History as a Source of Pleasure,
Strength, and Understanding
A conversation with David McCullough
For Bill Woodward, Seattle Pacific University professor
of history, one highlight of the events surrounding
this year’s Downtown Business Breakfast was
“going one-on-one” with David McCullough. In the
following conversation, the two historians discuss
a wide range of topics, from teaching history to the lessons of
history. Though their professional arenas differ — Woodward is
an academic historian and teacher; McCullough is a professional
writer — they both have a passion for sharing their love of history
beyond the ivory tower.
Editor's Note: Although this interview with David McCullough was edited for length in the printed edition of Response, below is the interview in its entirety.
Woodward: When it comes to historical research, there seem to
be two different worlds: the world of the academic historian and
the world of the professional writer. Do you ever think twice
about the fact that you’re writing for a wide audience, unlike professors
in, say, the Harvard History
Department or the Yale History
McCullough: They are two different ways of approaching the work, and the rewards systems are different. But I’ve never seen any great problem with that, and I don’t feel that there is the contention or friction or animosity that some people talk about. I’ve not experienced it.
I go about my work in
my way — and have for 40 years now
— because it’s what I love to do. And
if my books don’t have a reading
audience, then my family doesn’t eat.
It’s as simple as that. If I were a professor
at a university, I would be
rewarded for my scholarship, for my
innovations or perceptions that were
above and beyond the scholarship of
some others, let’s say. I would be
working for tenure. I’d be working for
a standing of some repute among my
I don’t think there’s a diminution of quality by writing something
that appeals to the general reader. And I’ve been reassured
time and again by people whose scholarship I hugely respect,
people of high standing in the academic world, who admire what
I do and who praise what I do. Some of the very best reviews I’ve
ever had have been from academic historians. And by the same
token, I hugely admire the ability of several academic historians
to write for a general audience. James McPherson, the Civil War
historian, is a wonderful example, it seems to me. Also, John
Lukacs, whose writing I hugely admire. I think it’s healthy to
remember that somebody like Steven Ambrose was an academic
historian. He knew both sides of the street, so to speak.
I have never chosen a subject because I felt it would fill a
scholarly gap or need. Nor have I ever chosen a subject because
I thought it would have popular appeal. I have always chosen the
subjects that interest me. I try to write the book about the subject
that I wish I could read. And that’s been my guiding way. I even
sometimes resist, or don’t encourage, being called an historian.
I am in many ways an amateur historian. I do it because I love it,
which is the old definition of the word, the original definition of
the word, “amateur.” I’m a writer who has found the field, or the
genre, in which he hopes to write: American history. And I feel
I’m working in an honorable and much valued tradition of people
all down the years who are not academic historians, who wrote
beautifully, and who brought the history that they were writing
about to life for large numbers of people.
Do you or your publisher have a sense of what kind of people make up the readership of your books?
McCullough: I don’t think about it much, and I’m often surprised when I’m on a book tour to see who the people are who line up to have a book signed. They’re often largely women and, very often, they are largely people in their 30s and 40s. They’re readers. They want to read compelling books. And I hope that that’s what I write. I work very hard at it. My books take a long time, and I am always hugely gratified when the fellow next door, who has a small business, compliments me on what I have written, or my friend or colleague at some distant university writes or calls to say how much he loved my last book. I’m writing the kind of book I would like to read with the hope that there are other people out there in the world of readers who feel the same way.
Woodward: A friend of mine is reading 1776. He asked me about it when he heard you were coming; I recommended it, and now he’s a fan. He wondered if there was any way to judge if recent immigrants would pick up your books to learn about American history.
McCullough: If the mail I get is any indication, the answer is “yes,” very much so. And, in fact, I’ve had many letters from new or recent Americans saying they’re surprised — they’re not just surprised, they’re taken aback — by how little American history so many Americans seem to know.
Woodward: How do you think we should make sense of the
facts that books of history are best sellers today, yet polls tell us
that few people even know when the
Civil War occurred, for instance?
McCullough: Well, there are two
different curves, if you will. One is
that the knowledge of history among
our young people is getting lower.
We’ve been raising several generations
of young Americans who are,
by and large, historically illiterate.
And I see this constantly. I lecture all
the time at universities and colleges,
and I know from firsthand experience
how much these wonderful
young men and women don’t know.
Then the other curve is where the
interest in history in the country at
large seems to continually rise. Take,
for example, the success of The History Channel on television;
the immense response to Ken Burns’ The Civil War series; the
numbers of solid, competent, serious biographies in history that
wind up on the best-seller list.
One possible explanation, of course, is that the people who
have not been well educated in history in our school system are
beginning to feel that they’d better catch up. And they want to
watch that program on Theodore Roosevelt because they don’t
know anything about him. Or they want to buy that biography
of Alexander Hamilton because they really don’t know much
Another very important point is that the books that are
appearing on the best-seller list in history and biography are
almost all extremely well-written. It isn’t just that you wave a
flag that says, “Here are the founding fathers” or “Here is the
Civil War,” and the crowds gather. They’re coming to the books
because they’re being written by very good writers and writers
who take their writing seriously.
An academic historian doesn’t have to take the writing all that seriously, and some, alas, don’t take it seriously at all. But there’s nothing new about that. I have a line; I looked it up so I could read it to you. It was written by Samuel Elliot Morrison, I don’t know, 40 years ago or more. He was a great writer and a great academic historian. He wrote, “Professors who have risen to positions of eminence by writing dull, solid, valuable monographs that nobody reads outside the profession, teach graduate students to write dull, solid, valuable monographs like theirs.”
The road to academic security is in writing dull, valuable, monographs. And so the young men who have a gift for good writing either leave the historical field for something more exciting or write dull, solid, valuable monographs.
This is nothing new. They were worrying about it in the 17th century. Cervantes wrote, “Certain historians relate matters so concisely, leaving the most essential part of the story drowned at the bottom of the inkwell, either through negligence, malice, or ignorance.” The whole point is an old one. And I guess you could also say that the first non-academic historian to write beautifully was maybe Homer or Theucidides. This is as it always will be.
I think that we human beings are, by nature, interested in
what went before us, in what happened before we came along.
It seemed almost every child’s story used to begin, “Once upon a
time, long, long ago. Come with me; I’m going to take you back
into other days, to other times, other people.” And I don’t think,
for example, it’s coincidental that the two most popular movies
of all time, while not particularly accurate as history, nonetheless
were forthrightly, consciously historic in nature: Gone With the
Wind and Titanic. We want to know. Young children especially
want to know.
Woodward: How, then, would you assess the effectiveness of
history education in America today?
McCullough: We’ve done an abysmal job of teaching history in
this country. This is something that lots of us have been concerned
about. I’ve been active for years in the National Council
for History Education trying to do something about it. We’ve
got to revise the way we teach our teachers. We can’t keep on
turning out young graduates who have a degree in education and
expect them to teach history or physics if they’ve never had any
physics or any history. We’ve got to go back to the basic liberal
arts education. Very simple. And many places, such as Seattle
Pacific University, are doing that. You can go through the School
of Education, but you have to have a major in literature, or botany,
or history, or whatever it is. And we’ve got to go back to
requiring everybody to take a course in history if they want to
get a liberal arts degree. You can go to my university, Yale, today,
and graduate never having had any history at all. It’s the same at
Harvard, and the same at most of the so-called best colleges and
universities in the country.
There are lots of very good teachers in the country, superb
teachers, but they are the exceptions. And the reason that it’s so
important for the person teaching history to know history is
because if you don’t know it, you can’t love it, any more than
you can love someone you don’t know. And the best teachers —
and we’ve all had them, fortunately — are those teachers who
really care about, love, are enthusiastic about the subject they’re
teaching. And if they don’t know the subject and they don’t
really have any feeling for the subject, then they are also far
more dependent on the textbook. And the textbooks, as you
doubtless know better than I do — and, again, there are exceptions
— are almost all dreadful. Period. Deadly. And some of
them are so bad it’s almost as if they were designed to kill any
interest in history a young person might have. We shouldn’t be
teaching our young citizens with writing that we ourselves
wouldn’t want to read.
Now, with “No Child Left Behind,” with the concentration on
reading and math in schools everywhere in the country, history is
not only on the back burner, it’s off the stove entirely. Well, it
seems to me pretty self-evident that they [students] could be reading history. They could be reading the literature of history.
And you know as well as I do how much there is that’s wonderful
writing, wonderful use of the English language, by people who
were protagonists in history and by people who wrote history.
Woodward: And that writing exists at all grade levels. There are
great children’s stories, for example.
McCullough: Yes, there are. I care about this very, very much,
and am doing everything I can to correct it. I think it’s dangerous
for the country. I think that amnesia in a community, amnesia in
the society, can be as detrimental and perilous as amnesia in an
individual. And we have a kind of creeping amnesia. And all the
studies show it. I’ve encountered it again and again, how much
students simply don’t know. To have a young person come up to
you on a college campus after you’ve spoken, as I had at a very
good Midwestern university, and say to me she was glad she
came to hear my talk because until then she never understood
that the original colonies were all on the East Coast, that was a
wake-up call to me like I’ve never had before. How did that
bright, young person, with all the advantages that this country
offers in education, get that far so oblivious to both geography
and history? I don’t know.
Woodward: So who do you think should be responsible for
fixing the problem?
I just spoke to a convention of public school board members from every state in the nation. There were nine thousand people at my talk. And I said many of the same things that I just said in our conversation. I got resounding applause to everything I said — I don’t think there will be much of an argument. Parents want it for their children, and I think some of the parents who didn’t have it in their own education want it more than those who did.
I said to the school board members that the problem with education in our country today is us. It isn’t just the teachers; it’s us. We have to raise our children in such an atmosphere, in such a climate of interest, if you will, that they know that we care — we parents, we grandparents — we care about the history of our country. We have to reinstate the dinner table conversation, encourage our children to read the books that we loved or love about figures in history or events in American history. Don’t wait for school trips to take your children or grandchildren to historic sites. You take your children or grandchildren to the historic sites. Not just to show them what they ought to know about, but to show them it matters to you, that you are enjoying it, that you consider it important.
Now some people will say to me — young parents — “Well, you don’t understand. There isn’t time for that.” I understand very well. I have five children. I have eighteen grandchildren. I know exactly what life for young parents is today. And I also know that the average family watches somewhere between two and four hours of television a day. Of course there’s time. Turn the television off and make the time. And enjoy it. There’s a wonderful letter that John Adams wrote to his daughter about how she should take part in educating her children. And he says this will be important in what they learn and how they learn and what their attitude is toward learning. And then he said, but you will also hugely enjoy it, that taking part in your own child’s education is a source of pleasure.
And that, by the way, is also what history is: is a source of pleasure. It’s a source of strength. It’s a source of understanding. It’s about human nature. It’s about people. What’s more interesting than people? I don’t know any subject more interesting than people. And to have it taught where all the life, all the flavor, all the color, all the humanity is squeezed out of it, that’s a disgrace. And it doesn’t have to be that way. Historian Barbara Tuckman was once asked, “How do you get children interested in history?” She answered in two words: “Tell stories.”
Woodward: Many academic historians are skittish about pontificating on the lessons of history. What do you see as history’s relevance to the present?
McCullough: The lessons of history are manifold, and they’re easy to delineate. They’re about cause and effect, for one thing. Well, now, if youngsters don’t have any sense of cause and effect in the life of a society, or the life of a community, or the life of their country, then they might not understand that there’s cause and effect in their own lives, that nothing happens in a vacuum, that nothing ever had to happen the way it happened. And that there was never any such thing as the foreseeable future, any more than there is now.
And that there was no simpler past. You hear people flannelling away on talk shows, “Oh, you must understand, that was a simpler time.” There was no simpler time. Absolute nonsense. It was a different time; it wasn’t like our time, but it wasn’t simpler. I ask people, “Would you think it was a lot simpler if smallpox raged through your community every few years and took the lives of hundreds of people and there was nothing you could do about it? And you had to see your own children die from it or be scarred for life? You think that’s a simpler time?” Nonsense. And there’s no such thing as a self-made man or a self-made woman. No such thing.
I think history is a lesson in appreciation. It should be a lesson in tolerance, patience. I think it’s a larger way of seeing life. And I think it’s an immense source of pleasure, the way art and music and theater are. Poetry. Why shut yourself off from the larger experience of humankind for only what you can experience in your own relatively brief time according to your biological clock? Why be provincial in time any more than you want to be provincial in space? I think Cicero said it, somewhat like this, a very long time ago: To go through life with no sense of history is to have the outlook of a child. History helps you grow up. And to go back to Samuel Elliot Morrison, he said history teaches you how to behave. It does.
People profess their love of the country, yet they don’t know anything about the history of the country. How can you talk about how much you love your country when you’re not even interested to know how it came to be, how we got to where we are, what happened and why?
Woodward: Some might fear learning about flawed people, and
some might fear learning about people we could consider heroic
or successful — because it ruins their stereotypes. Maybe that’s
another thing you’re saying here: History is about recognizing that
historical figures were humans with
all their flaws and successes.
McCullough: History isn’t just
about grand achievements. It is often
about grand achievements, but it is
also about injustice, suffering, horrors
that human beings have committed.
It’s about the human condition — at
its best and its worst. If you want to
say, “Well, we’re not going to focus
anymore on those stereotypical idols,”
then you run the huge risk of having
no interest in, or no sense of, the
value of leadership. And societies
don’t work without leaders. Any education
worth its salt ought to be teaching aspects of leadership:
what to look for in a leader and how to be one. Models from history
of what to do and what not to do, and the immense variety
of human types that can become leaders, are all a very rich and
very relevant benefit of history.
Woodward: Do you think there’s an explanation — along the lines
you’re suggesting or otherwise — for the recent flurry of wonderful
biographical and narrative studies of the nation’s founders?
McCullough: People say, “There are two sides to every story.” There aren’t two sides to every story; there are about 22 sides, or 2,222 sides. There are many reasons for this interest in the founders. I think part of it has to do with the fact that we’re living in a very uncertain, dangerous time, when change puts a lot of stress on all of us, and people want to sort of go back to see what it was all about at the beginning. What did the founders have in mind? Who were they? How did they cope with it? 1776, for example, was the darkest, most uncertain, and most difficult year in our history. I don’t think there’s much question about that. And people are interested to know, how did they do it? How did they handle it? Why did it turn out the way it did?
Also I think we’ve neglected that period. There’s been a great popular interest in the Civil War for probably 40 years, and a great interest in the Second World War. Well, people want to know about the most important war of all, which was the Revolutionary War. It’s the one that gave birth to what we have and who we are. There has been a huge neglect of the First World War, too, and my guess is that probably five, six, 10 years from now there’ll be a great return in interest in the First World War. We all write revisionist history. Everything is revisionist, to a greater or lesser degree, and we’re all finding new things in old material that weren’t perceived the same way or even known about the same way.
And I stress once again, one of the reasons that the books about the founders and about the Revolutionary War period have been popular is because so many are extremely well-written. The field of publishing is totally unpredictable; it’s one of the reasons it’s so fascinating. I can remember when I was working on my book about the Brooklyn Bridge, and a woman at a party one night said to me, in a much louder voice than I would have wished, “Who in the world would ever want to read a book about the Brooklyn Bridge?” And while I was angered or annoyed by that — I was a lot younger then — I realized, on thinking about it, that she had a point; who would want to read a book about the Brooklyn Bridge? And my conclusion was, “I would like to read that book. And I’m going to write it as best I can. And maybe if it turns out to be the book I would like to read, there might be some other people who will read it, too.” The book’s never been out of print. And it’s been around now for 34 years.
Woodward: You either initiated a trend or you caught the wave right at the beginning.
McCullough: I have no idea. I can’t explain it. People come up to me and say, “Why do you think your books are so popular?” Well, maybe, just maybe, because they’re written well enough that people want to read them. I hope so. But nobody is requiring anyone to read the books that are sold in bookstores –– as opposed to textbooks. And there are many things that your reader can be doing besides reading your book. Any writer for whom writing is his or her life’s work knows that.
Writing is something you have to learn. Certainly there are people who have a great innate, native-born gift, but you have to learn to do this. I served an apprenticeship of 15 years because I knew I had so much to learn about writing. I wanted to be a writer when I came out of college, wanted it more than anything. But I knew I wasn’t good enough yet. And I worked with very good people, very good editors and fellow writers, and that’s important for young people who aspire to write to understand. You learn to do it by doing it. That’s why it’s so important we never, ever drop art, music, literature, theatre from our school system. You can’t learn to play the piano except by playing the piano. You can’t learn to write except by writing. You can’t learn how to do research, dig into archives, work with original primary source material, without doing it. And the learning never stops, thank God.
I am often asked how much time I spend doing research and how much time I spend writing. Those are perfectly good questions, and I try to answer them. But nobody ever asks how much of my time I spend thinking. And that’s what really matters. It’s not just finding the material, doing the research, copying the wonderful quotes in entries in old diaries and stuff — it’s thinking about what you’ve found. And I try to tell students that that’s what writing is; it’s thinking. And to write clearly, to write well, is to think clearly. And that’s why it’s so hard. And the old idea of working your thoughts out on paper is a very valuable way of clarifying your thoughts. Because through writing, you often come to have an understanding or an idea that you never would have had if you hadn’t forced yourself to write about it. We’ve all had that experience.
The fact that we don’t write letters today, that we don’t keep diaries anymore, is going to pose a very serious, maybe insurmountable obstacle to future historians and biographers. But people today are losing out, too, because we’re not having that exercise of the mind that writing provides. We go out and do all kinds of calisthenics and run on treadmills and everything to exercise the body, but we forget that the mind is a part of the body, too, and it also needs exercising, which is what books and writing help to provide.
Woodward: Is that discipline you’re describing applicable to leadership? In your biographies, part of the joy of reading is watching leaders develop.
McCullough: I’ve written about all kinds of leaders: politicians,
military leaders, engineers, people in a great variety of fields. And
leaders come in all shapes and sizes, genders, colors, national origins,
all of that. There’s no one type. But there are many things
they have in common.
One of the best ways to take a reading of a leader is how did
he or she handle failure? Because leaders are always going to
have to handle failure, and stand up to that, and get back up
on their feet and not let it defeat them. George Washington,
in my most recent book , is a superb example of that.
Washington was a born leader.
No question. He wasn’t an orator;
he wasn’t a learned, thoughtful,
intellectual like Adams or Jefferson;
he wasn’t a military genius. He was
a leader. And he had many of the
most salient qualities of leadership,
most important of which was character,
When the Continental Congress
chose Washington to be commander
in chief of the Continental Army,
they didn’t pick him because of his
spectacular military record. He’d
served bravely, honorably in the
French and Indian War, but he’d
never commanded an army in battle in his life before he took
command of the Continental Army. But they knew him as a
member of the Congress. They knew the kind of man he was.
They knew they could count on him to tell the truth, to play by
the rules, and to never forget how the system works and that he
was not in charge — they were.
Do the times make the man or woman, or the reverse? Does a solid and settled character drive productive decisions and actions, or do the requirements thrust upon a leader to choose and to act form the character?
There are plenty of people who could — if the occasion demanded it, and if they were cast in the role that demanded it — rise to the occasion and perform superbly. Some who are thrust upon the stage do, and some don’t. I don’t agree, for example, with those who say that all our great presidents have been presidents in times of crisis. It’s not true. Certainly one of our very most successful, best — you could probably say greatest — presidents, was Theodore Roosevelt. There was no crisis during his presidency, none at all.
If you were to go by résumés, certainly Herbert Hoover would look about as likely a prospect for a great presidency as anybody, but he was wrong for the times. He was miscast in that period. John Adams looked himself in the mirror and wrote a wonderful letter. He wrote that he didn’t like the face he saw in the mirror. And he wrote, “I am but an ordinary man. The times alone have made me what I am.” Well, I don’t think he believed that for a minute; I think he was fishing. He wasn’t an ordinary man by any stretch of imagination. He was quite an extraordinary man. But had there been no war, had there been no revolution, would he have risen to the place that he filled? No, of course not.
One of the interesting things for me was when I was doing interviews with people who had been in the Truman and Roosevelt administrations, and I asked many of those who had been in the Roosevelt administration, “How did you feel when you woke up that day or heard the news that day that FDR was dead and Harry Truman was president? How’d you feel about that?” And almost without exception they said, “Oh, I felt good about it — because I knew the man.” I think that the contrast between Harry Truman and Franklin Roosevelt is about as strong a contrast of types as one could find. Yet, they both served superbly.
We had three very strong, and very different, presidents right in a row: FDR, Truman, and Eisenhower. Three great Americans. Without any question. But that doesn’t happen very often. As I try to remind some of the students that I work with, the exceptional presidents are the exception and not the rule. That’s why they’re called “exceptional.” The more I read about presidents and the presidency, the more I know of living presidents, the more I sympathize with the impossible task that they face. I’m much more inclined to give them more and more slack. It’s an impossible job. Nobody is of a caliber to fill it flawlessly. Nobody. And I think what we want most of all is what it says in the oath of office: someone to serve to the best of their ability.
I think that it’s terribly important who we elect to the office, but I think that maybe we put too much emphasis on the presidency. One reason, of course, is it’s simpler to take up the successes and failures and so forth of one man than to try and write about a whole Congress, for example. The lack of real scholarship, the lack of wonderful books about our legislative branch looms very large. But I’ve said this a lot for a long time, and it doesn’t seem to change much.
Woodward: Whether we’re talking about the founders, presidents,
or legislators, you say character is important. And it
certainly is important to what we are doing at Seattle Pacific:
trying to balance the education for competence in a particular
field with attention to the growth of character. Is this something
that you think ought to be done in education?
McCullough: Absolutely. Certainly by the time I got to college,
I began to run into the idea of everything being relative — relativism,
or whatever you want to call it. Things aren’t just black
and white; there are shades of gray and all that. Sure. Of course.
But some things are clearly valuable, clearly necessary, clearly
worthy — and we should be teaching that.
The oldest written constitution still in use in the world today
is the constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. And it contains a paragraph, which I quote in full in my biography
of John Adams, about education. He says — John Adams
wrote it — it shall be the duty of the government to provide
public education for everybody. And that students will learn to
cherish learning, cherish science, and the arts, and so forth. Then
he goes on to specify what the curriculum should be. And the
curriculum is everything. This is, after all, an 18th-century outlook.
Everything is important. Everything is interesting. And he
lists finance and agriculture, natural history, and so forth and so
on. Then he goes on beyond that and says but we shall teach
honesty and industry and hard work and loyalty and good
humor and generosity of spirit.
And people say today, “Should we be teaching values in our
schools?” Of course we should. One sees the appalling amoral
attitude of some of the leaders in our worlds of business and
finance today, and you wonder what kind of school did they
go to? What kind of parents brought them up? Of course we
should be teaching honesty. If we fall into the fantasy that everything
will be all right if we don’t, then we’re really in the soup.
And people say, “Well, is that what the founders had in mind?
To teach values?” Absolutely. You see, when they were talking
about life, liberty, and the pursuit of
happiness, what did they mean by “the
pursuit of happiness?” Well, I think it’s
very clear that what they’re talking
about was the enlargement of the
human experience through the life of
the spirit and the life of the mind. Education.
Washington says it again and
again. Franklin said it. Adams says it.
Woodward: And that was a public
matter, not only a private matter.
McCullough: Yes, indeed. One of the
things that I object to very much about
the way history is taught is that its
focus is almost exclusively on politics, the military, and social
issues. It leaves out art, music, philosophy, science, medicine,
finance, on and on. And if you leave out art, music, literature,
poetry, the theatre, you’re squeezing the heart out of it. We learn
with our hearts as well as our minds. I personally don’t think you
can learn anything so it sticks unless you feel it. It’s all well and
good to go and read the Encyclopedia Britannica entry or whatever
it is that’s on the Internet. That gives you all the information.
But it doesn’t make you feel anything. And that’s what I try
to do in what I write: make you feel what it was like to have been
Years ago, when I was an editor at American Heritage, I
worked with a great English historian, J.H. Plumb, Jack Plumb.
And he said what we need are more “heartwise” historians. And
I think that’s what he meant. It isn’t all statistics and cold analytical
judgment. It isn’t all a kind of hubris of the present where we
take a superior, caustic view of why certain people did certain
things. Put yourself in their shoes. Remember what they didn’t
know. Remember what they had to deal with in the everyday
reality of their time. All of that. Empathy, I think, is the quality
that historians ought to have to build up in order to qualify as
historians, the way you would build up certain muscles to play
a given sport. Empathy.
Woodward: What historical book hasn’t been written yet —
in the Revolutionary War period or another — that needs to be,
whether you do it or someone else?
McCullough: Oh, all kinds of things. I mean, the whole field of
American history is filled with subjects and people who need to
be written about. Either they’ve never been written about, or
they haven’t been written about for so long that it’s high time for
another book. What amazes me is not how much has been written,
but how much has still to be written. The 18th century
alone is just filled with possibilities. I’m extremely interested in
the 17th century, too. Many Americans don’t know much about
it at all, but they should.
I try to convey to people, particularly students, that if you
think about it, nothing ever happens in the past; it happens in
the present. But it’s somebody else’s present, not ours. These
people we’ve been talking about —
Washington, Adams, Jefferson — they
didn’t walk around saying, “Isn’t this
fascinating, living in the past? Aren’t
we picturesque in our funny clothes?”
Woodward: Although it strikes me —
and this certainly was John Adams’
perspective — that they had a sense,
which maybe today’s people do not,
about how important what they were
doing was for posterity.
McCullough: That’s because they had
a sense of history. A sense of history
not only keeps you aware that other
people preceded you and did a lot that you are benefiting from
and can learn from, but that you are part of history and some day
you will be judged by what you do. I think one of the great lessons
of the life of John Adams is that here was a man who never
failed to answer the call of his country to serve his country. Never.
And he did so very often to the detriment of his income, to his
professional career as a lawyer, to his pleasure, and to the comfort
of his family.
It’s very natural to think of history as something that’s behind
you; it’s done for; it’s back there. But you might also, from time
to time, think of it as before you, as if you’re going down a trail
that others have gone down before you and left marks for you
to pay heed to and to inspire you or to give you backbone when
times are tough for you. You could draw strength from their
example. And not just the people whose names are household
words — or should be household words. They could be all kinds
of people. They could be somebody who was anonymous in
their own time but who is a symbol of faith or courage or persistent
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