American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For"
by David McCullough; Simon & Schuster (192 pages,
"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.
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.
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
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.
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."
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
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.
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."
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.
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.
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
is often said that a speaker should know his audience.
By the time readers finish "The American
Spirit," they should know McCullough.