Field of Science

David McCullough (1933-2022)

I have been wanting to write about David McCullough who passed away recently and whose writings I always enjoyed. McCullough was admittedly one of the finest popular historians of his generation. His biographical portraits and writings were wide-ranging, covering a variety of eras; from "1776" and "John Adams" about the revolutionary period through "The Great Bridge" about the building of the Brooklyn Bridge in the 1860s to "Truman" about Harry Truman's life and presidency. "Truman" is in fact the best presidential biography I have read. In spite of its size it never bogs down and paints a fair and balanced portrait of the farmer from Missouri who became the unlikely and successful president.

McCullough's writing style and approach to history warrant some discussion. He was what you would call a gentleman writer: amiable, avuncular, genteel, not one to kick up dust or to engage in hard-hitting journalism; the opposite of Howard Zinn. Although his writing was balanced and he stayed away from hagiography, it was also clear that he was fond of his subjects, and that fondness might have made him sometimes avert a completely objective, critical approach.

That style opened him up to criticism. For instance, his "The Pioneers" that described the opening up of the Ohio country and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 engineered by Manasseh Cutler came under scrutiny for its omission of the brutal and unfair treatment of Native Americans in the new territory. The ordinance was actually quite revolutionary for its time since it outlawed slavery and effectively laid the fuse for developments sparking division between slave and free states in the 1850s and the ensuing Civil War. McCullough did emphasize this positive aspect of the ordinance, but not the negative repercussions for Indians. 

That streak is emblematic of his other writings. He never shied away from the evils of slavery, treatment of Native Americans or oppression of women, but his gaze was always upward, toward the better angels of our nature. Most characteristic of this style is his "The American Spirit", written at a fraught time in this country's history. As I mentioned in my review of the book, McCullough's emphasis is on the positive aspects of this country's founding and the founders' emphasis on individual rights and education, even if some of them personally fell short of observing those rights for others.

While I understand that McCullough might have had a bias toward the better parts of this country's history, I think that's the right approach especially today. That is because I think that a lot of Americans on both sides have acquired a strangely and fundamentally pessimistic approach toward both our past and our future. They seem to think that the country was born and steeped in sin that cannot be expiated. This is a very flawed perspective in my opinion. Perhaps as an immigrant I am more mindful of the freedoms and gifts that this country has bestowed on me, freedoms that are still unique compared to many other countries, but I share McCullough's view that whatever the substantial sins that this country was born in and perpetuated, its moral arc, as Martin Luther King would say, has always been upward and toward justice. In many ways the United States through its constitution laid the foundations for democracy and freedom that been emulated, in big and small ways, by most of the world's successful democracies. The leaders and activists of this country themselves were mindful that their country was not conforming to that perfect union described in its founding documents.

Progress has not been linear, certainly, but it has been steady throughout the ages. I think it's appropriate to complain that some aspects of progress should have taken much less time than what they did - unlike many other countries, the United States still has not had a female president, for instance - but that's different from saying that progress was made only by certain groups of people or that it wasn't made at all. As just one example, while African-Americans took the lead in the civil rights movement, there was no dearth of white Americans including religious activists like Benjamin Lay, firebrand speakers like William Lloyd Garrison and women suffragists who also wanted to end slavery. In addition, as David Hackett Fischer details in his monumental new study of black Africans' contribution to the country's early years, black and white people often worked hand in hand to make big and small achievements for slaves and freedmen alike. Recognizing this unity in diversity - E pluribus unum - is central to recognizing the essence of America.

The United States was a melting pot of different kinds and dimensions since before its founding, and all elements of this melting pot helped shape progressive views in this country. To privilege only certain elements does a disservice to the diversity that this country has exemplified. David McCullough knew this. He distinguished himself by telling us in his many writings how there was a constant stream of progressive forces emerging from all quarters of society, including all races and economic classes, that helped this country implement its founding ideals of liberty and equality. Even when the sky appeared darkest, as happened often in our history, the forces provided the proverbial silver lining for all of us to aspire to. We need more of that sentiment today. McCullough will be missed, but his writings should provide a sure guide.

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