Thursday, June 8, 2017

No. 221: David McCullough's New Book—A Sparkling Gem

Readers of this blog know David McCullough is one of my favorite historians. He has received, among many honors, two Pulitzer prizes, two National Book Awards, two Francis Parkman Prizes, a Presidential Medal of Freedom, and 54 honorary degrees.

I have read all ten of McCullough's books, and every one is a treasure. In chronological order of publication, they are: The Johnstown Flood (1968); The Great Bridge, about the building of the Brooklyn Bridge (1972); The Path Between the Seas, about the building of the Panama Canal (1977); Mornings on Horseback, about the young Theodore Roosevelt (1981); Brave Companions, about several prominent historical figures (1991); Truman (1992); John Adams (2001); 1776 (2005); The Greater Journey, about the American writers, poets, artists, sculptors, composers, and others who drew inspiration from the time they spent in Paris during the 19th century (2011); and The Wright Brothers (2015).

When I heard about McCullough's latest book, a sparkling 167-page gem, I rushed to get it for Memorial Day weekend reading. It is entitled The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For. It is a collection of 15 of his many addresses at historic events and at college commencements. In chronological order, they were at: a joint session of Congress (1989); the University of Pittsburgh (1994); Union College (1994); an Independence Day Naturalization Ceremony at Monticello (1994); Dickinson College (1998); the University of Massachusetts (1998); Dartmouth College (1999); the bicentennial of the White House (2000); a National Trust for Historic Preservation Conference (2001); Ohio University (2004); Hillsdale College (2005); a celebration of the 250th birthday of the Marquis de Lafayette (2007); Boston College (2008); the memorial service at Dealey Plaza in Dallas marking the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy (November 22, 2013); and the U.S. Capitol Historical Society (2016).

In the introduction to his new book, McCullough explained why he decided to publish it at this time. He mentioned his
hope that what I have had to say will help remind us, in this time of uncertainty and contention, of just who we are and what we stand for, of the high aspirations that inspired our founders, of our enduring values, and the importance of history as an aid to navigation in such troubled, uncertain times.
I was especially moved by McCullough's address at the bicentennial of the White House. He described how President John Adams, the first occupant, moved in on November 1, 1800. Early the next morning Adams wrote a memorable letter to his wife Abigail, who was at their home in Massachusetts. The letter adorns the inside front cover of the new book, and McCullough mentioned the letter on page 551 of his biography of Adams. President Franklin Roosevelt had two sentences of the letter carved into the wooden mantelpiece in the State Dining Room. When the White House was rebuilt, President Truman insisted that the inscription remain. President Kennedy had the inscription carved into the mantelpiece in marble.
I pray heaven to bestow the best of blessings on this house, and all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof.