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History as a guide to America's present and future
Reviewed in the United States on April 19, 2017
This book is a short collection of speeches by David McCullough, one of America's foremost historians. The speeches span about twenty-five years and were delivered in a variety of locations and to mark a variety of occasions. Most of them are college commencement addresses - in Boston, Ohio, Missouri and Pittsburgh - and a few mark the anniversary of important monuments (the White House) or events (the Kennedy assassination).
Some of the speeches are inspiring, some of them are informative, and many are both. McCullough's thrust in all of them is to stress the importance of history as a guide to American character and values. He fears that many Americans, and young Americans in particular, are ignorant of the kind of history that can enrich and guide their views of the present and future; his fears are realized by a meeting with a bright young college student who did not know that the original thirteen states were all on the East Coast. He is convinced that not only can history inform people's understanding of contemporary events, but that it can remind people of the values and men and women that made this country what it is. In an interview, McCullough mentioned that he put together this collection specifically for these politically troubled times. At the very least they should reassure people that their concerns and fears have been felt - and overcome - by many others in the past.
In most of his speeches McCullough focuses on one or more great Americans. He is not bashful about taking this 'Great Man' view of history, since many of the characters he picks exemplify well the essential qualities of this country. He recognizes their flaws, but also sees their greatness. Famous Americans like John and Abigail Adams, Thomas Jefferson and JFK make regular appearances, but so do less famous but still important ones like Benjamin Rush, Simon Willard, James Sumner and Margaret Chase Smith. In speeches intended to commemorate buildings, McCullough also lovingly describes the rich history of monuments like the White House and Capitol Hill and cities like Pittsburgh and Boston.
Throughout the book, McCullough emphasizes many of the qualities that exemplified this country's history: "the fundamental decency, the tolerance and insistence on truth and the good-heartedness of the American people". Relationships with France and other countries played a critical role, and so did the hard work of immigrants. There is also bravery here, exemplified by the Founding Fathers' decision to defy the King of England under threat of execution, by abolitionists' denunciation of slavery and by the ceaseless optimism of scores of politicians and common Americans who wanted to change the direction of this country for the better. There was Margaret Smith who stood up against Joseph McCarthy and said that she did not want "to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the four horsemen of calumny - fear, ignorance, bigotry and smear". There was physician Benjamin Rush who emphasized "candor, gentleness, and a disposition to speak with civility and to listen with attention to everybody". And there was Adams who famously said that "facts are stubborn things". All lessons for the present and the future.
If there is one common theme that emerges most prominently from all the speeches, it is an emphasis on education and an appreciation of history. McCullough tells us how many of the most important Founding Fathers and presidents put learning and books front and center, not just in their own evolution but in their vision for America. Jefferson once said to Adams that he could not live without books, and Adams himself told his son John Quincy that with a poet in his pocket he will never feel alone. McCullough talks about Carpenter's Hall in Philadelphia where Benjamin Franklin established the Library Company that evolved into the country's first public library. As he describes it, the biographies of many famous people tell us that learning is not elitist, it is as American as apple pie. It is what turned this country into a beacon of democracy, science and finance. And for learning it is critical to read: "Read for pleasure. Read to enlarge your lives. Read history, read biography, learn from the lives of others". The same goes for history. McCullough is deeply concerned that younger Americans are losing touch with their history. He urges parents to take their children to historic sites at a young age and Americans of all ages to read and ponder their history. He constantly refers to American presidents who loved to read history; Theodore Roosevelt and JFK even wrote history books themselves. Ultimately, he says, "the pleasure of history consists in an expansion of the experience of being alive". And if nothing else, history should inform Americans of strategies and insights from the past that they can adopt to solve contemporary problems.
The overriding message that comes across from many of these speeches is that of optimism, hope and a constant drive in the American people to reinvent themselves. It should be a potent message in today's times and should hopefully further encourage the study of this country's history. As McCullough puts it, "It is a story like no other, our greatest natural resource. It is about people, and they speak to us across the years".