Saturday, December 16, 2017

Now & Then II: Statesman or Blockhead

Review by Bill Doughty

David McCullough's recent "The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For" (Simon & Schuster, 2017) can lift the spirits of anyone who reads it.

Know someone who is pessimistic or fearful about the future? Give them this book.

And encourage them to read.

In one of the collected speeches in this book, "The Animating Spirit," he advises graduates of Dickinson College in Carlisle Pennsylvania in 1998: 
"If your experience is anything like mine, the most important books in your life you have still to read. And read you will. Read for pleasure. Read to enlarge your lives. Read history, read biography, learn from the lives of others. Read Marcus Aurelius and Yeats. Read Cervantes and soon; don't wait until you're past fifty as I did. Read Emerson and Willa Cather, Flannery O'Connor and Langston Hughes. Read a wise and sparkling book called "While the Music Lasts" by an author named William Bulger. See especially page 19, where he describes his own discovery of books."
Naturally I just ordered a copy of Bulger's book from my public library.

Abigail and John Adams
In another essay/speech, "Love of Learning," presented at Boston College in 2008, McCullough profiles abolitionist Charles Sumner, whose love of reading and education and time overseas informed his life and helped a nation confront the sins of slavery.

The author also features his favorite American family in history: the Adamses.
"John Adams read everything –Shakespeare and the Bible over and over, and the Psalms especially. He read poetry, fiction, history. Always carry a book with you on your travels he advised his son John Quincy. 'You will never be alone with a poet in your pocket.' In a single year, according to the U.S. Department of Education, among all Americans with a college education, fully a third read not one novel or short story or poem. Don't be one of those... Make the love of learning central to your life. What a difference it can mean. And remember, as someone said, even the oldest book is brand-new for the reader who opens it for the first time."
One of my favorite speeches in this great little book is "Knowing Who We Are," presented at Hillsdale College in 2005. McCullough describes John Adams's love of books ("I discovered books and read forever," Adams wrote). John and Abigail Adams instilled a love of reading and lifelong learning in their son John Quincy.

America's first ambassador Benjamin Franklin in France.
I love the way McCullough paints the picture of John Adams "in the midst of winter, in the midst of war" risking his life to travel in secrecy by ship to France with eleven-year-old son John Quincy in order to give the boy an education, to associate with Ambassador Benjamin Franklin there and the great political philosophers of France. The French Revolution and freethinkers had inspired the American Revolution.

"We have little idea of what people were willing to do for education in times past," McCullough writes. "It's the one sustaining theme through our whole history – that the next generation will be better educated than we are."

It was an extremely difficult journey across the Atlantic, and when preteen John Quincy balked about making a return trip to Europe, his mother, Abigail Adams, wrote him a letter. "And please keep in mind this is being written to an eleven-year-old boy and listen to how different it is from how we talk to our children in our time":

"These are the times in which a genius would wish to live. It is not in the still calm of life or the repose of a pacific station that great characters are formed. The habits of a vigorous mind are formed in contending with difficulties. Great necessities call out great virtues. When a mind is raised and animated by scenes that engage the heart, then those qualities which would otherwise lay dormant wake into life and form the character of the hero and the statesman."

Abigail and John Quincy depicted in Quincy, Massachusetts.
McCullough writes: "Well of course he went and the history of our country is different because of it.

John Quincy Adams, in my view, was the most superbly educated and maybe the most brilliant human being who ever occupied the executive office. He was a great secretary of state – he wrote the Monroe Doctrine, among other things – and he was a wonderful human being and a great writer. Told to keep a diary by his father when he was in Europe, he kept the diary for sixty-five years."

John Quincy returned from Europe to prepare for Harvard, where his father had studied. He had learned French, politics and the arts, but the young man had apparently not learned humility. "He seemed overly enamored with himself and with his own opinions and that this was not going over very well in town."

So Abigail wrote him another letter:

"If you are conscious to yourself that you possess more knowledge upon some subjects than others of your standing, reflect that you have had greater opportunities of seeing the world and obtaining knowledge of mankind than any of your contemporaries. That you have never wanted a book, but it has not been supplied to you. That your whole time has been spent in the company of men of literature and science. How unpardonable would it have been in you to have turned out a blockhead."

Love of learning, tempered with empathy and humility, can prevent blockheads in leadership positions. 

One of our nation's great leaders, whose confidence bordered on upbeat arrogance but who united the nation, was President Theodore Roosevelt, profiled in "What's Essential is Invisible," presented at Dartmouth College in 1999.
"The twentieth-century presidency begins with Theodore Roosevelt (former Assistant Secretary of the Navy). He was like nobody who had ever been president before ... TR was the first president to go down in a submarine, the first to go up in an airplane ... Eager to display American sea power, he decided to send the fleet on a goodwill tour around the world. Told that Congress would refuse to appropriate the money, he said he had sufficient funds at hand to send the ships halfway; then it would be up to Congress to decide whether to bring them home again."
Perhaps more than any other president, Roosevelt modernized the Navy across domains during the Second Industrial Revolution. When he became the first commander-in-chief to dive in the submarine USS Plunger (SS-2), in 1905, it fired the nation's imagination and inspired Sailors. Less than four years later Ensign Chester Nimitz, future Fleet Admiral and Pacific Fleet commander in WWII, would take command of Plunger.

TR had the Panama Canal built and he revolutionized American industry. "He doubled the size of the navy, helped settle the Russo-Japanese War, established five national parks, including the Grand Canyon, and made conservation a popular cause for the first time."

According to McCullough, "He was ebullient, confident, full of ideas, interested in everything, seldom without a book. He read books, he wrote books." 

David McCullough creating ideas.
Recently someone who I care about said they've never seen our nation so divided. I reminded them that history shows things were pretty divided in the 1770s (American Revolution), 1860s (Civil War) and 1960s (Vietnam, Watergate and Civil Rights era).

Reading history leads toward optimism. 

"We've got to teach history and nurture history and encourage history because it's an antidote to the hubris of the present – the idea that everything we have and everything we do and everything we think is the ultimate, the best."

McCullough concludes, "Samuel Eliot Morison said we ought to read history because it will help us to behave better." Abigail Adams's advice to would-be blockheads remains relevant today. This book is so good I have to review it in parts, each with a theme. Part I: Ideals; Part II: Rewards of Reading.

Dawne Dewey, Head of Special Collections & Archives, second from left, shares items from the Wright Brothers Collection with historian David McCullough (left), Tom Hanks, and Amanda Wright Lane, great-grandniece of the Wright Brothers. Hanks’ film and television production company Playtone reportedly bought the rights to David McCullough’s book "The Wright Brothers," and  HBO may produce a miniseries. (Photo by Will Jones)

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