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David McCullough: The Founding Fathers Were Not Like Us?

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
January 26, 2024 3:03 am

David McCullough: The Founding Fathers Were Not Like Us?

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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January 26, 2024 3:03 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, renowned historian David McCullough answers the question - about a most extraordinary group of men at a most extraordinary time in world history.

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Find the perfect TCL Roku TV for you today at go.tcl.com slash TCL Roku TV. And we continue with our American stories, and up next, the late historian David McCullough is here to tell the story of John Adams. And we want to thank the John Adams Institute in the Netherlands for providing and sharing this audio with us.

This was a speech McCullough gave before he died in the Netherlands at the Institute. Here's David McCullough with some of his great storytelling about our founding fathers and why we must know our history. They weren't just like we are.

We can never assume they were just they were nothing like we are in many, many ways. And I one of the ways I tried to get inside their lives was to try and read not just what they wrote, but what they read. So I tried to read all the writers that Abigail and John read.

Dafoe, Swift, Pope, Cervantes, Shakespeare. And what's so fascinating is to see how often they are not just picking up ideas or turns of phrases, but whole sentences, whole thoughts that come word for word out of that English literature. When I say that some people write diplomatic history and some people write military history, I'm not saying that that's not the way to do it.

Thank goodness they do it. Those are serious works by serious people about serious subjects and they're important. They play a great part in the overall understanding of the past.

All I'm saying is that's not what I do. And I also do feel that you must understand the chemistry of it. You can't possibly understand the Truman administration, for example, without understanding the nature of Harry Truman and of those people around him. Can you imagine two different figures in our story, at least our history, than Dean Acheson and Harry Truman? Of course, the explanation is in both cases there was much more there than met the eye. I think you can't understand people unless you understand where they came from, where they grew up. The vernacular, the language, the sort of rules to live by taught to them by their parents. You know the famous line of Harry Truman, if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen?

That's a common expression in western Missouri. That's not Harry Truman. And you learn so far more about life. That's why I think when students are not interested in history, when history is poorly taught and turns students away, they are failing to get the chance to better understand how life works. The role of cause and effect in life, for example. Well, if they don't know about cause and effect in history, they might not get the idea that it happens in your own life.

I'll give you one of my favorite examples. We know that transportation was very slow and difficult in that time. And by our terms, that means inconvenience, a nuisance, discomfort. How did they put up with it? It must have been so hard for them.

Yes, it was all of that. We think of transportation and communication as two different things, two different worlds. To them it was one, because nothing could be communicated faster than somebody on a fast horse. And if you were out of touch with your husband, let's say, or out of touch with your government back in the United States, and you were making decisions here that were going to affect the lives of your countrymen, your family at home, the outcome of a deadly war, if you're going to make a decision about whether to have your children inoculated for smallpox, and you can't pick up the phone or get on the internet or send a fax or FedEx to get instant communication, what does that mean?

It means it increases by geometric proportions your individual burden of responsibility. You can't spread the guilt or the responsibility. Abigail Adams has to decide, I'm going to take my children in and have them inoculated for smallpox, knowing that at best it will make them wretchedly ill, at worst they might die from it, some of them. I can't call up my husband and say, come on home on the next plane, we've got to do this together. Just as when John Adams is here, and he decides on April 19th, on the anniversary of the Battle of Lexington and Concord, to submit his memo to the government here, stating what he is here for, against the diplomatic conventions and timing, taking a very bold, very brash, perhaps dangerous route. He doesn't. He can't call up the State Department or share his opinions with fellow ambassadors in France or England or whatever.

He has to assume complete responsibility for it. That's different. That's very different. They didn't live in a world of 24 hours a day news coverage. They didn't live in a world where one's reputation could be made or broken in 24 hours. They didn't have anything like the speed of transportation or communication. It was different. They lived with death all around them, all the time. Imagine going to the dentist in the 18th century.

Imagine sleeping in places that were filled with lice. It was a different time. We have no idea how tough those people were, how hard life was for them, just in ordinary times, let alone in times of difficulty and stress. You can't understand what happened without understanding them, and you can't understand them without understanding what we would call the culture around them. I wish there were a better word than culture. It's too fancy.

It's too precious. It means the architecture, the newspapers, the music, what they ate. Do you ever notice how few biographers ever give their subjects a chance to sit down and have something to eat? Do you ever notice how few biographers ever suggest that there were many days that were extremely boring, or to suggest that maybe there were moments when they didn't have the faintest idea of what to do next? That's life, and it has to be understood.

But you also have to understand what's in here, just as Abigail suggested. So I want to finish my remarks, not by reading something to you about history, or about the United States of America, but about living, about life, about a human being who once was here, and from whom we can learn an immense amount. In the aftermath of September 11th in our country, there were people on television, people writing in the newspapers, who were saying, this is the darkest, most dangerous, most uncertain time we have ever been through. And September 11th was, without question, the worst day for our country in our history. More so than Pearl Harbor, because Pearl Harbor was a military target, and there was some expectation that something of the kind could conceivably happen.

It wasn't a slaughter of innocent people, just to make a point. But it isn't the darkest time, not by a long shot. One of the darkest times was the year 1776, when Washington's army was down to less than 4,000 men, about 500, 600 of whom were too sick almost to walk. When it looked as though the war was over, and we had lost. But there were enough of them, and most conspicuously, George Washington, who did not see it that way.

Thank God. Another time was late 1941, early 1942, when Hitler's armies were at Moscow, when Britain was on her last legs, when we had no army. Our recruits were drilling with wooden rifles, so all they had. Half of our navy had been destroyed at Pearl Harbor. We had no air force. And there was no guarantee whatsoever that the Nazi machine could be stopped and destroyed.

That was a far darker time. But there were enough people who kept the faith. And my message is this. We are up against a foe, all of us, who believes in enforced ignorance. And we don't, and we never will. And you've been listening to the late, great biographer, David McCullough, tell the story of why storytelling matters, particularly the story of America and our history, and the people who helped build this country. Imperfect people all, and McCullough says that over and over again. We have no idea how tough those people were and how hard life was for them. And then he talks about dark times, and we hear this over and over again today.

These are the toughest times. America's never been more divided. Just read 1776.

You'll feel differently. Read anything about the Civil War, and you'll know differently. Or read about 1941 and 42, as McCullough suggested. And by the way, the new foe McCullough properly identified.

Enforced ignorance. The story of American storytelling by no better storyteller about America, David McCullough. Here on Our American Stories. Hello, it is Ryan, and we could all use an extra bright spot in our day, couldn't we?

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