The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For, David McCullough

David McCullough is an important figure in the occupational field of history. He is at the forefront of his craft as a historian, and his biographies and histories are listed among the greatest of their kind. He is the unparalleled (except perhaps my personal favorite, Walter Issacson) king of narrative history and his fame stretches into the imagination of both celebrity and layman, Congress-person and concerned citizen.

This book is a collection of essays that Mr. McCullough gave throughout his time as a prodigious historian. They range from commemorations (of the assassination of J.F.K in Daley Plaza to the bicentennial of the completion of the White House) to graduations at various colleges and universities. The common theme behind all of these speeches is the foundational importance of history in the lives of Americans. More than once he says, “History is philosophy taught with examples.” To Mr. McCullough, history binds us together as Americans. He says, “How can we know who we are and where we are headed if we don’t know where we have come from? How can we call ourselves patriots if we know little of our country’s past?” (McCullough, 12).

History, therefore, means a great deal to him. And as a history major, I sympathize with much of what he says. While I disagree on a few points (for example, he says, “Samuel Eliot Morison said we ought to read history because it will help us to behave better. It does.” [McCullough, 114]. I’m not sure it always does), for the most part I emphatically agree. He laments at times the ignorance of normal Americans (particularly for being historically illiterate), but also lifts up the ingenuity and creativity, even the goodness, of those same people. His critiques are most often well earned, particularly in the area of history.

He also includes many examples of his previous works. When speaking of the Marquis de Lafayette, for example, he cites his voluminous knowledge obviously gained from writing “The Greater Journey“; his extensive knowledge on the Declaration of Independence and those who signed it from “1776“; and much more about John Adams (which I haven’t read yet), who was the subject of his masterful biography. These tidbits are almost like a brief synopsis of his entire catalogue of works, broken down into a bite sized recollection that almost beg you to read his longer books (which I highly recommend anyways).

I’ll close with this: as a lover of history, I share the pain of McCullough that our history is being poorly received. History should be exciting because it’s not facts and dates (although that is a part of it), it’s a narrative. Humans cling to stories; and in turn, stories are history. He says,

There’s no great secret to teaching history or to making history interesting. Barbara Tuchman said it in two words, “Tell stories.” That’s what history is: story. And what’s a story? E. M. Forster gave a wonderful definition to it: If I say to you 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.

And that is one of the most profound definitions of history I have ever read. Bravo to Mr. McCullough, and pick up this book.

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