David McCullough: Founding Fathers' Lessons are Timeless

Historians in the News

"It looks like college used to look in the movies," Pulitzer Prize-winning author, historian and television host David McCullough said of his first visit to the campus of DePauw University. "It sort of looks like the college I dreamed I would go to someday," the author of John Adams and Harry Truman added as he wrapped up his day at DePauw, which he called a "rare and very welcome experience," with a Timothy and Sharon Ubben Lecture entitled "First Principles."

McCullough spent much of his more than hour-long talk focusing on Adams and the other founding fathers of America, and [DOWNLOAD AUDIO: "The Miracle" 601KB]"the fact that they all rose to the occasion and did what they did, accomplished what they did against the most horrendous odds is the real miracle. And the more I know about that period, the more I read about it, and the more I come to understand it, the more convinced I am that it's a miracle that the United States ever happened." (BONUS CLIP: [DOWNLOAD AUDIO: "We're the Beneficiaries" 529KB])

McCullough says one of the first principles of the signers of the Constitution was clearly bravery, as they literally risked their life to take a stand for independence.

"If the people of Philadelphia, the founders, had been the kind of politicians who are poll-driven, they would have scrapped the whole thing, because only about a third of the country was for it-- at most a third of the country was for it; at least a third, or more, were adamently against it; while the remaining third, in the good old human way, were waiting to see who came out on top."

McCullough says America's founders also embraced education, reading about and learning from the past. [DOWNLOAD AUDIO: "Powerful Motivation" 703KB]"They were steeped in, soaked in, marinated in, the classics: Greek and Roman history, Greek and Roman ideas, Greek and Roman ideals. It was their model, their example. And they saw themselves very much like the Greeks and the Romans, as actors on a great stage in one of the great historic dramas of all time, and that they, individually and as a group, had better live up to these heroic parts in which history had cast them. That's a powerful motivation," the author asserted.

A two-time winner of both the National Book Award and the prestigious Francis Parkman Prize, McCullough worries that some shortchange early America as a time when people were primitive.

"I'm always distressed by some of the hubris of some historians and biographers, who kind of look down on people of the past for not knowing as much as we do. There were quite as intelligent, maybe more so than we are, and very much more articulate than we are. And a lot that we think is the upward road of progress hasn't been at all. Do you know the literacy rate in Massachusetts in 1776, or 1780 or '90, was higher than it is in Massachusetts today. And we think we've come a long way," McCullough said.
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