Editor’s note: This excerpt from an address historian David McCullough gave at Hillsdale College was originally published on July 3, 2005. It is reprinted with permission by Imprimis, a publication of Hillsdale College.
Harry Truman once said the only new thing in the world is the history you don’t know. Lord Bolingbroke, who was an 18th-century philosopher, said that history is philosophy taught with examples. An old friend, the late Daniel Boorstin, who was a very good historian and Librarian of Congress, said that trying to plan for the future without a sense of the past is like trying to plant cut flowers. We’re raising a lot of cut flowers and trying to plant them, and that’s much of what I want to talk about.
The task of teaching and writing history is infinitely complex and infinitely seductive and rewarding. And it seems to me that one of the truths about history that needs to be portrayed — needs to be made clear to a student or to a reader — is that nothing ever had to happen the way it happened. History could have gone off in any number of different directions in any number of different ways at any point along the way, just as your own life can. You never know. One thing leads to another. Nothing happens in a vacuum. Actions have consequences. These all sound self-evident. But they’re not self-evident — particularly to a young person trying to understand life. Nor was there ever anything like the past. Nobody lived in the past, if you stop to think about it. Jefferson, Adams, Washington — they didn’t walk around saying, “Isn’t this fascinating, living in the past?” They lived in the present just as we do. The difference was it was their present, not ours. And just as we don’t know how things are going to turn out for us, they didn’t, either.
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No self-made people
Nor is there any such creature as a self-made man or woman. We love that expression, we Americans. But everyone who’s ever lived has been affected, changed, shaped, helped, hindered by other people. We all know, in our own lives, who those people are who’ve opened a window, given us an idea, given us encouragement, given us a sense of direction, self-approval, self-worth, or who have straightened us out when we were on the wrong path. Most often they have been parents. Almost as often they have been teachers. Stop and think about those teachers who changed your life, maybe with one sentence, maybe with one lecture, maybe by just taking an interest in your struggle. Family, teachers, friends, rivals, competitors — they’ve all shaped us. And so too have people we’ve never met, never known, because they lived long before us. 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.
Those who wrote the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia that fateful summer of 1776 were not superhuman by any means. Every single one had his flaws, his failings, his weaknesses. Some of them ardently disliked others of them. Every one of them did things in his life he regretted. But the fact that they could rise to the occasion as they did, these imperfect human beings, and do what they did is also, of course, a testimony to their humanity.
The Greeks said that character is destiny, and the more I read and understand of history, the more convinced I am that they were right. You look at the great paintings by John Trumbull or Charles Willson Peale or Copley or Gilbert Stuart of those remarkable people who were present at the creation of our nation, the founders as we call them. Those aren’t just likenesses. They are delineations of character and were intended to be. And we need to understand them, and we need to understand that they knew that what they had created was no more perfect than they were. And that has been to our advantage.
Why the French failed at Panama
I have just returned from a cruise through the Panama Canal. I think often about why the French failed at Panama and why we succeeded. One of the reasons we succeeded is that we were gifted, we were attuned to adaptation, to doing what works, whereas they were trained to do everything in a certain way. We have a gift for improvisation. We improvise in jazz; we improvise in much of our architectural breakthroughs. Improvisation is one of our traits as a nation, as a people, because it was essential, it was necessary, because we were doing again and again and again what hadn’t been done before.
Keep in mind that when we were founded by those people in the late 18th century, none of them had had any prior experience in either revolutions or nation-making. They were, as we would say, winging it. And they were idealistic and they were young. We see their faces in the old paintings done later in their lives or looking at us from the money in our wallets, and we see the awkward teeth and the powdered hair, and we think of them as elder statesmen. But George Washington, when he took command of the Continental Army at Cambridge in 1775, was 43 years old, and he was the oldest of them. Jefferson was 33 when he wrote the Declaration of Independence. John Adams was 40. Benjamin Rush — one of the most interesting of them all and one of the founders of the antislavery movement in Philadelphia — was 30 years old when he signed the Declaration. They were young people. They were feeling their way, improvising, trying to do what would work. They had no money, no navy, no real army. There wasn’t a bank in the entire country. There wasn’t but one bridge between New York and Boston. It was a little country of 2.5 million people, 500,000 of whom were held in slavery, a little fringe of settlement along the East Coast. What a story! What a noble beginning! And think of this: Almost no nations in the world know when they were born. We know exactly when we began and why we began and who did it.
In the rotunda of the Capitol in Washington hangs John Trumbull’s great painting, “The Declaration of Independence, Fourth of July, 1776.” It’s been seen by more people than any other American painting. It’s our best-known scene from our past. And almost nothing about it is accurate. The Declaration of Independence wasn’t signed on July 4. They didn’t start to sign the Declaration until August 2, and only a part of the Congress was then present. They kept coming back in the months that followed from their distant states to take their turn signing the document. The chairs are wrong, the doors are in the wrong place, there were no heavy draperies at the windows, and the display of military flags and banners on the back wall is strictly a figment of Trumbull’s imagination.
Trumbull’s great painting
But what is accurate about it are the faces. Every single one of the 47 men in that painting is an identifiable, and thus accountable, individual. We know what they look like. We know who they were. And that’s what Trumbull wanted. He wanted us to know them and, by God, not to forget them. Because this momentous step wasn’t a paper being handed down by a potentate or a king or a czar, it was the decision of a Congress acting freely.
Samuel Eliot Morison said we ought to read history because it will help us to behave better. It does. And we ought to read history because it helps to break down the dividers among the disciplines of science, medicine, philosophy, art, music, whatever. It’s all part of the human story and ought to be seen as such. You can’t understand it unless you see it that way. You can’t understand the 18th century, for example, unless you understand the vocabulary of the 18th century. What did they mean by those words? They didn’t necessarily mean the same thing as we do. There’s a line in one of the letters written by John Adams where he’s telling his wife Abigail at home, “We can’t guarantee success in this war, but we can do something better. We can deserve it.” Think how different that is from the attitude today when all that matters is success, being No. 1, getting ahead, getting to the top. However you betray or gouge or claw or do whatever awful thing is immaterial if you get to the top.
That line in the Adams letter is saying that how the war turns out is in the hands of God. We can’t control that, but we can control how we behave. We can deserve success. When I read that line when I was doing the research on the book, it practically lifted me out of my chair. And then about three weeks later I was reading some correspondence written by George Washington and there was the same line.
I thought, wait a minute, what’s going on? And I thought, they’re quoting something. So, as we all often do, I got down good old Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, and I started going through the entries from the 18th century and bingo, there it was. It’s a line from the play “Cato.” They were quoting something that was in the language of the time. They were quoting scripture of a kind, a kind of secular creed if you will. And you can’t understand why they behaved as they did if you don’t understand that. You can’t understand why honor was so important to them and why they were truly ready to put their lives, their fortunes, their sacred honor on the line. Those weren’t just words.
I want to read to you a letter that John Quincy Adams received from his mother. Little John Adams was taken to Europe by his father when his father sailed out of Massachusetts in the midst of winter, in the midst of war, to serve our country in France. Nobody went to sea in the wintertime, on the North Atlantic, if it could possibly be avoided. And nobody did it trying to cut through the British barricade outside of Boston Harbor because the British ships were sitting out there waiting to capture somebody like John Adams and take him to London and to the Tower, where he would have been hanged as a traitor.
A perilous sea voyage
But they sent this little 10-year-old boy with his father, risking his life, his mother knowing that she wouldn’t see him for months, maybe years at best. Why? Because she and his father wanted John Quincy to be in association with Franklin and the great political philosophers of France, to learn to speak French, to travel in Europe, to be able to soak it all up. And they risked his life for that — for his education. We have no idea what people were willing to do for education in times past. It’s the one sustaining theme through our whole country — that the next generation will be better educated than we are.
It was a horrendous voyage. Everything that could have happened to go wrong, went wrong. And when the little boy came back, he said he didn’t ever want to go across the Atlantic again as long as he lived. And then his father was called back, and his mother said, you’re going back. And here is what she wrote to him. Now, keep in mind that this is being written to a little kid and listen to how different it is from how we talk to our children in our time. She’s talking as if to a grown-up. She’s talking to someone whom they want to bring along quickly because there’s work to do and survival is essential:
“These are the times in which genius would wish to live. It is not in the still calm of life or the repose of a pacific station that great characters are formed. The habits of a vigorous mind are formed in contending with difficulties. Great necessities call out great virtues. When a mind is raised and animated by scenes that engage the heart, then those qualities which would otherwise lay dormant wake into life and form the character of the hero and the statesman.”
Now, there are several interesting things going on in that letter. For all the times that she mentions the mind, in the last sentence she says, “When a mind is raised and animated by scenes that engage the heart, then those qualities which would otherwise lay dormant wake into life and form the character of the hero and the statesman.” In other words, the mind itself isn’t enough. You have to have the heart. Well, of course he went and the history of our country is different because of it. John Quincy Adams, in my view, was the most superbly educated and maybe the most brilliant human being who ever occupied the executive office.
A letter From Mother
Well after the war was over, Abigail went to Europe to be with her husband, particularly when he became our first minister to the Court of Saint James. And John Quincy came home from Europe to prepare for Harvard. And he had not been home in Massachusetts very long when Abigail received a letter from her sister saying that John Quincy was a very impressive young man — and of course everybody was quite astonished that he could speak French — but that, alas, he seemed a little overly enamored with himself and with his own opinions and that this was not going over very well in town. So Abigail sat down in a house that still stands on Grosvenor Square in London — it was our first embassy if you will, a little 18th-century house — and wrote a letter to John Quincy. And here’s what she said:
“If you are conscious to yourself that you possess more knowledge upon some subjects than others of your standing, reflect that you have had greater opportunities of seeing the world and obtaining knowledge of mankind than any of your contemporaries. That you have never wanted a book, but it has been supplied to you. That your whole time has been spent in the company of men of literature and science. How unpardonable would it have been in you to have turned out a blockhead.”
How unpardonable it would be for us — with all that we have been given, all the advantages we have, all the continuing opportunities we have to enhance and increase our love of learning — to turn out blockheads or to raise blockheads. What we do in education, what these wonderful teachers and administrators and college presidents and college and university trustees do is the best, most important work there is.
The Revolutionary War was as dark a time as we’ve ever been through. 1776, the year we so consistently and rightly celebrate every year, was one of the darkest times, if not the darkest time, in the history of the country. Many of us remember the first months of 1942 after Pearl Harbor when German submarines were sinking our oil tankers right off the coasts of Florida and New Jersey, in sight of the beaches, and there wasn’t a thing we could do about it. Our recruits were drilling with wooden rifles, we had no air force, half of our navy had been destroyed at Pearl Harbor, and there was nothing to say or guarantee that the Nazi machine could be defeated — nothing. Who was to know? I like to think of what Churchill said when he crossed the Atlantic after Pearl Harbor and gave a magnificent speech. He said we haven’t journeyed this far because we’re made of sugar candy. It’s as true today as it ever was.
David Gaub McCullough is an American author, narrator, popular historian and lecturer. He is a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award and a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.