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Awards & Honors: 2003 Jefferson Lecturer

David McCullough Excerpts

A Perfect Pandemonium

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Humanities Magazine May/June 2003 cover

May/June 2003

There was great shouting from down below, and up ahead, on top of the tower, people were waving hats and handkerchiefs. Then all at once, as he went swinging out over the housetops between the anchorage and the tower, Farrington freed himself from the rope about his chest and stood up on the seat. Holding on first with one hand, then the other, he lifted his hat in response to the continuing ovation. Then he sat down again. People were running through the streets beneath him now, shouting and cheering as they ran. He waved, he blew them kisses. Sailing steadily along all the while, his course was nearly horizontal at first, like that of a heavy bird taking flight, because of the sag in the rope. His light coat blew open and began fluttering in the wind. And then he was beyond the sag and climbing sharply, almost straight up, a coat--flapping, gently twirling form that looked very small, fragile, and very birdlike now against the granite face of the tower.

A tremendous cheer went up from the streets and rooftops, followed quickly by a salute from the little cannon across the river. His time from anchorage to tower was three and three-quarter minutes. . . .

Again the signal flag waved and the rope started and the minute he swung away from the tower there was another outburst of cheering. This time all those crowded along the wharves were joined by thousands more on board the innumerable boats and ferries that had gathered for the occasion. All normal traffic on the river had stopped. From the towers it looked almost as though one could walk across just by stepping from boat to boat.

Farrington went sailing over the river, waving, lifting his hat, very obviously having a glorious time, but he stayed seated. Then a steam tug directly beneath him let loose with its shrill whistle. Instantly a dozen others joined in. In seconds every boat on the river was sounding its approval as the tiny figure of a man went soaring overhead, "to all appearances self-propelled," spinning around every now and then, the rope he dangled from all but invisible against the sky.

From THE GREAT BRIDGE. Copyright © 1972 by David McCullough. Reprinted with permission.

Time Out for War

Miriam Rothschild, now a renowned naturalist, played a different role in World War II in England, where her family estate became an airfield for American fliers.

At one time, during the Second World War, there were six thousand Americans billeted in and about Ashton, and every year there are some who come back for a visit. They were part of the Eighth Air Force. The Rothschild wheatfields were once Polebrook Field. Miriam's house was the base hospital. She remembers well the intense excitement when the American B-17 Flying Fortress bombers first arrived from the United States. No one had seen planes that flew so high or that left vapor trails.

Of the American airmen, she says, "I thought they were absolutely tremendous . . . they won the war for us, no doubt about it." One of those she got to know best was Clark Gable, then an Air Force major, whom she delights in talking about, telling what a crack he was (they often went shooting together in the evenings, he at rooks, she at targets) and how he had almost no sense of humor.

More than three hundred missions over Germany were flown from her now tranquil fields. One colossal hangar still standing is used to store potatoes.

"You know I was the first person to install seat belts in a motorcar," she told me as we drove out to see the site of the old airfield. "It was in 1940, when the first American aviators arrived in civilian clothes, even before you got into the war. I saw the safety belts they had in their training planes and I said we ought to have those in motorcars." Using a girth from an old sidesaddle, she made up seat belts for her car and tried without success to have the idea patented.

It was during the war that she met and married a British commando and war hero named George Lane, a marriage that was dissolved in 1957 though he is still a good friend. To many of her scientific colleagues it also seemed that she did remarkably little with her mind all that time, little at all of consequence, which was puzzling largely because it was so out of character. Nor did she offer an explanation. Only long afterward did it become known that she had been involved with the famous Enigma project, working with the top-secret group at Bletchley Park, trying to crack the German code. Scientists from many fields were enlisted and marine biologists were known to be particularly good at such work. She got a medal from the British government for her part, yet still won't say anything about what she did.

"I never hated anything as much as I hated the war," she told me, recalling the airmen who did not come back. "It's impossible to describe it. You know, for years afterward when I woke up in the morning, my first thought was, 'Well, thank God the war's over.'"

From BRAVE COMPANIONS. Copyright © 1991 by David McCullough. Reprinted with permission.

Lawyer, Farmer, Revolutionary

In the cold, nearly colorless light of a New England winter, two men on horseback traveled the coast road below Boston, heading north. A foot or more of snow covered the landscape, the remnants of a Christmas storm that had blanketed Massachusetts from one end of the province to the other. Beneath the snow, after weeks of severe cold, the ground was frozen solid to a depth of two feet. Packed ice in the road, ruts as hard as iron, made the going hazardous, and the riders, mindful of the horses, kept at a walk.

Nothing about the harsh landscape differed from other winters. Nor was there anything to distinguish the two riders, no signs of rank or title, no liveried retinue bringing up the rear. It might have been any year and they could have been anybody braving the weather for any number of reasons. Dressed as they were in heavy cloaks, their hats pulled low against the wind, they were barely distinguishable even from each other, except that the older, stouter of the two did most of the talking.

He was John Adams of Braintree and he loved to talk. He was a known talker. There were some, even among his admirers, who wished he talked less. He himself wished he talked less, and he had particular regard for those, like George Washington, who somehow managed great reserve under almost any circumstance.

John Adams was a lawyer and a farmer, a graduate of Harvard College, the husband of Abigail Smith Adams, the father of four children. He was forty years old and he was a revolutionary.

Dismounted, he stood five feet seven or eight inches tall-about "middle size" in that day--and though verging on portly, he had a straight-up, square-shouldered stance and was, in fact, surprisingly fit and solid. His hands were the hands of a man accustomed to pruning his own trees, cutting his own hay, and splitting his own firewood.

In such bitter cold of winter, the pink of his round, clean-shaven, very English face would all but glow, and if he were hatless or without a wig, his high forehead and thinning hairline made the whole of the face look rounder still. The hair, light brown in color, was full about the ears. The chin was firm, the nose sharp, almost birdlike. But it was the dark, perfectly arched brows and keen blue eyes that gave the face its vitality. Years afterward, recalling this juncture in his life, he would describe himself as looking rather like a short, thick Archbishop of Canterbury.

As befitting a studious lawyer from Braintree, Adams was a "plain dressing" man. His oft-stated pleasures were his family, his farm, his books and writing table, a convivial pipe and cup of coffee (now that tea was no longer acceptable), or preferably a glass of good Madeira.

In the warm seasons he relished long walks and time alone on horseback. Such exercise, he believed, roused "the animal spirits" and "dispersed melancholy." He loved the open meadows of home, the "old acquaintances" of rock ledges and breezes from the sea. From his doorstep to the water's edge was approximately a mile.

He was a man who cared deeply for his friends, who, with few exceptions, were to be his friends for life, and in some instances despite severe strains. And to no one was he more devoted than to his wife, Abigail. She was his "Dearest Friend," as he addressed her in his letters--his "best, dearest, worthiest, wisest friend in the world"--while to her he was "the tenderest of husbands," her "good man."

John Adams was also, as many could attest, a great-hearted, persevering man of uncommon ability and force. He had a brilliant mind. He was honest and everyone knew it. Emphatically independent by nature, hardworking, frugal--all traits in the New England tradition--he was anything but cold or laconic as supposedly New Englanders were. He could be high-spirited and affectionate, vain, cranky, impetuous, self-absorbed, and fiercely stubborn; passionate, quick to anger, and all-forgiving; generous and entertaining. He was blessed with great courage and good humor, yet subject to spells of despair, and especially when separated from his family or during periods of prolonged inactivity.

Ambitious to excel--to make himself known-he had nonetheless recognized at an early stage that happiness came not from fame and fortune, "and all such things," but from "an habitual contempt of them," as he wrote. He prized the Roman ideal of honor, and in this, as in much else, he and Abigail were in perfect accord. Fame without honor, in her view, would be "like a faint meteor gliding through the sky, shedding only transient light."

As his family and friends knew, Adams was both a devout Christian and an independent thinker, and he saw no conflict in that. He was hard-headed and a man of "sensibility," a close observer of human folly as displayed in everyday life and fired by an inexhaustible love of books and scholarly reflection. He read Cicero, Tacitus, and others of his Roman heroes in Latin, and Plato and Thucydides in the original Greek, which he considered the supreme language. But in his need to fathom the "labyrinth" of human nature, as he said, he was drawn to Shakespeare and Swift, and likely to carry Cervantes or a volume of English poetry with him on his journeys. "You will never be alone with a poet in your pocket," he would tell his son Johnny.

From JOHN ADAMS. Copyright © 2001 by David McCullough. Reprinted with permission.

A Way of Life That Vanished

The club had been organized in Pittsburgh in 1879. It owned the dam, the lake, and about 160 acres besides. By 1889 sixteen cottages had been built along the lake, as well as boathouses and stables. The cottages were set out in an orderly line among the trees, not very far apart, and only a short way back from the water. They looked far too substantial really to be called "cottages." Nearly every one of them was three stories tall, with high ceilings, long windows, a deep porch downstairs, and, often as not, another little porch or two upstairs tucked under sharp-peaked roofs. The Lippincott house with its two sweeping front porches, one set on top of the other, and its fancy jigsaw trim, looked like a Mississippi riverboat. The Moorhead house was Queen Anne style, which was "all the rage" then; it had seventeen rooms and a round tower at one end with tinted glass windows. And the Philander Knox house, next door, was not much smaller.

But even the largest of them was dwarfed by the clubhouse. It had enough windows and more than enough porch for ten houses. There were forty-seven rooms inside. During the season most of the club members and their guests stayed there, and the rule was that everyone had to take his meals there in the main dining room, where 150 could sit down at one time.

In the "front rooms" there were huge brick fireplaces for chilly summer nights, billiard tables, and heavy furniture against the walls. In summer, after the midday dinner, the long front porch was crowded with cigar-smoking industrialists taking the air off the water. String hammocks swung under the trees. Young women in long white dresses, their faces shaded under big summer hats, strolled the boardwalks in twos and threes, or on the arms of very proper-looking young men in dark suits and derbies. Cottages were noisy with big families, and on moonlight nights there were boating parties on the lake and the sound of singing and banjos across the black water.

In all the talk there would be about the lake in the years after it had vanished, the boats, perhaps more than anything else, would keep coming up over and over again. Boats of any kind were a rare sight in the mountains. . . .

The club fleet included fifty rowboats and canoes, sailboats, and two little steam yachts that went puttering about flying bright pennants and trailing feathers of smoke from their tall funnels. There was even an electric catamaran, a weird-looking craft with a searchlight mounted up front, which had been built by a young member, Louis Clarke, who liked to put on a blue sailor's outfit for his cruises around the lake.

But it was the sailboats that made the greatest impression. Sailboats on the mountain! It seemed almost impossible in a country where water was always a tree-crowded creek or stream, wild and dangerous in the spring, not much better than ankle-deep in the hottest months. Yet there they were: white sails moving against the dark forest across a great green mirror of a lake so big that you could see miles and miles of sky in it.

From THE JOHNSTOWN FLOOD. Copyright © 1968 by David McCullough. Reprinted with permission.

The Good Gray Roosevelts

For several hundred years the good, solid Roosevelts had kept to their mercantile pursuits, content with the same horizons. Seldom had any of them ventured beyond the confined of Manhattan Island for reasons other than business, and never longer than necessary. They had lived and applied their renowned family acumen, met and married their Dutch wives, bred, prospered, and died, generation after generation, all within a radius of about three miles. "The Roosevelt stock," observed the New York World, "has always been noted for a tendency . . . to cling to the fixed and the venerable." A move from one Manhattan address to another was as serious a disruption of the pattern as a true Roosevelt cared to suffer in a lifetime. CVS [Cornelius Van Schaack] had been born in Maiden Lane; the family business had been located in Maiden Lane since 1797. When, in the 1830s, CVS at last succumbed to the tide of fashion and built the house on Union Square, at 14th Street and Broadway, he did so with the consoling thought that by going that far uptown he had at least relieved his progeny for several generations from ever having to move again.

One searches the Roosevelt family history nearly in vain for a sign of daring or spontaneity or a sense of humor. The family reputation for probity in business and personal conduct demanded certain restraints, of course, and so uniform absence of color may have been partly disguise, another bow to appearances. There were also exceptions. One Nicholas Roosevelt, an uncle of CVS, had an interest in steamboats early in the century and made the first descent by steam down the Mississippi from Pittsburgh to New Orleans. But he and a figure like Robert stand out against the rest of the line as conspicuous as mutations. It is said of James Alfred Roosevelt, for example, that if he ever had an unconventional thought in his life he kept it to himself. Of his private, domestic enthusiasms, it is recorded that he was inordinately fond of waffles.

From MORNINGS ON HORSEBACK. Copyright © 1981 by David McCullough. Reprinted with permission.

Digging the Canal

For seven years Culebra Cut was never silent, not even for an hour. Labor trains carrying some six thousand men began rolling in Cover for The Path Between the Seasshortly after dawn every morning except Sunday. Then promptly at seven the regular work resumed until five. But it was during the midday break and again after five o'clock that the dynamite crews took over and began blasting. At night came the repair crews, men by the hundreds, to tend the shovels, which were now being worked to the limit and taking a heavy beating. Night track crews set off surface charges of dynamite to make way for new spurs for the shovels, while coal trains servicing the shovels rumbled in, their headlights playing steadily and eerily up and down the Cut until dawn. And though it was official I.C.C. policy that the Sabbath be observed as a day of rest, there was always some vital piece of business in the Cut that could not wait until Monday.

From THE PATH BETWEEN THE SEAS. Copyright © 1977 by David McCullough. Reprinted with permission.

The Luncheon Party

On Tuesday, August 18, 1944, in the shade of a magnolia tree said to have been planted by Andrew Jackson, Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman had lunch on the South Lawn of the White House. Because of the heat, Roosevelt suggested they take off their jackets. So it was in their shirtsleeves, seated at a small round table set with crystal and silver from the Coolidge years, that the two men posed together for photographers for the first time.

In background, interests, personality, in everything from the sounds of their voices to the kind of company they enjoyed to the patterns of their careers, they could not have been more dissimilar. Roosevelt was now in his twelfth year in office. He had been President for so long and through such trying, stirring times that it seemed to many Americans, including the junior Senator from Missouri, that he was virtually the presidency himself. His wealth, education, the social position he had known since boyhood were everything Harry Truman never had. Life and customs at the Roosevelt family estate on the upper Hudson River were as far removed from Jackson County, Missouri, as some foreign land. Roosevelt fancied himself a farmer. To Truman, Roosevelt was the kind of farmer who had never pulled a weed, never known debt, or crop failure, or a father's call to roll out of bed at 5:30 on a bitter cold morning.

Truman, with his Monday night poker games, his Masonic ring and snappy bow ties, the Main Street pals, the dry Missouri voice, was entirely, undeniably middle American. He had only to open his mouth and his origins were plain. It wasn't just that he came from a particular part of the country, geographically, but from a specific part of the American experience, an authentic pioneer background, and a specific place in the American imagination. His Missouri, as he loved to emphasize, was the Missouri of Mark Twain and Jesse James. In manner and appearance, he might have stepped from a novel by Sinclair Lewis, an author Truman is not known to have read. To anyone taking him at face value, this might have been George F. Babbitt having lunch under the Jackson magnolia.

Roosevelt, on the other hand, was from the world of Edith Wharton stories and drawings by Charles Dana Gibson. He was the authentic American patrician come to power, no matter that he loved politics or a night of poker with "the boys" quite as much as the Senator from Missouri, or that he, too, was a Mason and chose a bow tie as many mornings as not, including this one. Roosevelt had been given things all of his life--houses, furniture, servants, travels abroad. Truman has been given almost nothing. He had never had a house to call his own. He had been taught from childhood, and by rough experience, that what he became would depend almost entirely on what he did. Roosevelt had always known the possibilities open to him--indeed, how much was expected of him--because of who he was.

Both were men of exceptional determination, with great reserves of personal courage and cheerfulness. They were alike too in their enjoyment of people. (The human race, Truman once told a reporter, was an "excellent outfit.") Each had an active sense of humor and was inclined to be dubious of those who did not. But Roosevelt, who loved stories, loved also to laugh at his own, while Truman was more of a listener and laughed best when somebody else told "a good one." Roosevelt enjoyed flattery, Truman was made uneasy by it. Roosevelt loved the subtleties of human relations. He was a master of the circuitous solution to problems, of the pleasing if ambiguous answer to difficult questions. He was sensitive to nuances in a way Harry Truman never was and never would be. . . .

Roosevelt, as would be said, was a kind of master conjurer. He had imagination, he was theatrical. If, as his cousins saw him, Harry Truman was Horatio, then Franklin Roosevelt was Prospero. . . .

In some ways Truman would have felt more in common, more at ease, with the earlier Roosevelt, Theodore, had he been host for the lunch. They were much more alike in temperament. They could have talked books, Army life, or the boyhood handicap of having to wear thick spectacles. Or possibly the old fear of being thought a sissy. Like Theodore Roosevelt, and unlike Franklin, Truman had never known what it was to be glamorous.

From TRUMAN. Copyright © 1992 by David McCullough. Reprinted with permission.