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The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For Hardcover – April 18, 2017
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"This book is a gift. . . . It's a powerful argument for keeping history alive." (Michael Schaub NPR)
“[McCullough] is one of the great historical storytellers of his generation. . . . Fundamentally Mr. McCullough loves the American story and its most illustrious characters.” (Robert W. Merry The Wall Street Journal)
“A national treasure, McCullough performs a national service in The American Spirit. Insightful and inspirational, it summons a vexed and divided nation to remember - and cherish - our unifying ideas and ideals.” (Jay Strafford Richmond Times Dispatch)
"McCullough's passion for history and his profound belief in America, or at least his vision of America . . . is both encompassing and deeply hopeful. . . .Clio, the muse of history, smiles and nods her head on every page." (Kirkus Reviews)
“McCullough perfectly embodies the part of remember-in-chief. . . . Happily, the same qualities that inform McCullough’s histories and biographies also shape his speeches. He is, whether at his desk or a lectern, a consummate storyteller.”
(Danny Heitman Christian Science Monitor)
“Very few among us possess the encompassing and informed perspective on America’s past and present that historian and best-selling author McCullough has gained over decades of research. . . . McCullough’s legions of fans will flock to this edifying collection.” (Booklist)
“A carefully crafted, well-reasoned, heartfelt testament to what this nation can be — past, present, and we must believe — future.”
(Barbara Hall The Providence Journal)
“Acclaimed historian David McCullough’s The American Spirit is as inspirational as it is brilliant, as simple as it is sophisticated. It will at the same time make you laugh and give rise to tears of despair. . . . This is not patriotic boilerplate. McCullough is a historian and a realist. He sees his nation with all its warts, beginning with its indelible birthmark of slavery and continuing through to today’s government dysfunction and political polarization. Yet he remains confident and upbeat.” (Edward Cuddihy Buffalo News)
"This collection captures McCullough's passion and vigor throughout. . . . [His] enthusiasm for history is infectious." (Andrew Carroll The Los Angeles Review of Books)
About the Author
David McCullough has twice received the Pulitzer Prize, for Truman and John Adams, and twice received the National Book Award, for The Path Between the Seas and Mornings on Horseback. His other acclaimed books include The Johnstown Flood, The Great Bridge, Brave Companions, 1776, The Greater Journey, and The Wright Brothers. He is the recipient of numerous honors and awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award. Visit DavidMcCullough.com.
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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".
McCullough – editor, teacher, lecturer, television host – is the author of numerous works of history and biography, including “The Path Between the Seas” (1978); “Mornings on Horseback” (1982); “The Johnstown Flood” (1987); “Brave Companions: Portraits in History” (1992);” Truman” (1993); “John Adams” (2002); “1776” (2005); and “The Wright Brothers” (2015); among several others. He’s won two National Book Awards, two Pulitzer Prizes, and two Francis Parkman Awards.
In other words, he’s an eminence in American historical letters.
He gives speeches, and when he does, it’s worthwhile to listen and ponder. He’s assembled 15 of those speeches, stretching from 1989 to 2016, in “The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For.” The volume is a gem of understanding, and of American history, the words and insights spoken by one of our pre-eminent American historians.
He’s a master of the telling detail, such as that of Simon Willard’s clock, which sits within a statue in Congress and has been there since 1837. “Its inner workings ticked off the minutes and hours through debate on the Gag Rule, the annexation of Texas, the Mexican War, tariffs, postal service, the establishment of the Naval Academy, statehood for Arkansas, Michigan, Wisconsin, matters related to immigration, the Gold Rush, Statehood for California, the fateful Kansas-Nebraska Act, and the final hours of John Quincy Adams,” he writes. These were events and actions not only important for the United States but indeed the world.
And we read the story of John Quincy Adams, who returned as a congressman from Massachusetts after he served as our 6th President. Adams, the educated and experienced son of John Adams, would die in Congress, stricken while in the House of Representatives and carried to the speaker’s office, where he died two days later. Henry Clay held his hand as he died.
In these speeches, McCullough talks of buildings and commemorations, historical figures known and not-so-known, and events that we’ve heard so often they seem trite but in his hands become living things.
One of the common themes is education – why it’s important and why it needs to be a lifelong pursuit; it’s not a monopoly of the institutional classroom. Here his speeches show a shift, however. From 2005 on, McCullough begins to note what he sees happening in the classroom – that we are not teaching American history as it has been taught or even at all. And citizens, and the country, are both poorer for it.
During a time like now, when divisiveness, rage, and outrage are the political order (or disorder) of the day, “The American Spirit” is a potent reminder of what we've had, what we’re risking, and what we might need to do to recover.