Re: Do Americans understand the American Revolution?
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.
David McCullough: I don’t think that most Americans have any idea of what those brave Americans of that founding time went through and when Abigail said, posterity who will reap the blessings will scarcely be able to conceive of the hard ships and sufferings of their ancestor, she was elapsed right. Too many people, if they think about it at all, think of it as a kind of costume pageant and they think of the founders as elderly men and women with white powdered hair done up in satin clothes that seem quite silly. And what they fail to understand is that almost all those people that we honored Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Abigail Adams were young in 1776 young during the revolution.
Jefferson wrote the declaration of independence when he was 33 years old. John Adams who was 40 when he went to serve in the Continental Congress, George Washington was 43 when he took command of the continental army. They were young and they were learning as they went along. None of them had ever fermented revolution before. Washington never commanded an army in the field before in his life when he was given command to the continental army. And they did not know how it was going to turn out and in fact all the signs were, the odds were that they would not succeed, could not succeed and the revolutionary war was the longest war in our history except for Vietnam, lasted nearly eight and a half years.
It was the bloodiest war in our history on a per capital basis, only the civil war took a heavier toll, and it was the war that gave birth to our country and to what we have the blessings we enjoy and of course this isn’t just the people who get killed in the war, it’s those people who cared for the people who were lost in the war. The mothers, fathers, wives, brothers and sisters and the suffering of those who may be did not get killed but who were badly wounded or who lost limbs. One of the things what happens in the John Adams series is that we see as we have not before, what hardship meant, what suffering meant when there were no anesthetics for example, when children were inoculated for small pox, it was a gruesome, very unpleasant experience and one from which child could die. You see that being tarred and feathered in the old way, it was not a high school prank, it was not joke it was torture and people could die from it.
We see people with bad teeth and dirt under their finger nails and dirty hair and we reminded that they were human beings. The Declaration of Independence begins with the line "When in the course of human events," in that what we are seeing in the film, “Human Events”. They weren’t marble icons, there weren’t demigods, there were people and the head failings, they made mistakes some of them didn’t like each other, all of that and I think in the role of Abigail and particularly as portrayed by Laura Linney, we see and we feel the extent to which women were part of the struggle and who played an important part in the role. John Adams cannot be understood without understanding the part in his life that Abigail played and she was, as he said, his ballast to help keep him on course, level keel.
Interviewed on 3/3/08
Few of us understand the suffering that went into the Revolution.
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