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A historian of the people

Miles Smith | David McCullough wrote about an America he loved


David McCullough sits at the National Portrait Gallery, in Washington, D.C., in 2011. Associated Press/Photo by Jacquelyn Martin, file

A historian of the people
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Pulitzer-prize winning historian David McCullough died last week. He was a few weeks past his 89th birthday. In many ways, McCullough represented the last vestige of an older way of thinking about the United States. He claimed to be a historian of the people, and for McCullough those people were a relatively unified body of Americans who gloried in their flawed but nonetheless remarkable past. In an era of increased social and cultural Balkanization, McCullough’s works, his public speaking, and his presence pointed an imperfect people to aspire to the type of citizenship and nobility that Americans high and low could achieve.

As a biographer, McCullough rarely chose conventional subjects. His two Pulitzer-winning biographies narrated the lives of presidents who fell into relative obscurity and who ended their political careers as unpopular shadows of the predecessors. Harry Truman and John Adams never enjoyed the type of adulation their predecessors and successors achieved. Truman was not the political giant that Franklin Roosevelt was, nor did he preside over expansive prosperity as Eisenhower did. Adams followed Washington; the latter in Adams’s own lifetime was transformed into a near-demigod. The cosmopolitan and brilliant Jefferson followed the portly and irascible Adams. But Truman and Adams both led their country at critical moments, and McCullough’s books showed how these two deeply flawed but nevertheless great men proved to be leaders the United States needed in consequential moments.

Nature, and especially the seeming unquenchable American desire to conquer nature fascinated McCullough. His books on the creation of the Panama Canal, the Wright Brothers, the Brooklyn Bridge, Theodore Roosevelt’s time in the Dakota Badlands, and the settlement of the Ohio River Valley showed how Americans rose to the challenge when confronted by natural obstacles to the progress of civilization.

McCullough’s appreciation of civilization, and particularly American civilization, is what made him so popular in his own era, and perhaps what made him less popular with the present generation of academic historians. His last book, focusing on the late 18th-century settlement of Ohio, was criticized by “a new generation of historians, scholars and activists” who “took to social media to accuse McCullough of romanticizing white settlement and downplaying the pain inflicted on Native Americans.” This is now typical fare among historians, who embody a zealous binary amid their ideological venting. The particular book, The Pioneers, did nothing of the sort.

What made McCullough so different from his critics is that he maintained affection and charity towards the United States and its peoples despite its flawed history. McCullough had the courage to admire American civilization and its virtues. He understood that history is not always good versus evil or in linear directions. History is complicated. McCullough understood this in ways that much of academic history does not.

McCullough had the courage to admire American civilization and its virtues.

Affection for his subjects characterized McCullough’s works. His critics complained about his obvious sympathies, but the proposition that a biographer or historian can truly remain neutral towards their subject has always been at best an aspiration and at worst a sort of fiction that academics tell themselves. McCullough was never an academic and even though he received an elite Ivy League education he never seemed interested in writing for the adulation of the guild. This, perhaps more than anything, gave him the courage to love his country, its story, and its people.

In an era when the idea of preserving any transcendent national identity is often called a dog-whistle for far-right politics, McCullough’s books offer a substantive vision of an American nation committed to virtue, the common good, and human liberty. As the New York Times noted, “McCullough made no secret of his admiration for men and women who were known not only for achievement but also for their courage and independence, and for principles that put the greater good above personal ambition.”

McCullough’s public presence was as influential as his books. In 1990 filmmaker Ken Burns’ The Civil War brought McCullough’s voice—tinged ever so slightly by a faint Western Pennsylvania accent—to the homes of Americans all over the country. His narration of the war Robert Penn Warren called “the central event in the American imagination” gave appropriate emotional weight to the triumphs and tragedies experienced by participants in the American Iliad.

His subjects were well-born and low-born; he wrote about successes and crises; he showed readers the best and the worst of the American story. Most importantly, McCullough’s books remained convincingly democratic in the best sense of the term. Candice Millard noted that McCullough believed that history “was for everyone. It affected us all, so it belonged to us all. It could begin or prevent wars; expand or distort human understanding; connect us to other cultures, other times, other species.”

For so many Americans McCullough was the first writer to give them an accurate and compelling look at American history. They trusted him and kept buying his books, because unlike so many other chroniclers, McCullough’s readers knew he loved them, their country, and their story—and he loved telling that story.


Miles Smith

Miles Smith is a lecturer in history at Hillsdale College. His area of interest is the intellectual and religious history of the 19th-century United States and the Atlantic World.

@IVMiles

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