Review by Bill Doughty
Rarely does a relatively thin and small book command so much respect. McCullough's "The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For" (2017, Simon & Schuster) is a collection of a sampling of the great historian's speeches from 1989 through 2016.
Naturally the speeches include topics like history, U.S. presidents, art, education and books. The central theme, however, is captured in the title. This is an inspirational book to read on the eve of the 76th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor to help us reflect on the origins of American freedom and equality, ideals carried by Soldiers, Marines and Sailors who stood up to authoritarian nationalism and fascism in World War II: ideals reflected in the American spirit.
In 1776, the founders gathered together to stand up to authoritarian imperial control of King George and Great Britain. "To Jefferson," McCullough writes, "the Revolution was more than a struggle for independence; it was a struggle for democracy, and thus what he wrote was truly revolutionary. Why do some men reach for the stars and so many others never look up? Thomas Jefferson reached for the stars:"
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed..."
The Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation and the Constitution are included in the canon of reading published by Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson in the CNO's Navy Professional Reading Program, considered fundamental.
These founding documents demand, establish and perpetuate equal dignity of human beings, separation of powers, freedom of the press (among others) and self-government by the people.
"Never, never anywhere, had there been a government instituted on the consent of the people," McCullough reminds us.
"When he wrote the Declaration of Independence he was speaking to the world then, but speaking to us also across time. The ideas are transcendent, as is so much else that is bedrock to what we believe as a people, what we stand for, so many principles that have their origins here, with the mind and spirit of Thomas Jefferson. Sadly, too many today take for granted public schools, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, equality before the law, forgetting that these were ever novel and daring ideas."
Abraham Lincoln, certainly one of our greatest presidents, called on Americans to honor Jefferson on the eve of the Civil War. Lincoln interpreted Jefferson's words in the Declaration to be "an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times."
McCullough shares a poignant moment standing on the South Portico balcony of the White House, built there on orders of Truman after the Second World War, "in keeping, as he explained to a critical press, with Jefferson's designs for the University of Virginia."
It should be noted that one of Truman's greatest achievements was issuing an executive order ending segregation and promoting integrating of the military, further realizing Jefferson's and Lincoln's ideals.
"On that evening, beside me, stood the highest ranking officer in the military services, General Colin Powell. We were looking across the Mall, past the Washington Monument to the Jefferson Memorial, which was just catching the last light of the day. It is his favorite of all the memorials in Washington, the general told me. Then, slowly and with feeling he recited the line – 'I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.'"
McCullough says, "The Declaration of Independence was not a creation of the gods, but of living men, and, let us never forget, extremely brave men." By signing the Declaration of Independence that Jefferson wrote, the founders pledged "our lives, our fortunes, our sacred honor." They placed their lives and reputations on the line, McCullough notes. "It was their code of integrity, their code of leadership."
Other speeches focus on cities, colleges, historic preservation, the presidency, lessons of history, and books. Lots of books. We'll save that topic for another Navy Reads review, because McCullough offers so much to consider about reading and readers.
As for the American presidency, that topic also deserves its own blogpost.
|Sailors spell out "#USA" standing with the American flag on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt in the Arabian Gulf in 2015. |
(U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jackie Hart/Released)
Several times McCullough highlights the influence of the Navy, directly or indirectly, in how (former assistant Secretary of the Navy) President Theodore Roosevelt and World War II veteran President John F. Kennedy led the nation as commanders in chief. McCullough's speech, originally delivered in Dallas in 2013 on the 50th anniversary of Kennedy's assassination, features a huge amount of JFK's own thoughts and words from his inaugural address. This is another must-read chapter. Here are some of JFK's words:
"The goal of a peaceful world ... is our guide for the present and our vision for the future ... the quest is the greatest adventure of our century. We sometimes chafe at the burden of our obligations, the complexity of our decisions, the agony of our choices. But there is no comfort or security ... in evasion, no solution in abdications, no relief in irresponsibility."
"The problems of the world cannot possibly be solved by skeptics or cynics, whose horizons are limited by the obvious realities. We need men who can dream of things that never were, and ask why not?"
Kennedy "knew words matter," McCullough says. "His words changed lives. His words changed history Rarely has a commander-in-chief addressed the nation with such command of language."
"Again and again John Kennedy's words are fired with his love of life, his love of his country and its history. He read history, he wrote history, and he understood that history is not just about times past, but also about those who populate the present, each new generation as he liked to say, and that we, too, will be judged by history ... He also knew from his reading and from experience that very little of consequence is ever accomplished alone, but by joint effort."As a companion to this book, I borrowed the audio book from my public library and listened to it while driving to Pearl Harbor. It's uplifting to hear David McCullough's works in his own voice.
Seventy-six years ago we were about to be drawn into a war against Imperial Japan and fascist Germany. Today both former enemies are free democracies and our strong allies, their governments based on Jeffersonian principles. McCullough reminds us of the spirit that unites Americans – who we are and what we stand for.