCullough laces his talks with quotes from figures he has spent a lifetime studying. He leans heavily on our second president, John Adams, his son and sixth president, John Quincy Adams, and the wife and mother of presidents, Abigail Adams. But he recalls seemingly without effort the words of little-known signers of the Declaration of Independence and recent Presidents.

He talks of the men who signed their names to the Declaration of Independence as if we were there in Philadelphia in 1776. Each had much to lose, yet they knew they were signing their death warrants if caught because they had just declared treason against their king.

As an afterthought, McCullough takes a swipe at governing by consensus, estimating from his research that if a poll had been taken in 1776, “they would have scrapped the whole idea of independence” because the colonies were split a third for, a third against, and a third who “in the old human way, was waiting to see who came out on top.”

At Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello in 1994, he explained to immigrants newly naturalized what the founders meant when they pledged their “sacred honor.” Their honor was their word, and “their word, once given, would not be broken. It was their code of integrity, their code of leadership.” Their words did matter. Speaking in Dallas in 2013, he recalled President John F. Kennedy’s command of language, adding: “He knew words matter. His words changed lives.”

At Union College in Schenectady in 1994, McCullough spoke again about words. “We need less fanfare, less stagecraft and circumventing,” he told a college audience. “We need to talk sense, to speak the truth.” No wonder Harry Truman is one of his heroes.

Four years later, he cautioned University of Massachusetts graduates: “From history we learn that sooner is not necessarily better than later” and “what we don’t know can hurt us and badly.”  And a year later at Dartmouth, extolling the virtues of reading history, he said: “I don’t think we can ever know enough about [our presidents], and particularly before putting them in the job.  The truth is, of course, it makes an enormous difference who’s in the White House.”

At Monticello, he expressed his deep admiration for the Founding Fathers and what they accomplished in spite of their human frailty. But his heroes don’t all come out of the 18ty century. He cites Sen. Margaret Chase Smith in 1950, at the time a freshman senator who had the courage to stand up to the powerful Sen. Joseph McCarthy and jeopardize her career by proclaiming: “I speak as a Republican, I speak as a woman ... I speak as an American [when I say] I don’t want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the four horsemen of calumny --  fear, ignorance, bigotry and smear.” She still was representing the State of Maine in the Senate in 1972, long after the McCarthy communist witch-hunt had been discredited.

McCullough’s talks are sprinkled with fascinating historical trivia like the smallest president, at just under a hundred pounds, was James Madison, and Jimmy Carter was the first U.S. president born in a hospital. Thomas Jefferson was only 33 when he penned the words of the Declaration of Independence.

“No time like the present,” McCullough claims, was first written in 1696. And he fondly recalls President Gerald Ford once musing: “If Lincoln were alive today, he’d be turning over in his grave.”

Then there’s Lady Liberty’s index finger. It is eight feet long. And the Library of Congress has 650 miles of shelves. Or it did eight years ago.

McCullough is a fount of miscellany, and as if to mock the folly of meaningless information, he told an audience at Boston College in 2008 that information alone, without judgment, is neither wisdom nor education, adding: “ If you memorized the World Almanac, you wouldn’t be educated. You’d be weird!”

Speaking to a room of educators in Michigan in 2005, he retold the story of Abigail Adams writing to her son and future president. She was perfectly unapologetic for pushing young John Quincy so hard, considering all the advantages he had been given in life. “How unpardonable,” she wrote, “would it have been in you to have turned out a blockhead.”

Then he adds to the assembled educators: “How unpardonable it would be for us – with so much we have been given, the advantages we have -- to turn out blockheads.”

McCullough’s speech-making, like his writing, is highly literate and intelligent, yet uncluttered. He never panders to his literacy. This book is brief enough to read in one sitting, but it might be better to savor one talk at a time, letting each sink in before taking on the next.

If there is one recurring theme, it is the importance of history, of knowing our past, and the need to read. At one point, he asks: “How can we call ourselves patriots if we know little of our country’s past?”

And at another point, he wonders if it is possible to know who we are and where we are headed, if we don’t know where we came from.

Few know who they are and where they have come from better than David McCullough.

Edward Cuddihy is a retired Buffalo News managing editor. 


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