Here’s Why Beloved Historian David McCullough Was A National Treasure


He was our most beloved national historian, but David McCullough minced no words for those who remain willfully ignorant of our past while clutching to a chic form of civic cynicism. 

For the next few days, every major print and online publication will give an account of David McCullough’s extensive literary work, will note he won two National Books Awards, two Pulitzer Prizes, and received the highest civilian award in the land, the prestigious Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Of course, critics will carp by noting he only wrote “popular” histories, rarely made original contributions to his subject matter, and utilized a lively narrative style in order to maximize the appeal of his work to ordinary readers. There is a word for such carping, of course: jealousy.

McCullough had too many gifts to name, but perhaps his most noble attribute as a popular historian was his capacity to write eloquently without sacrificing readability. His prose resonated across a broad spectrum of the reading public—from teenagers just awakening to the magic of history to history buffs who wanted to hear a familiar story told in the august style of McCullough.

He could take any historical subject or time period and make it hum with significance. He humanized Harry Truman and helped to burnish the reputation of John Adams as a founder worthy of equal acclaim in the pantheon of America’s Founding Fathers. Sometimes he wrote about a single year, as in 1776. Sometimes he told the story behind a public works project such as The Great Bridge, the story of the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge.

In every project, he exuded an almost superhuman capacity to educate his readers without entering the realm of the banal. He always seemed to know which anecdotes, sidetracks, or facts would enrich the broader story he was telling, an under appreciated talent many long-winded and dry historians never mastered and would do anything to possess. It could certainly be argued that nobody did more to tell the story of America in the past three decades than David McCullough.  

But the most important thing David McCullough ever articulated wasn’t in the form of writing; it was a speech he delivered to Hillsdale College long before the world had ever heard of the 1619 Project or Critical Race Theory. His speech, entitled “Knowing History and Knowing Who We Are,” should be required reading for every high school senior in America. The speech brims with insight and wisdom.

The speech’s over-arching insight is that “nothing ever had to happen the way it happened.” For those of us who try to teach history to young Americans, there is a sophomoric tendency in young people—and later in their historicist-spouting professors—to assume the past is not only prologue, but predestined, ordained by fate or framed for a future in which individual action and agency play no role.

When history is seen as a predestined sequence instead of a messy and protean scramble for specific ideals, it necessarily robs our historic heroes of their virtues. In such a cynical world-view, Washington’s unimpeachable character during the Revolutionary War, Constitutional Convention, and first presidency weren’t decisive for the nation. Adams’s oratorical brilliance during the Second Continental Congress wasn’t really important in making the case for independence. Jefferson’s apotheosis of the American Mind in the Declaration of Independence was nice but not necessary.

McCullough’s books radiate with the historical rhythm of eternal contingency—no human being, much less civilization–can ever be entirely unmoored from the ties of the past. It is one of the great frustrations of our particular time in history that young Americans enjoy a standard of political freedom and justice, a level of commercial opportunity and economic wealth, while living in the most tolerant, pluralistic, egalitarian culture in the history of the planet, and yet somehow have a smug disgust with the men and women of the past who bequeathed such treasures to them.

In his speech to Hillsdale, McCullough gives no quarter to such faux sophistication:

The laws we live by, the freedoms we enjoy, the institutions that we take for granted—as we should never take for granted—are all the work of other people who went before us. And to be indifferent to that isn’t just to be ignorant, it’s to be rude. And ingratitude is a shabby failing. How can we not want to know about the people who have made it possible for us to live as we live, to have the freedoms we have, to be citizens of this greatest of countries in all time? It’s not just a birthright, it is something that others struggled for, strived for, often suffered for, often were defeated for and died for, for us, for the next generation.”

“Ignorant.” “Rude.” “Ingratitude.” “A Shabby failing.” This is what students call a “truth bomb.”

If I were the Secretary of Education, I would find the funding to design a poster featuring this quote and disseminate it to every social studies classroom in America. I would have the students memorize it. I would hope that such an insight immunizes our children from the petty seductions of Howard Zinn and Nikole Hannah-Jones who peddle not just false history, but a vision of America intended to provoke youthful disdain and disgust.

I would hope to rededicate ourselves to the proposition to which McCullough’s work adhered:  that studying history leads to the enrichment of the soul and the enlargement of public inspiration.

Jeremy S. Adams is the author of the Amazon best-selling book Hollowed Out: A Warning About America’s Next Generation, now available in paperback. He has taught American civics for 24 years in Bakersfield, California and was the 2014 California Teacher of the Year (DAR). You can follow him on Twitter @JeremyAdams6.

The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire. 

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