By: Hans Zeigler
Historian David McCullough, who passed away on Aug. 7, spent his life telling stories that his fellow citizens should know. He wrote well-known biographies of John Adams, Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and the Wright Brothers. He got his start chronicling the Johnstown Flood before turning to the creation of the Brooklyn Bridge and the Panama Canal and the early years of the American Revolution.
But McCullough was not just a teller of great American stories. He was above all a patriot who possessed an undying wonder about and gratitude for the country he loved.
In 2017, Simon and Schuster published “The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For,” which features public addresses McCullough delivered that capture his love of the historian’s craft and the country he called home. Its passages are worth reflecting on as we remember his life and legacy.
One of the speeches McCullough delivered was at Hillsdale College in the spring of 2006. He spent the week there as a visiting professor, and I know he made a lasting impression on the students in his American history class, because I was among them.
McCullough made more of difference in a week than many teachers make in a semester. He made a difference by telling masterful stories and by how he carried himself — in class, during office hours, and in a public lecture he delivered on campus. He was kind, witty, ever the gentleman.
Humanity set McCullough’s stories apart
What McCullough brought to the telling of history was not hero-worship but humanity. “If I say to you that the king died and then the queen died, that’s a sequence of events. If I say the king died and the queen died of grief, that’s a story. That’s human. That calls for empathy on the part of the teller of the story and of the reader or listener to the story,” he said at Hillsdale.
In a speech at Dickinson College, McCullough commended key virtues that constituted the animating spirit of American founder Dr. Benjamin Rush: “goodwill (or good nature, as he said); inexhaustible curiosity (it was this that made him so everlastingly interested in everything and everyone); and commitment – commitment to principle, commitment to service, to his country, and to the fundamental faith that education ought never to stand still, in the country and in one’s own life.”
If one had to define the animating spirit of David McCullough, these three virtues he found in Rush would be a good start.
McCullough wanted us to think of people as they experienced life — not in the past but in “the present, their present,” as he told a conference of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2001. And he wanted us to know about them so we could conserve the good things they passed down to us. “But let us not look down on anyone from the past for not having the benefit of what we know, or allow ourselves to feel superior,” he told a Dickinson College commencement audience in 1998. “In my experience, the more one learns of that founding generation of Americans – and I mean the real flesh-and-blood human beings, not the myths – the larger they become, the more one wonders what we’ve lost, or are in grave danger of losing.”
Textbooks ‘created in order to kill’ interest in history
Those real flesh-and-blood human beings who founded the country were flawed, for sure, but they possessed important character traits that are worthy of recognition. In a 1999 speech about the presidency at Dartmouth, he talked about the “aspects of individual personality for which there are no ready measurements – the integrity of Washington, Lincoln’s depth of soul, the courage of Harry Truman. Or think of the charm of Kennedy at a press conference, or Ronald Reagan in front of a television camera in almost any circumstance.”
McCullough lamented the state of academic textbooks, most of which were “created in order to kill any interest one might have in history,” he said at Hillsdale. If a teacher is to attract students to the study of history, she or he must have the quality of enthusiasm, McCullough stated. If his book sales over the past five decades are an indicator, enthusiasm is infectious.
McCullough not only wrote and taught history, but he reminded people of the importance of historical perspective in all kinds of endeavors. To a University of Pittsburgh audience in his hometown in 1994, he called for an urban studies program that would focus on the history of the Steel City. “The core of such a program, I suggest, should be history, for the specific and realistic reason that all problems have history and the wisest route to a successful solution to nearly any problem begins with understanding its history,” McCullough said. The failure of policy leaders to understand the history of places can have terrible consequences, he added.
David McCullough was a citizen-historian whose words will live on. His words – written and spoken – deserve the consideration of Americans in our generation and for generations to come.
Hans Zeiger is the president of the Jack Miller Center, a national nonprofit organization that connects civic educators, scholars, and concerned citizens who seek to pass along the American political tradition to the next generation.