David McCullough and the Meaning of History

Imagine if there were no historic buildings, if there were few or no historic places. Imagine how it would be if there were no Gettysburg battlefield, no Brooklyn Bridge, no Faneuil Hall, no Panama Canal, no Kitty Hawk…. Each and every one could have been swept away, destroyed, heedlessly like so much else.

This vision of historical ground zero comes from a speech by David McCullough titled “History Lost and Found,” included in his 2017 collection, The American Spirit. One of the nation’s most visible and popular historians, McCullough tells us in the Introduction to his speech collection that he has addressed audiences in every state over his half-century career — at college commencements and bicentennial celebrations, when receiving his numerous awards and honorary degrees, even before a joint session of Congress. Speaking so widely and often, he tells us, is a way both to deliver his message about the national character and confirm it: “Many a time I have gone off on a speaking date feeling a bit down about the state of things and returned with my outlook greatly restored, having seen, again and again, long-standing American values still firmly in place.”

Listen to David McCullough on the B&N Podcast.

But “History Lost and Found,” delivered at a National Trust for Historic Preservation conference just five weeks after 9/11, must have been a special challenge. It is hard to take the long view of American history when new chapters of the most haunting kind are unfolding before you. And so, handed ground zero ruin, McCullough seized it as an opportunity to build anew:

It is said that everything has changed. But everything has not changed. This is plain truth. We are still the strongest, most productive, wealthiest, the most creative, the most ingenious, the most generous nation in the world, on any nation in all time. …And we have a further, all-important, inexhaustible, source of strength. And that source of strength is our story, our history….

The historical pivot from adversity to opportunity is McCullough’s insistent theme, one often sounded in his opening epigraphs. To begin his Pulitzer-winner 1776, McCullough quotes George Washington’s letter rallying the troops: “Perseverance and spirit have done wonders in all ages.” Mornings on Horseback, a National Book Award-winning biography of Theodore Roosevelt, begins with a sentence from Roosevelt’s famous speech, “The Strenuous Life”: “For better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much….” The Wright Brothers, one of McCullough’s handful of books on daring-triumphant American ingenuity, begins with a notebook entry by Wilbur Wright, written years before Kitty Hawk: “No bird soars in a calm.”

McCullough’s new book, The Pioneers, is a study of expansion into the Northwest Territory, the first organized and legislated immigration into the American west. Many in that first immigrant wave were land speculators in the grip of “Ohio Fever,” but they were also committed to the fundamental tenets of the Northwest Ordinance legislation which governed their settlements — education for all, freedom of religion, a ban on slavery. McCullough says that by holding firm to those tenets through years of adversity, the Northwest pioneers laid the foundations of “what would one day become known as the American way of life.”

Another engaging application of McCullough’s principle that “history is the story of people,” The Pioneers builds its granular portrait of frontier life using diaries, letters and related documents. We step off an Ohio River barge with John May, who finds “the situation delightfully agreeable, well calculated for an elegant city”; we see the “myriads of gnats,” hear the “caterwauling” panthers in the forest he is trying to clear, the “hellish Pow-wows” of the “savages” that keep him up all night, the dismissiveness in his voice when some settlers get back on the barge: “They came from home brainless and moneyless, and have returned the same.”

There can be limitations to this historical approach, these most evident in those chapters involving the Northwest Indian War. McCullough’s primary pioneer sources describe constant terror and graphic slaughter, but there are few diary entries and letters expressing what the Indians felt about being invaded, lied to, demonized and exiled. To address this vacuum, we get little more than a comment that the Treaty of Greenville, ending hostilities and closing the Northwest frontier, “was effective, though at the Indians’ expense.”

As a historian “drawn to the human subject,” McCullough makes no claim to books that are comprehensive, definitive or, god forbid, academic: “The explorer interests me more than geography, the ichthyologist more than his fish, Theodore Roosevelt before, say, the Progressive Movement.” No doubt McCullough would celebrate any vigorous debate of historical events, or of his books about them. The only forbidden, he warns us again and again in his interviews and speeches, is to forget those events and their enduring relevance. McCullough gives the epigraph of The Pioneers to Ephraim Cutler, a settler who must also have been worried about a national forgetting: “The character ought to be known of these bold pioneers…. From whence did they spring?…. For what causes, under what circumstances, and for what objects were difficulties met and overcome?”

McCullough likes to tell an anecdote about young John Quincy Adams after he returned home from Europe, his parents staying in England. Eighteen and Harvard-bound, Adams puffed around Boston showing off his old world polish to such a degree that his Aunt wrote to his mother to tell her about it. Abigail’s letter back to John Quincy tells him to reflect upon his family advantages and privileged opportunities, and knock off his posturing: “How unpardonable it would have been in you to have turned out a blockhead.” In “Knowing Who We Are,” another speech included in The American Spirit, McCullough suggests that the nation needs the same kind of reminder, best delivered by its own history:

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

Most of McCullough’s books are dedicated to his wife of sixty-five years, Rosealee. The American Spirit, is dedicated to his grandchildren, all nineteen of them listed by name. You get the feeling that he is not so much honoring them as calling them out — to know their history, appreciate their opportunities, and not be blockheads.