Do Americans misunderstand the Founding Fathers?

David McCullough is called the "citizen chronicler" by Librarian of Congress James Billington. His books have led a renaissance of interest in American history--from learning about a flood in Pennsylvania that without warning devastated an entire community to discovering the private achievements and frailties of an uncelebrated president. His biography of Harry Truman won him a Pulitzer, as did his most recent biography of another president, John Adams.

Meeting Thornton Wilder at Yale as an undergraduate inspired McCullough to become a writer--his first love, in fact, had been art. While at college he also met his wife, Rosalee. He learned his craft working at Sports Illustrated, at the United States Information Agency, and at American Heritage. McCullough researched and wrote his first book in the precious hours away from his job with American Heritage; The Johnstown Flood came out in 1968. It was a story and region familiar to McCullough, who was born and raised in nearby Pittsburgh. The book was a success and he became a full-time author.

Since then, McCullough has given us six more books--The Great Bridge, The Path between the Seas, Mornings on Horseback, Brave Companions, Truman, and John Adams--earning him two Pulitzer Prizes, two National Book Awards, and two Francis Parkman Prizes from the American Society of Historians. His other honors include a Charles Frankel Prize, a National Book Foundation Distinguished Contribution to American Letters Award, and a New York Public Library’s Literary Lion Award.

  • Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

David McCullough: Well sad to say we are raising and have been raising for about 25 years one generation after another of young Americans who are by and large historically illiterate. Now it isn’t their faults we can’t blame young people in high school or college for not knowing what they haven't been taught. It’s the fault of their parents follow lot of us, teachers-parents and the culture. History is of the utmost importance, I think its probably more important than any other one single subject because its about the human experience, its about life and consequences of ones actions and its about the role of personality of character in events passed, and we can learn from it, we can learn infinite number of lessons from history and we can also take strength from it, we could be guided by in our own performance, in our own contributions, by the examples of those who went before us and the founders alas have been rather forgotten in part I think because they appear in no photographs. We have no photographs of them, we have no film clips of them, we have no recordings of their voices, we have no television out takes. All we had is what they wrote and some paintings and a last two the close they were make them seem like characters in the costume pageant which they want, and they were not they weren’t walking around seeing themselves as living in the past, that Jefferson Adams they didn’t say isn’t this fascinating looming the past, we picture asking her we had close they are living in the present and they had no more idea of how was going to turn out than we do, and they were extraordinary people, brilliant people and how it happened nobody could explain it completely, that a small population, we are only 2 million 500 thousand people. Philadelphia in 1776 the largest city in the country had only 30,000 people, now that would be a little town of no consequence to us, but out of that small population came these talented, brilliant, committed people who were willing as they said to put their lives, their fortunes, their sacred honor on the line, if you signed the declaration of independence of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin you are putting your head in the nudes, because you are saying I am a traitor and if they have been caught, they would have been hanged, and they were doing it for the future of the country. They were not doing it for themselves to get richer and to be powerful. They were doing it because they believed to the marrow of their bones in what they call the glorious cause of the America and we cannot know enough about them, we cannot know enough about what happened and what cost and what suffering, we cannot know about the injustices that had to be cured in this scholar of life, that had to be eliminated if possible. The contradictions, the hypocrisies, all men are created equal written by a man who owned slaves, who held men, women and children in bondage. So it wasn’t just they where imperfect, but what they had created was imperfect and they knew it, what they were doing for us was to create a plan, an adjective a start and steer by that we must strive for each generation successively to live up to the idea and that’s our strength, it would all been handled to us in perfect order, perfect running machine, it doesn’t need any attention, it’s all oil run in perpetuity, sit back and enjoyed everybody we wouldn’t be there in the country we are where the country we are because each of us has to take the torch and try and carry us a little bit closer to the ideal.

 

Recorded on: 3/3/08


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