BYU invited David McCullough to speak at a recent forum assembly. He is a well known historian. He seeks to write history the way you would write a novel. He wants history to be accessible and interesting. BYU hasn't yet posted audio, video, or transcript of his talk, though McCullough said he planned to allow them to do so. It should appear at BYU Broadcasting when it is ready.
I stayed around after the assembly for the question and answer period. I thought I would share a few bits from my notes. His real answers were invariably longer and more thorough than what you'll see here. I've only captured a few sentences or paraphrases of them. I hope they capture the essense of what he said.
Q: What do you see as the most pressing problems we face today, and what from history teaches us how to face it?
A: We lack self confidence. We can’t lose trust in our neighbor and our faith in what we stand for. We are against a foe that believes in enforced ignorance and we don’t. We will not allow circumstance to vitiate our better natures. We face environmental problems. We need to do more in the way of service. If I were to criticize the president, I would say that he has not called upon us to serve sufficiently. We want to help. We want to serve. We want to be useful. McCullough was near the white house on 9/11 and saw it all happen. The looks on the faces on the people leaving the Whitehouse was not panic but concern about how to help. They went to donate blood and couldn’t because so many had already tried to do so. Everybody wants to help!
Q: Do you feel God had a hand in the Revolution?
A: There was a force beyond our understanding. Miracles happened. I won’t get into the theological explanation as that is personal and beyond my capacity.
Q: Were the Founding Fathers just out to protect their economic interests? That is how it is often taught today in schools. What do you think of the current teaching of history?
A: There are many great historians. But they shouldn’t only be writing for other historians. If people don’t want to read the history, it isn’t of much worth. Those who write history should aspire to write literature. If they don’t do that, then history will die because nobody will want to read it. I write narrative history and I love to read narrative history.
Q: Are we losing the “Spirit of 1776”?
A: It is not lost, but eroding. We aren’t teaching history well enough. That is our fault, not the fault of the children. Let’s not overemphasize how dark our own times are. We’ve been through worse times than 9/11 or any other calamity we’ve recently seen. Those who make those claims that these are the worst times are historically ignorant. Think of 1776, Nazi Germany, Great Depression. “We’ve haven’t journeyed this far because we’re made of sugar candy” Winston Churchill.
Q: Would you have followed Adams or Jefferson?
A: I’m an Adams man. He had moral and physical courage. The only founding father who never owned a slave as a matter of principle. He saw through a lot of the smoke and mirrors of some of the other philosophical political opinion of the time. Humble background. Not some rich, Boston, blue-blood. An example of the transforming miracle of education. John Adams did not believe that “all men are created equal”. Some have certain advantages or disadvantages, but they are all equal in the eyes of God and the law, said he. Jefferson was the great spokesperson for the common man. But he removed himself from the common man as far as he could get. Is this the man that said “all men are created equal”? Adams said, “beware of the common man. I know; I’m one of them!” “We are a government of laws and not of men.” “A strong central government is important.” The country was held together across the fault line that was inequality and slavery, by George Washington for 8 years. What a miracle it was that he was the first president.