THE AMERICAN SPIRIT: Who We Are and What We Stand For, by David McCullough. Simon & Schuster, 176 pp., $25.
As a historian, David McCullough holds a unique place in American culture.
Among his many books are ones on the Johnstown Flood, the Brooklyn Bridge and the Panama Canal, as well as biographies of Harry Truman and John Adams, both of which won Pulitzer Prizes before being adapted for television by HBO. But he has also hosted “American Experience” on TV and narrated the film “Seabiscuit.” His evocative narration of Ken Burns’ “The Civil War” was one reason the 1990 documentary, seen by 40 million viewers, became the most-watched show ever broadcast on PBS.
Since McCullough is known for his oratory as well as his writing, it makes sense that his publisher would release a volume of speeches selected from the many he has delivered over the past 25 years. Besides numerous commencement addresses, he has made speeches on topics ranging from the White House to the legacy of John F. Kennedy. Titled “The American Spirit,” the volume aspires to describe “who we are and what we stand for . . . in such troubled, uncertain times.”
McCullough often looks to past leaders and their accomplishments. John Adams, the nation’s second president, was a visionary who “nominated George Washington to be commander-in-chief of the Continental Army . . . [who] insisted that Jefferson be the one to write the Declaration of Independence . . . [and] who made John Marshall chief justice of the Supreme Court.”
Theodore Roosevelt was “the first president to go down in a submarine, the first to go up in an airplane, the first to call it the White House, officially.” But because “he saw himself a world leader,” he built the Panama Canal and helped settle the Russo-Japanese War. He established five national parks. “He read books, he wrote books,” McCullough observes. “He wrote his own messages to Congress.”
As for Kennedy, McCullough argues that his legacy is based on his oratorical skills. “His inaugural address” — featuring the famous admonition “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” — “didn’t just thrill the country then, it still does. The language transcends time.”
McCullough also examines our national institutions. In a talk celebrating the U.S. Capitol — “this magnificent structure [that] has been called ‘the temple of liberty’ ” — he described the place as containing “an abundance of story such as to be found in no other structure in our country.” The story encompasses Sen. Margaret Chase Smith challenging the anti-Communist antics of Sen. Joseph McCarthy and former president John Quincy Adams returning “as a mere freshman congressman . . . something no president had ever done.”
In an address to a joint session of Congress, a rare honor afforded a private citizen, McCullough considered the legislative body itself: “The stage is constantly crowded. The talk and the rumpus go on and on. And there is such a lot of humbug and so much that has been so overwhelmingly boring.” Still, Congress has worked to end child labor, build railroads, construct a highway system, guarantee civil rights, and more.
One of McCullough’s most memorable speeches was delivered on Independence Day 1994 at a naturalization ceremony at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home in Virginia. To the 62 people from 24 countries who were becoming U.S. citizens that day, McCullough described how Jefferson — “inconsistent, contradictory, human” — “sat through sweltering Philadelphia summer days, working at a portable writing box of his own design, [to write an] expression of the American mind” — the Declaration of Independence. Then McCullough spoke directly to his new fellow citizens, saying, “The nation is richer for you.”
McCullough may look back in time, but he also makes the seemingly contradictory point that “there’s no such thing as the past. Adams, Jefferson, George Washington, they didn’t walk about saying, ‘Isn’t this fascinating, living in the past? Aren’t we picturesque?’ It was the present, their present.” And so: “We think we live in difficult uncertain times. . . . We think our leaders face difficult decisions. But so it has nearly always been.”
America can endure upheavals — a civil war, world wars, 9/11 — because it remains “the most generous nation in the world, with the greatest freedoms of any nation in the world, of any nation in all time.” And the American spirit? “[Our] source of strength is our story, our history . . . how we got to be where we are, and all we have been through, what we have achieved.”