David McCullough, The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For. (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2017).
Defining “The” American Spirit is a challenging proposition given America’s current division. History has been weaponized in support of political positions. Many in the academy have fostered social division to further a political philosophy. With little remnant of a common history remaining we stand at a critical juncture. Is there a common history in which we can rediscover “the” American spirit? If so, can that history heal our present fracture and nurture a promising future? A definition that brings us together, that drives us to our better nature. Few historians have the necessary cache to take on such a challenge. David McCullough is one of only a few historians with enough courage to take on that challenge. He is also one of a few with enough respect for his definition to garner serious consideration.
The American Spirit is a compilation of speeches McCullough has given on various occasions including commencements, addresses to Congress, and naturalization ceremonies. Through his speeches we are reminded that the higher ideas that propelled our nation were expressed by flawed human beings. Many that espoused the highest of ideals, practiced the lowest. He reminds us that while low ideas may have been practiced for a time, those ideas were forced to battle constantly against the good. A battle that good won.
McCullough communicates by telling stories. He tells of a common craftsman whose work, though prominently displayed, might be taken for granted if one does not explore its deeper symbolism. A common craftsman whose work has, for most our history, marked the passing of politicians both renowned and forgotten. He tells of people who upheld The American Spirit. People like Republican Margaret Chase Smith, who first repudiated Joseph McCarthy. When telling her story McCullough reminds us of our failure to history. Joseph McCarthy has been written about extensively, but there is no biography of Margaret Chase Smith. Unfortunately, Smith is not alone in historical neglect. McCullough reminds us of others whose stands against lesser ideas have been neglected. Their stories do not support political narratives.
In The American Spirit McCullough chides historians for engaging in purposeful history, while encouraging us to examine our history in a more complete light. While he asks us to remember past wrongs, he asks that we also remember past rights. McCullough’s chidings and encouragements do not come across as the finger wagging of a moralist, but more as the foresight of a sage. The American Spirit highlights the consequences of American’s lacking a deep understanding of our history. He encourages Americans to consume history. He also reminds historians that there are plenty of worthy books left unwritten.