We keep coming back to cover commercially published historian David McCullough for a reason: Unlike his academic counterparts, he actually has something to say.
“Many people today are saying that we should be teaching morals in our schools,” McCullough himself said in a lecture earlier this year at Hillsdale College. “They could find support in the closing line of this section of the Commonwealth Constitution, which speaks of the necessity ‘to countenance and inculcate the principles of humanity and general benevolence, public and private charity, industry and frugality, honesty and punctuality in their dealings, sincerity, good humor, and all social affections and generous sentiments among the people.’”
The commonwealth McCullough refers to is Massachusetts, where the state supreme court recently managed to find a right to gay marriage in that same document. The author of that original constitution was John Adams, of whom McCullough has written a bestselling biography.
“John Adams was born into a poor farm family,” McCullough told the audience at Hillsdale. “He is often imagined as a rich Boston blueblood.”
“He was none of those.” But then, that is not as interesting a story to history professors who would rather pontificate about “patriarchal hegemony.”
“At a young age, he began to keep a diary—it was about the size of the palm of your hand, and his handwriting so small you need a magnifying glass to read it—with the idea that by reckoning day-by-day his moral assets and liabilities, he could improve himself,” McCullough said in the lecture that Hillsdale compiled in its Imprimis magazine.
How does McCullough know this? Because he held the diary in one hand and a magnifying glass in the other so that he could read it. Can you picture the people’s historian, Howard Zinn, doing that?
And here’s another interesting tidbit that Adams’ chronicler leaves us with. McCullough tells us of Abigail Adams, “Schools were closed so she had to educate the children at home.” Does that make President John Quincy Adams the first homeschooled American to achieve prominence?
Academic icons such as Zinn and the late Richard Hoffstadter of Columbia have long held that America’s founding fathers pursued the revolution to protect their property and prestige. McCullough, who has done considerably more research from primary documents than any of them, comes to a different conclusion.
“When our founders pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor, that wasn’t just rhetoric,” McCullough says. “Keep in mind, too, that they were up against the greatest military power on earth and had very little military experience.”
“They had no money—there wasn’t a bank in all of America in 1776.” Really, if the spry septuagenarian can delve as deeply as he does into America’s archives to recover this country’s past, surely tenured professors half his age could make the effort.
Malcolm A. Kline is the executive director of Accuracy in Academia.