‘The American Spirit’: David McCullough’s speeches reveal the man behind the biographies

May 29, 2017 

"The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For" by David McCullough; Simon & Schuster (192 pages, $25)


In "The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For," Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough gives us something akin to a collection of short stories. The book includes 15 speeches, dating to 1989, which the Pittsburgh native gave to audiences ranging from a joint session of Congress to graduates of Michigan’s 1,500-student Hillsdale College.

The speeches, arranged in chronological order, offer a window on the man behind the weighty biographies of John Adams and Harry Truman, which won Pulitzers and remain two of his most popular works. Each speech gives a history lesson, celebrates the importance of history education or underscores the importance of civic responsibility. If the Founding Fathers rose to the occasion, his speeches suggest, so can the rest of us in less revolutionary yet important ways.

"The laws we live by, the freedoms we enjoy, the institutions that we take for granted — and we should never take for granted — are all the work of others who went before us," he told the Hillsdale graduates in 2005. "And to be indifferent to that isn’t just to be ignorant, it’s to be rude. And ingratitude is a shabby failing."

To a joint session of Congress in 1989, McCullough lamented how little attention scholars have paid to important figures such as Uncle Joe Cannon and Joe Martin, both speakers of the House, and to the role that Congress played in momentous events such as construction of the Panama Canal and development of the Marshall Plan. Historians have been so intent on studying the presidency, he said, that Congress has been neglected.

To newly naturalized U.S. citizens at Thomas Jefferson’s beloved Monticello in 1994, he underscored the revolutionary nature of the American experiment, noting, "Never, never anywhere had there been a government instituted on the consent of the governed."

At Lafayette College in Northampton County in 2007, he marked the 250th anniversary of the Marquis de Lafayette’s birthday with a panegyric to the great statesman and France’s broader influence on America. When Lafayette’s farewell tour of America ended in 1825, noted McCullough with characteristically rich detail, President John Quincy Adams trembled as he bid the honored guest goodbye.

McCullough peppered his speeches with anecdotes and analysis no doubt compiled from research on his other books. References to John Adams and John Quincy Adams, the nation’s second and sixth presidents, are plentiful. His references to Abigail Adams, wife of John and mother of John Quincy, are poignant.

At Hillsdale in 2005, he cited the letter that Abigail sent to her son from London upon hearing that he was walking around his Massachusetts community feeling a little too full of himself. Noting his advantaged upbringing, including the traveling he had done and the elite company he had kept, Abigail wrote, "How unpardonable would it have been in you to have turned out a blockhead."

McCullough included his 1994 University of Pittsburgh commencement address, in which he supported a new Marshall Plan to address U.S. urban decay and suggested his hometown lead the effort. "The core of such a program, I suggest, should be history, for the specific and realistic reason that all problems have histories and the wisest route to a successful solution to nearly any problem begins with understanding its history," he said.

To the Hillsdale audience, he expressed dismay at how ignorant young Americans are about history and lamented the lifelessness of history textbooks. He encouraged parents to nurture a love of history in their children. History, he said, is a vehicle for better understanding, and appreciating, what Americans have.

"How unpardonable would it be for us — with so much that we have been given, the advantages we have, all the continuing opportunities we have to enhance and increase our love of learning — to turn out blockheads. Or to raise blockheads."

It is often said that a speaker should know his audience. By the time readers finish "The American Spirit," they should know McCullough.




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