David McCullough has spent most of his life as a student and scholar of history, and he’s got two Pulitzer Prizes to show for it.

But last year, during the bitterness and contention leading up to the election of President Donald Trump, the 83-year-old McCullough decided it was time to do a little teaching of history as well.

DAVID McCULLOUGH

McCullough, who has a home in Camden, decided to collect 15 speeches he’s given over the years into a book called “The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For.” It went on sale April 18.

McCullough said he wanted to find a way of “doing what I could to counteract” the divisiveness in Congress and among citizens across the country. So he and his daughter, Camden resident Dorie Lawson, picked speeches of his they felt might remind people about the troubles our country has been through and the important roles honesty, respect and tolerance have played in our history.

“With the contentious campaign and so much particularly that the Republican candidate had to say, I felt strongly that we’re forgetting a lot about who we are, what we’ve accomplished, what we stand for and how we were brought up,” said McCullough from his other home, in Hingham, Massachusetts. “It occurred to me that these are subjects I’ve been speaking about for a good long time at universities and national occasions of one kind or another.”

McCullough has published a dozen books on history beginning with “The Johnstown Flood” in 1968. He won the Pulitzer Prize for the Harry Truman biography “Truman” (1992) and for his book on the country’s second president, “John Adams” (2001). His most recent book before the speech collection was “The Wright Brothers.” Other books by McCullough include “1776,” “The Path Between The Seas” about the Panama Canal, “Mornings on Horseback” about Theodore Roosevelt, and a history of the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge called “The Great Bridge.”

The speeches in “The American Spirit” range from ones he gave in the 1980s and ’90s, to one given at the U.S. Capitol Historical Society last year. Many were given at universities, while one was to a joint session of Congress in 1989. Topics include the importance and complexities of cities, the history of Congress, the early settlement of Ohio, and the importance of education in American history. Figures McCullough has written about before, including John Quincy Adams and Thomas Jefferson, show up in the speeches.

Though born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, McCullough has spent much of his adult life in New England. He and his wife, Rosalee, bought a house in Camden more than a decade ago to be close to family, including several of their grandchildren, and to spend summers there. McCullough and his wife have five children and 19 grandchildren. On the dedication page of “The American Spirit” he lists each grandchild by name.

Q: What were you looking for in each speech? Was there a central theme?

A: Yes, there were several themes. One was the importance of education, of learning, of reading, of history, the liberal arts. And such standard virtues that have been with us for several centuries now as honesty, decency toward people, hard work, tolerance and an open society wherein we all recognize that we’re all immigrants, except for the native Americans. To scorn immigrants, scorn people from other parts of the world who want to take up our way of life is to negate what has been a powerful motivating and energizing quality all along. When you start adding up, for example, what notable immigrants have achieved and have contributed to our way of life, our American record if you will, it’s just thrilling. In the piece that I did about the Capitol building, I wanted to make a particular point about how much of what we take to be the most beautiful and salient aspects of that building are the results of the talents of immigrants.

And I feel very strongly that hard work is a tradition. The best life is a life of purpose. I feel we are a nation that has always taken pride in accomplishment, and most important of all, nothing of importance is ever accomplished alone. It’s a joint effort. We have to remember that, and the members of Congress have to get that back into their heads. You have to work together. You don’t smear people, you don’t say vile things about people because you disagree with their opinions, political opinions or religious opinions or whatever.

Q: Do you have any thoughts, as a historian, about how Congress got to this point? You write in one speech that Congress is meant to be “the house of the people” but it doesn’t feel that way to a lot of people today.

A: It’s easy to blame this or that cause or reason, but there are, I think, some that are conspicuously to blame. One is the influence of money in our politics. It’s atrocious. I remember when Harry Truman heard the Kennedy campaign was going to start having $1,000-a-plate dinners to raise money for the campaign, he commented to someone, “Well, there goes democracy.” Well, imagine if he were around today to be informed they’re paying $50,000 or $100,000 a plate to raise money for politicians. I think it also had to do, alas, with television. The cheap loudmouth gets the attention. The crass, self-serving blowhard gets the notice. That’s contagious. I also feel very strongly, and I make this point more than once in what I’ve said, is that we’ve always been having bad times. We’ve always been going to the dogs in the eyes of some people. And we’ve had terrible troubles. We’ve had disgraceful behavior and sinful conduct. But we’ve also come through our dark times and we’ve also, all along, had very good people.

One of my heroes, and I say this with all seriousness, is your marvelous former Senator from Maine, Margaret Chase Smith, whose courage can never be made too much of. She stood up, on the floor of the Senate and had the backbone to stand up to Joseph McCarthy. She said, “I speak as a Republican. I speak as a woman. I speak as a United State Senator. I speak as an American… I don’t want to see the Republican party ride to political victory on the Four Horsemen of calumny: fear, ignorance, bigotry and smear.” How true that is today.

McCullough, a long-time Camden homeowner, shown addressing Congress in 1989. Photo courtesy of U.S. Senate Historical Office

Q: What can individuals do?

A: We need to learn from history. We need to know the history of our country. We are declining in the knowledge of our story. We have been raising for quite a while now young Americans who are by and large historically illiterate. I know this from speaking, lecturing and teaching in more than 100 colleges and universities over the last 50 years. A number of us are working as best we can to counteract this problem. It’s not the fault of the students. It’s our fault. It’s dangerous. It’s sort of a creeping amnesia. We see it in several of these more prominent political people today, who simply don’t know anything about our history. They wave their flags and they beat their chests and wear little pins and flags on their lapels. But ask them two or three simple questions and they don’t know the answers, about our history, about our presidency.

Q: Can you find another time in American history where the population seemed this divided?

A: How about the Civil War? At the time of the Revolution, only a third of the country was for it. Another third was against it, adamantly, and the remaining third, in the good old human way, was waiting to see who won.

They went at each other with fire tongs on the floor of the United States Congress. At one point, just before the Civil War, a Southerner tried to murder Charles Sumner (of Massachusetts) right on the floor of the Senate. It’s been bad. That’s the thing people don’t realize, what hard times, what dangerous, vicious times we’ve been though, many times. We’re spoiled brats, in a way. The slightest little disruption can throw us off. We don’t realize how hard life use to be, how dangerous it could be, how unfair it could be. We had the largest slave society in the world (at the time). We, with our great tributes to fairness and equality. What rank hypocrisy. We’ve had a lot to get over, and get through.

Q: During a speech at the University of Pittsburgh, you said a lot of the issues facing cities might be better handled if colleges had programs to teach the histories of those cities, so that future problem solvers might better understand the cities they were trying to fix. Has any college taken up your challenge?

A: I still feel that way, but I had no response whatever, which is one of the reasons I wanted to put that speech in the book. I still feel that’s an idea that ought to be taken seriously by a city. It doesn’t have to be Pittsburgh. I grew up in Pittsburgh. I’ve lived and worked in cities most of my life, and I’ve seen the desperate, despicable contrast between the rich and the poor, and the people who have no chance at education or to rise up to their potential. That’s a worthy aspiration for all of us to keep at heart.

Q: What is the book you’re working on now about?

A: It’s about the settlement of the Northwest Territory, meaning the territory northwest of the Ohio River, which today constitutes five states: Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin. It was all wilderness. No one lived there except Native Americans until the signing of the peace treaty that ended the Revolutionary War. Britain ceded all of that to us, thereby doubling the size of our country in geographic area. The first way to settle part of it was to provide inexpensive land to the veterans of the Revolution, who had received money for their services, script as it was called, which was virtually worthless.

A group of New Englanders went out to establish the first settlement – New England veterans of the Revolutionary War. And the place they picked was Marietta, Ohio. That was the first settlement beyond Pennsylvania. It’s about what they went through, which was something. Everything that you could imagine going wrong, or standing as adversity of the most extreme kind, happened. But they were tough, they were veterans of the Revolution and they would not give up. They established the town of Marietta, which is very much still there today and very historic. I found, with a great stroke of wonderful good luck, a collection in the archives at Marietta College, of letters and diaries all kept by the people that I’m writing about.

I’ve always wanted to do a book about people you’ve never heard of, to show that you don’t have to just write about historic celebrities. Lots of other people have stories, too. Sometimes it’s a story you find hard to believe, but it really happened.

Q: What made you decide to write about it?

A: What drew me to it was the speech (in the book) that I gave in Athens, Ohio (at Ohio University). Much of the speech is about this extraordinary man named Manasseh Cutler, who was a Protestant preacher from Ipswich, Massachusetts. What he did was put together what became the Northwest Ordinance (1787), one of the most important bills ever passed by Congress. It all comes back to Congress, doesn’t it? It goes back to before we had a constitution, and what was so extremely important about it was it established this new territory where there would be complete freedom of religion, there would be government support of education all the way through college and, and there would be no slavery. Even before we have a constitution, even before we have a president, we have established that in half the geographic area of the United State there will be no slavery. Unbelievable accomplishment. How did it happen? Well it happened because of this guy, and nobody’s heard about him.

Ray Routhier can be contacted at 210-1183 or at:

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