by Doug Ward

NOVEMBER 2009-In my undergraduate American history class, I was required to write a book report on some book related to the history of the United States since the Civil War. It was early 1978, and the future administration of the Panama Canal was a much-debated subject at the time. A book about the construction of the canal had recently been published: David McCullough's The Path between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914 (Simon and Schuster, 1977). I had heard good things about this book, so it seemed to be an obvious choice for the assignment.


The book lived up to my expectations. McCullough's account of the quest to build the canal and the accompanying battle against yellow fever was carefully researched and totally absorbing.  Working with such a fine book, it was not hard to earn an A on my report.


David McCullough has been earning top marks for his books throughout his writing career.  Later in 1978, The Path between the Seas won a National Book Award.  His next book, a biography of

the young Theodore Roosevelt called Mornings on Horseback, won a second one.  Over the years since, his major biographies of Presidents Harry Truman and John Adams have been awarded Pulitzer Prizes.  Today he is one of America's most beloved historians.


On November 9, 2009, McCullough visited Miami University and gave a lecture entitled "Leadership and the History You Don't Know." Anticipating that his remarks would be worthwhile, I made a point of attending.


Lessons of History

In a voice familiar to anyone who has watched the documentaries of Ken Burns or the television series The American Experience, McCullough addressed a large audience at Millett Hall, the university basketball arena. He began his lecture by explaining that his task as a historian is to take a sequence of events and find out the story behind them. In searching for that story, he said, he tries to learn as much as he can about the characters, to discover who they really are.


McCullough admitted that when he begins a book project, he doesn't know what the main message of the book will be. The theme emerges as his research progresses. For example, with his first book, The Johnstown Flood, the theme turned out to be that people in positions of responsibility do not always behave responsibly. We assume that those in charge know what they are doing, but that is not always the case.


He stated that there are "manifold lessons of history," and he highlighted several during the course of his lecture. One such lesson is the fact that there is no such thing as a "self-made man." We have all been shaped by a number of influences, including parents, teachers, friends, rivals, writers and literature. To a great extent, he said, we are what we read.


McCullough added that "leaders are readers" who often draw strength from what they read. Abraham Lincoln, he said, was deeply influenced by his favorite poem, Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard." Theodore Roosevelt was moved by the poems of Edwin Arlington Robinson.


A second lesson of history listed by McCullough is that "there is no simpler time." Today we cope with accelerating technological advances unknown to past generations. Our ancestors, on the other hand, faced their own challenges-for instance, epidemics of diseases like smallpox and cholera. McCullough mentioned one example from his current project, a book about Americans in Paris: In 1832, a cholera epidemic killed eighteen thousand in Paris.


Infant mortality was another challenge. It used to be typical for families to lose one or more children in infancy. But the fact that the death of infants was commonplace did not make the loss of a baby an easy thing to handle. This was a tremendous emotional burden for previous generations.


A third lesson of history, McCullough noted, is that there is no such thing as the "foreseeable future." We view history with the benefit of hindsight, but our ancestors lived in an uncertain present, just as we do. We should keep this in mind when we consider their actions.


The Founders and History

Although we cannot foresee the future, McCullough said, we are free to travel to the past, which is available to all of us. He observed that it is in our nature to be curious about days gone by. The study of history is part of the enjoyment of living, like the appreciation of great art and music.


To illustrate the benefits of learning about history, he pointed to America's Founding Fathers. In the 1770s there were only about 2.5 million people in the American colonies, including half a million slaves. But that remarkable generation possessed great genius and leadership ability. McCullough emphasized that the Founders were readers of history. They were guided by the classics, reading ancient Greek and Roman history either in the original languages or in translation. They also read the works of Samuel Johnson, Daniel Defoe, Alexander Pope, William Shakespeare, and Miguel Cervantes.


In researching the lives of American leaders, McCullough has made a point of reading what they read.1 He related that one very popular quotation among the Founders, cited by John Adams and others, is a line from Pope's Essay on Man: "Act well your part: there all the honour lies." The Founders, he said, were quite conscious that they were actors on the stage of history. They knew they would be judged by history, and they were very concerned about how they would measure up.


In the estimation of McCullough and many others, George Washington was the greatest of the Founders. McCullough described one episode that illustrated Washington's leadership skill and sense of history. On December 31, 1776, the beleaguered soldiers of the Continental Army had finished their term of enlistment and were free to go home. At that point, they had every reason to leave. Their uniforms were inadequate, and they had not been paid. When Washington urged them to stay, offering ten dollars to each man who would sign up for six more months, no one stepped forward to accept the offer. Washington, however, did not give up. Perhaps inspired by a famous scene from Shakespeare's Henry V-Henry's impassioned speech before the Battle of Agincourt-the American commander told his men that this was their greatest opportunity to be remembered by future generations. Moved by Washington's words, the Continental Army agreed to stay for one more month.


McCullough believes that John Adams is the "most underrated" of the Founding Fathers. He mentioned one example that testifies to Adams's strength of character. On January 20, 1801, Adams was at the end of his term of office as President. He had lost in the election of 1800, and he had also recently lost a son. It was one of the low points of his life. But when a fire erupted in the building that housed the Treasury Department, he joined the bucket brigade that assembled to put out the fire. Adams was a good neighbor, a good citizen who wanted to set an example for others.


More Lessons

Another lesson of history, McCullough noted, is that appearances can often be important. George Washington, who believed that a leader should look like a leader, brought his tailor with him when he took command of the Continental Army.


On the other hand, appearances are not always so important. Abraham Lincoln, believed by many to be our greatest President of all, did not look impressive, but it didn't matter in his case. His humility and depth of soul and his capacity to move people with language were exactly the qualities needed at a critical time.


McCullough asserted that all the great U.S. Presidents, not just the Founders, have been keen students of history. In this regard Presidents with Ivy League backgrounds, like Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, readily come to mind. McCullough also singled out Harry S. Truman, who, though not college educated, never stopped reading. McCullough observed that Truman was someone who knew who he was, a well-grounded individual of strong character.


In reference to the hard economic times of 2009, McCullough stated that he is a long-range optimist. He said that we are problem solvers and generally emerge from hard times stronger for having endured them.


McCullough observed that great things can come out of bad times, and from surprising sources. As an example he mentioned the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, the subject of his book The Great Bridge. The bridge, he said, arose out of a rotten era of corruption in New York City, but it was a great achievement of engineering and a symbol of affirmation.


Hammering home his message, he urged his audience to learn as much as possible about history. History, he said, gives us strength and is a great antidote to the "hubris of the present." He predicted that when we read accounts of previous generations, we will be amazed at what they accomplished.


1McCullough explained that in letters from two hundred years ago, there are no quotation marks. As a result, it can be easy to mistake a literary allusion in a letter for the writer's own thought if one is not familiar with the literature of the writer's time.

Issue 26


File translated from TEX by TTH, version 3.66.
On 21 Nov 2009, 20:27.