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Reading McCullough

Written by Jonathan Ammons

September 9, 2022

Any views, thoughts, or opinions expressed by the author are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or any other organization or corporation with which he might be affiliated.  

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“There can be no doubt that the education of the people in the United States contributes powerfully to the perpetuation of the democratic republic.”

—Alexis de Tocqueville—

I owe a great debt to the late American historian David McCullough, whose passing last month leaves both a rich legacy in the field of American narrative history writing and a distinct sense of loss. I was 12 when I first encountered a book by McCullough. It was Truman, his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of the 33rd president of the United States, and it was sitting on a side table next to my grandfather’s reading chair. Something about the book captivated me.

Here was a massive tome of a book – 1,120 pages! – that someone whom I admired was reading for fun. And it wasn’t fiction. I leafed through the book, reading snippets throughout, until I felt I ought to read it for myself and discover why someone would willingly tackle an eleven-hundred-page work of nonfiction. When my family and I returned home from our visit, I promptly went to our small town’s public library and discovered a copy of the book on its shelves.

Though it sounds trite, embarking on the reading of this book was life-altering. Though I had always enjoyed history, it opened my eyes to looking at the past through the lens of the lives of great men and women who have gone before. “We are all part of a larger stream of events, past, present, and future,” McCullough said. “We are all the beneficiaries of those who went before us – who built the cathedrals, who braved the unknown, who gave of their time and service, and who kept faith in the possibilities of the mind and the human spirit.”[i]

Though President Harry Truman died years before I was born, thanks to David McCullough I have learned from Truman’s lived experiences. I agonized with him over the decision to drop the bomb, exulted with him at his narrow electoral victory over Thomas Dewey in 1948, and trembled under the burden of leading the free world out of the unspeakable horrors of the Second World War. Reading Truman expanded and enlarged my own figurative life experiences, imparting wisdom and knowledge gleaned through Truman’s actual life experiences. Such is the power of history, conjuring courage and forging character from the lives of others to create something new and wonderful in our own.

Reading Truman also showed me that all great men and women begin as ordinary children and often live for years as ordinary adults until an opportunity or circumstance arises and demands they rise to their full potential. Such was undoubtedly true of individuals like Benjamin Franklin and Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. This is another of the great benefits of reading history. It ignites our own ambition, fills us with hope, and grants us courage to do great things – things we may never have thought we were capable of doing.

History has shown us that one of American democracy’s greatest strengths is its representative nature, wherein candidates are chosen from among the people, serve for a short period, and then must receive again the people’s approval to continue leading. It is also one of American democracy’s greatest liabilities. It is a liability, in one sense, because human nature is fallible. James Madison addressed this issue directly in the Federalist Papers:

Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.[ii]

Nearly three quarters of a century later, newly elected president Abraham Lincoln lamented the very real dangers stemming from the weakness of human nature as he sought to prevent the looming threat of civil war:

We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.[iii]

One hundred thirty-one years after Lincoln’s plea, McCullough spoke this truth once more. “History reminds us that nothing counterfeit has any staying power … [and] that character counts … above all,” McCullough wrote.[iv]

America’s representative system is a liability not only because of the fallibility of human nature, but also because it disincentivizes the sort of selfless, long-term planning and policymaking upon which continued American democratic flourishing depends. The global ambitions of democracy’s foremost adversaries are not being pursued by individuals who are looking two or four years into the future. Rather, they benefit from the luxury of planning half a century or more into the future.

What, then, are we to do? “A sense of history is an antidote to self-pity and self-importance, of which there is too much in our time,” McCullough writes. “To a large degree, history is a lesson in proportions.”[v] Maintaining a firm link to America’s present and past will empower us to stride confidently into an American future that is grounded in the lessons learned from the hard-won sacrifices of those who’ve gone before. Indeed, the best way to pay the debt we owe the past is to conduct our lives so that the lessons of their lives do not go unlearned.

 

[i] McCullough, “The Lessons of History,” The American Spirit, 57.

[ii] James Madison, “The Federalist No. 51,” Madison: Writings, 295.

[iii] Abraham Lincoln, “First Inaugural Address,” Lincoln: Speeches and Writings 1859-1865, 224.

[iv] McCullough, 58.

[v] Ibid., 57.

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