Skip to main content


David McCullough, Chronicler of America

An Appreciation

By James H. Billington | HUMANITIES, May/June 2003 | Volume 24, Number 3

David McCullough is the citizen chronicler of the American story for our time.

McCullough is a unique--and uniquely American--humanist. He is a historian who immerses himself deeply in primary materials, a literary artist of the first order, and a trusted person who has projected serious reflection out to an unprecedentedly wide audience.

He is a humanist in the literal meaning of that word. He is interested in people rather than "the people." He takes the reader inside the social and mental worlds in which his subjects live; and he lets them speak for themselves with generous and illuminating citations from their own writings and speeches.

McCullough has spoken of the inspiration Thornton Wilder provided him when McCullough was an undergraduate at Yale. Wilder was the author not only of the quintessentially American play Our Town, but also of the tragic tale of the five people in The Bridge of St. Luis Rey who lost their lives when that bridge collapsed in eighteenth-century South America. McCullough wrote his first two major books about an even greater tragedy and a far larger bridge in nineteenth-century North America; and he somehow made us all feel that wherever we lived these things happened in our town.

He tells us that seeing pictures of the Johnstown flood at the Library of Congress got him started. And his entire subsequent historical writing is filled with images that help us see and hear people and places from the American past at important points in our history.

His first three books were written about inanimate objects: The Johnstown Flood, The Great Bridge, and The Path Between the Seas. But McCullough's focus was always on the human beings who created and were affected by each of these "things." The Path Between the Seas was a progression over forty-four years of the creation of the Panama Canal, and it pointed to the new direction that his work would shortly take, because it covered the widely diverse and often unexpected cast of characters that participated in the drama. Next came the first of his presidential biographies, Mornings on Horseback. It took the story of Theodore Roosevelt only up to his second marriage in 1886, but McCullough managed (as one academic reviewer noted) to make a special contribution to a well-worked subject by taking "the entire family as his subject, and recreating the human formation of this often-superhuman personality."

His next book, Brave Companions, was a collection of vignettes about a wide variety of people often depicted as "figures in a landscape." In this, as in all his subsequent work, McCullough paints pictures with words. Indeed, McCullough's "earliest ambition was to be an artist . . . a portrait painter," he writes. The book begins with the story of how John Singer Sargent started his famous painting of Theodore Roosevelt. His lead essay in the collection is on the great intellectual polymath Alexander von Humboldt. It begins with young Humboldt arriving at the White House with Charles Willson Peale for an intellectual summit with Thomas Jefferson; it ends with Jefferson, the aged sage, sitting without any of his decorations for a final portrait.

The epic stories he tells include victimized as well as victorious figures. His range of human sympathies is as broad as the audience he reaches. He reports on past events like a good journalist, but without practicing what the French call haute vulgarization (a simplified account based on other people's research). McCullough begins his major works by immersing himself in the time, the place, the menus and the reading lists of his key characters--preferably by visiting the spots where they lived, tasting the food that they ate, and reading the books that shaped their thinking. As an independent scholar, he is not beholden to any of the ideological causes or methodological fads that often take possession of otherwise good historians in bureaucratized academia--and cause them to end up writing more for each other than for a general audience. Unlike many revisionist historians, McCullough basically likes what he is writing about; yet he seeks to clear away myths for which he can find no factual basis.

In an age of deconstruction and taking things apart, McCullough is a partisan of putting things together--preferably in libraries with gardens, the two ingredients he seeks above all to include in the national memorial in Washington that he is championing for John Adams. McCullough wants the Adams memorial to be small and modest like the house that Adams lived in for most of his life. McCullough himself writes in a small room and insists that nothing of quality has ever been written in a very large space.

I will always remember the first time I met David McCullough at work. It was in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress, and he was seated at a reading desk just like everyone else, even though he was already a well-known figure. What set him off then--as now--was his infectious enthusiasm at the experience of getting lost in the early nineteenth century. Insofar as he talked about anything else, it was about the great outdoors--as if he was compensating for not himself spending "mornings on horseback" writing about someone who did.

His biographies of two exemplary American presidents have been the crowning achievement of his recent creative life. He has almost single-handedly elevated both Harry Truman and John Adams from modest prior respect to the foothills of Mount Rushmore. This is particularly remarkable, since neither of these men was a charismatic figure or left office with high popular esteem. Both, moreover, had the misfortune to be sandwiched between two presidents who were of historic stature: Washington and Jefferson in the case of Adams, Franklin Roosevelt and Eisenhower in the case of Truman.

It is inevitable that such a popular historian should be subjected to a variety of challenges and criticisms by academic historians. A frequent professorial complaint is that there is too much storytelling and not enough social and psychological analysis. But his accuracy and eye for illustrative detail have been widely recognized--as have the frequent insights embedded in his narratives. He is sometimes faulted for being too admiring of his subjects. He does infuse his work with the optimism, energy and exuberance of awakening America at the end of the nineteenth into the mid-twentieth century, the period of his first three books, and he extends this positive approach in his massive biographies of Truman and Adams.

Ancient chroniclers often wrote down their stories so that they could read them aloud to kings and courtiers. In like manner, this chronicler of democratic heroes speaks as engagingly as he writes. No one who heard him could forget his galvanizing lecture on Theodore Roosevelt, delivered without a single note, in the White House of George H.W. Bush; or his appeal, addressed to the joint session of Congress on the occasion of the bicentennial of our first branch of government, that historians should write more about the history of Congress and about its key leaders. He pointed out that there have been a dozen biographies of Senator Joseph McCarthy but none at all of many of the most important leaders of Congress, such as Senator Justin Morrill, who created our system of land-grant universities. Fortunately, the Congress itself has taken up this task. Senator Robert C. Byrd has written The Senate, 1789-1989, and the House of Representatives has commissioned the Library of Congress to prepare a history of the House, which is currently being done by the distinguished American historian Robert Remini.

McCullough appears on the Smithsonian World television series, and audiences all over America have established him without any need for promotional fanfare as a trusted spokesman on--and for--American history today. He has recently become an eloquent champion of reviving and deepening the neglected study of American history in our schools and colleges.

There is a tone of old-fashioned moral indignation about the loss of memory and shrinking of imaginative horizons that the disintegration of basic historical knowledge creates for our young people. He conveys a moral message with vivid illustrations rather than moralistic rhetoric. His bicentennial address to the Congress contrasted the old face clock in Statuary Hall that reminds us of past and future as well as present time with the new digital clocks that tells us only what time it is now.

At this time of trial and testing in our national life, the chronicler of America is now going back to the very beginnings of our nation. Many specialists will never be satisfied that David McCullough has dealt with all the controversies and covered all aspects of the people he tells us about; but no one tells stories better, and no one in our time has probably stimulated more people to go on thinking and reading and exploring the rich record of American history.

It is appropriate that this man, who has done so much to increase the reputation of John Adams vis-a-vis Thomas Jefferson, should be giving the National Endowment for the Humanities Jefferson Lecture. McCullough is currently exploring the year 1776, in which battles were fought and a new kind of self-government brought into being. He loves the beginnings of great enterprises, and he knows how to talk to a large group in a way that makes the individual feel like a young person listening to an older relative talking by an open fireplace.

My mother used to say that Bach really knew how to end a piece of music. David McCullough brought the Library of Congress's National Book Festival to a close this past year, speaking to a packed audience on a rain-soaked mall at a time when the Washington sniper was still on the prowl. He painted a marvelous word picture of one of his heroes, John Adams, as Adams decided to become a lawyer; and he concluded his talk with a brief word about our current foreign danger that suggests that his enlightenment and elegance rest on a bedrock of good New England granite:

On the night of August 22nd, a Sunday, when, after having attended church all day (which was to be a lifelong habit for John Adams), he went out under the stars, so inspired by the sermon, he said, and also in a state of euphoria . . . and he wrote of the glorious shows of nature overhead and of the intense sense of pleasure they evoked. Beholding the night sky, the amazing concave of heaven, sprinkled and glittering with stars, he was thrown, he wrote, into a kind of transport and knew that such wonders were the gifts of God, expressions of God's love--but that the greatest gift of all, he was certain, was the gift of an inquiring mind. He would become a lawyer. "But all the provisions that He"--God--"has [made] for the gratification of our senses . . . are much inferior to the provision, the wonderful provision that He has made for the gratification of our nobler powers of intelligence and reason. He has given us reason to find out the truth and the real design and true end of our existence."

To a friend Adams wrote, "It will be hard . . . " meaning the studies that were still ahead of him--"But the point is now determined, and I shall have the liberty to think for myself."

We face a foe today who believes in enforced ignorance. We don't.