In addition to being perhaps America’s most popular writer about history, David McCullough is an acclaimed speaker about history, too.
With his silver mane and avuncular baritone, McCullough perfectly embodies the part of remember-in-chief. His role as host of public television’s “The American Experience” in its early years, along with his narration of Ken Burns’ “The Civil War,” affirmed McCullough’s stature as the voice of our national past. When not writing bestselling biographies of Harry Truman, John Adams and the Wright brothers, McCullough has often served as the headliner at banquets, graduation ceremonies, and lecture programs across the country.
The American Spirit collects McCullough’s best speeches from his years on the podium. He offers them, he tells readers, “with the hope that what I have to say will help remind us, in this time of uncertainty and contention, of just who we are and what we stand for, of the high aspirations that inspired our founders, of our enduring values, and the importance of history as an aid to navigation in such troubled, uncertain times.”
Happily, the same qualities that inform McCullough’s histories and biographies also shape his speeches. He is, whether at his desk or a lectern, a consummate storyteller, as we’re reminded in “Simon Willard’s Clock,” McCullough’s 1989 address to a joint session of Congress. Here, in three sentences, he deftly summarizes the life of America’s sixth president:
On a June afternoon in 1775, before there was a Congress of the United States, a small boy stood with his mother on a distant knoll, watching the battle of Bunker Hill. The boy was John Quincy Adams, diplomat, senator, secretary of state, and president, who in his lifetime had seen more, contributed more to the history of his time than almost anyone and who, as no former president ever had, returned here to the Hill to take a seat in the House of Representatives, in the 22nd Congress, and thrilled at the prospect. And it was here that this extraordinary American had perhaps his finest hours.
The title of “Simon Willard’s Clock” sounds a prevailing theme of McCullough’s work – namely, that history isn’t made just by presidents and generals, but by painters, poets, inventors, engineers and even, as in Willard’s case, clockmakers. It was Willard, McCullough told listeners, who made the timepiece, installed in the Capitol in 1837, that “ticked off the minutes and hours through debate over the Gag Rule, the annexation of Texas, the Mexican War, tariffs, postal service, the establishment of the Naval Academy, statehood for Arkansas, Michigan, Wisconsin, matters related to immigration, the Gold Rush, statehood for California, the fateful Kansas-Nebraska Act, and the final hours of John Quincy Adams.”
Simon Willard’s clock rests before a sculpture of Clio, the muse of history. “The idea was that those who sat below would take inspiration from her,” McCullough told lawmakers. “They would be reminded that they, too, were part of history, that their words and actions would face the judgment of history...."
McCullough suggests that history is watching all of us, its record the ultimate judgment on whether we did the right thing. That’s the closest that McCullough comes to an admonition in “The American Spirit,” and one sometimes wishes, in reading these pages, for a more declarative and specific call to mend what’s broken in the national psyche.
The abiding appeal – and the abiding complication – of McCullough’s vision is that he’s a triumphalist at heart, more interested in celebrating the better angels of American history than in discerning what could be learned from diagnosing its darker impulses.
In a speech given in 2000 to mark the bicentennial of the White House, for example, McCullough speaks glowingly of the mansion’s first occupant, John Adams, giving just a glancing, grudging mention of Adams’ signing of “the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts.” The legislation, which cracked down on immigration and limited free speech, was born of anxieties not greatly different from those that have touched recent headlines. A closer consideration of what drove the otherwise admirable Adams to sign the acts might yield useful insights into our own insecurities.
But with the possible exception of “The Johnstown Flood,” his cautionary 1968 tale about the consequences of national hubris, McCullough has never been comfortable in the shadows of American history. The sunlight is, almost invariably it seems, where he prefers to be.
“When bad news is riding high and despair in fashion,” he told graduates of Ohio University in 2004, “when loud mouths and corruption seem to own center stage, when some keep crying that the country is going to the dogs, remember it’s always been going to the dogs in the eyes of some, and that 90 percent, or more, of the people are good people, generous-hearted, law-abiding, good citizens who get to work on time, do a good job, love their country, pay their taxes, care about their neighbors, care about their children’s education, and believe, rightly, as you do, in the ideals on which our way of life is founded.”
One finishes “The American Spirit” with the cautious hope that what McCullough said is still true.
Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”