David McCullough, America’s greatest contemporary historian, has died at 89. Miles Smith remembers McCullough as “a historian of the people” who “wrote about an America he loved:”
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. …
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.
I think McCullough’s 1776 was my entree to his works. I still haven’t enjoyed all his books, but so far The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris ranks as my favorite.
A decade ago Brian Bolduc at The Wall Street Journal interviewed McCullough, and he shared an observation in that interview that’s stuck with me ever since: “[Y]ou can’t love something you don’t know anymore than you can love someone you don’t know.”
David McCullough helped us get to know both the somethings of our history and so many of the someones of our history. Those encounters with our own story that McCullough offers, with the good and the bad alike, make it possible to have a rightly ordered love for our country.