I’m on a history kick lately, as an ardent lover of history, and what better place to turn to than perhaps the greatest modern American historian, David McCullough? Most known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning biographies of Truman and John Adams in 1992 and 2001, respectively (and both of which were turned into HBO properties), I instead listened on audiobook to one of his more recent works from 2017: The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For.
American Spirit is a collection of McCullough’s various speeches to universities, on the occasion of the White House’s 200th anniversary, the Capitol, at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, to Congress itself, and so on dating back to 1989.
The idea behind the book what to remind Americans during a rather … head-scratching election season and outcome in 2016 (to put it mildly) about the resilience, strength and beauty of the American spirit, as found in our Founding Fathers, the arts, the architecture, and so on that is the fabric of the United States.
A few thoughts immediately come to mind, with this being my first introduction to McCullough: He certainly, not surprisingly, has an affinity for John Adams and Abigail Adams (the First Lady). Both, including their letters to each other, feature prominently across a number of speeches. That only makes me want to read more about Adams! However, his signing of the Alien and Sedition Acts will be a big sticking point for me. I’m open-minded, though.
Secondly, again, not surprisingly, McCullough advocates for history and educating younger Americans about history. But he’s not merely an advocate of history as a self-interested historian; he also advocates for humanities as a whole. To McCullough, there is great beauty to be found within the arts, within literature, with music, and so on. These are the real foundations of American spirit perhaps more than any founding document or speech could ever elucidate. Being immersed in the so-called “information age,” isn’t enough, as McCullough acutely observes. Information isn’t the same as knowledge or wisdom. It isn’t the same as actively learning.
Third, McCullough’s love of America and its history is infectious and inspiring in its own right. After all, aside from writing critically renowned history books, McCullough gives these speeches across the country in which he drew from. I believe he said he’s been to all 50 states. After all these years and with all of his success, he has more than earned his rest and “retirement.” Instead, here he is at 84-years-old at the time of the book (he’s 88 now) reading all of those speeches again. He’s the one voicing the audiobook! He has a lovely voice, by the way, and it draws you in.
I admire that indefatigable quality of McCullough’s a great deal, as manifest in these speeches and his work ethic.
A few things throughout the speeches also stood out to me as items I wanted to investigate further because they were new to me.
For example, I’d never even heard about the Battle of Liberty Place in 1874, wherein a thousand members of the White League consisting of Confederate veterans tried to orchestrate (and almost succeeded) a coup d’état against the Reconstruction Era Louisiana Republican state government. Traitorous monsters.
Or the heroics of Republican Senator Margaret Chase Smith, the first to staunchly oppose Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communism (or put another way, anti-American) nonsense. In a speech entitled, “A Declaration of Conscious,” on June 1, 1950, she said, “But I don’t want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the Four Horsemen of Calumny — Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry, and Smear.”
What a courageous woman, the first such female to serve in both chambers of Congress.
Speaking of Congress, McCullough made an impassioned and compelling case for the need for more history on Congress and members of Congress. In fact, at least at the time of the speech in 1989, he said there hadn’t even been a good historical book on the Capitol itself. Yet, I was surprised to learn that McCullough himself had not written any and instead, is, of course, noted for presidential biographies. But, as he even noted, it makes sense why much of our attention turns to the presidency. It’s a lot cleaner and “simpler” in a way than Congress, particularly the fact that there is a lot of churn with Congress.
Besides, I can’t say anything. As I’ve mentioned many times and has come up in prior reviews, my favorite areas of history are the common ones, too: presidential and military.
Perhaps my favorite part of any of the speeches was the one detailing the connection between America and France and thinking about how instrumental they were to our founding and later, how instrumental we were to their liberation from Hitler. That’s darn beautiful. I wanted to read more on the subject.
All of that said, I do think some segments of the speeches haven’t aged as well, primarily when McCullough is advocating policy prescriptions or social solutions. For example, in one of his speeches, which I believe was the 1989 one to Congress, he ponders about whether the U.S. government should bring back the equivalent of “war bonds” to help address the War on Drugs. Why wouldn’t Americans want to buy such bonds to combat the War on Drugs, he quips (to paraphrase). Yikes. I don’t think I need to explain why that’s silly and hasn’t aged well.
He also mentions a few times that the youth of today should basically speak better. It always feels out of place and, with all due respect, “old man yells at cloud,” when McCullough speaks lofty about learning education and becoming educated and then slips in, “And stop saying, ‘Awesome,’ and cursing.”
On the other hand, McCullough’s idea to do a quasi-Marshall Plan (the 1948 policy that re-built Western Europe post-WWII) via America’s universities to “fix the cities” sounded interesting. I don’t know about the mechanism, but the idea of better utilizing these hubs already within the cities (or nearby) to bring the best minds together to create solutions to the various city-specific issues of crime, homelessness and so on, sounds intriguing and smart.
I felt excited and invigorated by McCullough’s speeches, squabbles aside. America is great. But largely not because of the so-called great men of history — although to be sure, the Founding Fathers era consisted of great men who did great things, warts and all — but because of American ingenuity, creativity and indeed, our enduring spirit through all the tribulations.
He ends the final speech with, “On we go.” On indeed.
As it regards the American spirit, mission accomplished, McCullough. And I say that as the least likely person to be a patriotic rah-rah type of American. I just have an affinity for a system of government built upon human autonomy and sovereignty.
I’m listening to his 2005 book 1776 next and this felt like a nice segue. Also, McCullough reads that one too, naturally.