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What David McCullough Can Teach Us
A great historian can make us more faithful Christians.
David McCullough has passed away. He was and is one of the greatest history writers of his era. One Christmas as a teenager I received a copy of 1776. My first read-through remains one of the most captivating reading experiences of my entire life. I was entranced: absorbed wholly in McCullough’s poetic, page-turning style, but also deeply affected by the love and sympathy he showed for all the subjects. When I later arrived at John Adams, I was blown away by McCullough’s skill for putting the reader inside the hearts of people removed by two hundred years.
One of McCullough’s great gifts was opening up history so that you could see it the way the people who lived it saw it. In this, I imagine McCullough’s style irritated readers and scholars who preferred a more activist, more moralistic storytelling. For example, McCullough does not shy away from discussing the moral contradictions of slaveholding Founding Fathers, but neither does he latch on to it, tracing racial discrimination through the lives of his subjects so as to interpret them through it. There are many who would argue this is exactly what historians should do. I disagree. And the beauty and hope of McCullough’s work reinforces my opinion.
I read through some of Jesus and John Wayne earlier this year. I have no take about Kristin Kobes Du Mez as a historian or as a Christian. I did come away from the book with an opinion of her as a storyteller: namely, that in Jesus and John Wayne, Du Mez wanted me to see the subjects of her history the way she sees them, not as how they saw themselves. How they interpreted their lives and beliefs was of little consequence. How the generations after them interpreted them was everything. This is the kind of history that gets people angry and eager to deconstruct whatever they sense is tainted by moral failure.
What renews my soul about reading David McCullough’s work is that it doesn’t do this. McCullough clearly has positive feelings about John Adams, George Washington, Harry Truman, etc. But these are not hagiographies. One of the most memorable parts of John Adams is the way that McCullough fleshes out Adams’s penchant for vanity and insecurity. This shows up throughout Adams’ life and in his presidency, including, crucially, the ill-chosen Alien and Sedition Acts (that all but dismantled his friendship with Thomas Jefferson). McCullough is up front and lucid about how Adams’ personal flaws came out in his relationships and his policy. But McCullough is also extremely careful about letting Adams, and especially Abigail, live these flaws out themselves. We come away feeling as if we know about Adams’ vanity the way we know about the vanity of a close friend or even a spouse: that particular way we process the failings and flaws of people we nonetheless believe in. To reach this point with a subject of a biography is not just a wonderful reading experience. It’s an exercise that strengthens a Christian’s moral imagination.
It would be easy to criticize McCullough as a dewy-eyed optimist, a “patriot” in the most sentimental, Currier and Ives sense. But I want to suggest that when we encounter someone who has spent a lifetime among the dead, especially among the great dead, we need to take their outlook very seriously. I believe that McCullough’s hopeful, aspirational style came not despite of his immersion in American history, but because of it. In learning deeply of the people, ideas, events, and places that most formed our story, McCullough became like them himself. Much like how C.S. Lewis’s decades of study of sixteenth century English literature almost certainly tilled the soil of his heart to receive the message of Christianity—and almost certainly gave him his astonishing ability to describe the human condition with transparency and prescience—McCullough’s life among the great figures of history gave him, I suspect, a sense of the value of virtue, the resilience of those with integrity, and the power of individual choices.
In a 2005 commencement address to Hillsdale College, McCullough said:
There’s a line in one of the letters written by John Adams where he’s telling his wife, Abigail, at home, “We can’t guarantee success [in this war], but we can do something better. We can deserve it.” Think how different that is from the attitude today when all that matters for far too many is success, being number one, getting ahead, getting to the top. However you betray or claw or cheat is immaterial if you get to the top. That line in the Adams letter is saying that how the War for Independence turns out is in the hands of God. We can’t control that, but we can control how we behave. We can deserve success. (The American Spirit, 115)
If someone like me were to say something like what president Adams said today, I would almost certainly be called a squish, a pharisee, a dolt who just doesn’t understand What’s At Stake. But here’s John Adams, a flawed man and largely failed president, saying that character still counts. How you win matters. And this quote means much more when you realize that a failed war effort for John and Abigail Adams did not mean a loss at the ballot box, worse taxes, and cultural marginalization. It meant certain torture and death. It meant the forfeiture of their children’s futures. Here’s a man with literally everything to lose, saying it matters how he wins.
Here’s what I want from us evangelicals who care (or want to care) about the story of God’s kingdom. I want us to do what David McCullough was so good at doing: trying to understand the past, not simply leverage it against our enemies. I want us to take seriously the lessons of those who lived lives of greater consequence than us, even when those lessons appear to humble or even quiet us. I want us to see God’s providence in the world not as a series of ever-escalating episodes, climaxing in the great culture war battles of 2022, but as the same demonstrations of his justice and his grace time and time again, with traces left for those willing to go find them.
Rest in peace, David McCullough.