Knowing History and Knowing Who We Are

by David McCullough

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David McCullough was born in 1933 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and was educated there and at Yale University. Author of 1776, John Adams, Truman, Brave Companions, The Path Between the Seas, Mornings on Horseback, The Great Bridge and The Johnstown Flood, he has twice received the Pulitzer Prize and twice the National Book Award, as well as the Francis Parkman Prize and the Los Angeles Times Book Award. He is also a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest civilian award.

Standing where you are today, your future can only be seen through an appreciation for the past - through an understanding of the history of who you are. And you are much more than your own story. Without an understanding of this complicated, tangled path we have collectively taken to get to today, we have no roots from which to grow and stand strong…

Harry Truman once said the only new thing in the world is the history you don’t know. Lord Bolingbroke, who was an 18th century political philosopher, said that history is philosophy taught with examples. An old friend, the late Daniel Boorstin, who was a very good historian and Librarian of Congress, said that trying to plan for the future without a sense of the past is like trying to plant cut flowers. We’re raising a lot of cut flowers and trying to plant them, and that’s much of what I want to talk about tonight…

We have to do several things. First of all we have to get across the idea that we have to know who we were if we’re to know who we are and where we’re headed. This is essential. We have to value what our forebears—and not just in the 18th century, but our own parents and grandparents—did for us, or we’re not going to take it very seriously, and it can slip away. If you don’t care about it—if you’ve inherited some great work of art that is worth a fortune and you don’t know that it’s worth a fortune, you don’t even know that it’s a great work of art and you’re not interested in it—you’re going to lose it.

… If we are fortunate enough to have those roots, we should appreciate how brittle and shallow they would be if it was not for those around us who have invested their own lives in our own. And those individuals are not merely those who supported you as you grew, but they are also those that died long before you were ever around.

The environment that we live in today only exists due to the sacrifices, courage, persistence and earnest efforts of those who saw a reason to build a better world for the next generation…

Nor is there any such creature as a self-made man or woman. We love that expression, we Americans. But every one who’s ever lived has been affected, changed, shaped, helped, hindered by other people. We all know, in our own lives, who those people are who’ve opened a window, given us an idea, given us encouragement, given us a sense of direction, self-approval, self-worth, or who have straightened us out when we were on the wrong path… Family, teachers, friends, rivals, competitors—they’ve all shaped us.

And so too have people we’ve never met, never known, because they lived long before us. They have shaped us too—the people who composed the symphonies that move us, the painters, the poets, those who have written the great literature in our language. We walk around everyday, everyone of us, quoting Shakespeare, Cervantes, Pope. We don’t know it, but we are, all the time. We think this is our way of speaking. It isn’t our way of speaking—it’s what we have been given.

The laws we live by, the freedoms we enjoy, the institutions that we take for granted—as we should never take for granted—are all the work of other people who went before us… It’s not just a birthright, it is something that others struggled for, strived for, often suffered for, often were defeated for and died for, for us, for the next generation.

… But even as we remember those humans who did the exceptional - those who went above and beyond that which was easy and comforting in order to make a real difference - we should remember that they, too, were imperfect humans. Just like us, they had faults and vices, strengths and virtues.

However, these ordinary people are remembered because they met opportunity with preparation, perseverance and character

Now those who wrote the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia that fateful summer of 1776 were not superhuman by any means. Every single one had his flaws, his failings, his weaknesses. Some of them ardently disliked others of them. Every one of them did things in his life he regretted. But the fact that they could rise to the occasion as they did, these imperfect human beings, and do what they did is also, of course, a testimony to their humanity. We are not just known by our failings, by our weaknesses, by our sins. We are known by being capable of rising to the occasion and exhibiting not just a sense of direction, but strength.

The Greeks said that character is destiny, and the more I read and understand of history, the more convinced I am that they were right. You look at the great paintings by John Trumbull or Charles Willson Peale or Copley or Gilbert Stuart of those remarkable people who were present at the creation of our nation, the Founders as we call them. Those aren’t just likenesses. They are delineations of character and were intended to be. And we need to understand them, and we need to understand that they knew that what they had created was no more perfect than they were. And that has been to our advantage. It has been good for us that it wasn’t all just handed to us in perfect condition, all ready to run in perpetuity—that it needed to be worked at and improved and made to work better.

… For it is not through calm complacency that the world is made into a better home for us all. Fear, danger and necessity are that fires that, when combined with those individuals prepared to take action, released the genius through which our world was forged into the marvel that it is today…

These are the times in which genius would wish to live. It is not in the still calm of life or the repose of a pacific station that great characters are formed. The habits of a vigorous mind are formed in contending with difficulties. Great necessities call out great virtues. When a mind is raised and animated by scenes that engage the heart, then those qualities which would otherwise lay dormant wake into life and form the character of the hero and the statesman.

…Despite all the faults that can be found with it, there has never been a better time to be alive on this earth. And it is for this reason that we should remember, at the end of the day, while you are patting yourself on the back for what you have accomplished, that you are no better than anyone else.

Relative to all the humans that have existed up and until now, think of how fortunate you are and how lazy of you it would have been to end up otherwise.

And if you are not all that you can be - and none of us are - then you must look in the mirror, past your own face and inside yourself, until you find those who have gone before you. Have you done them justice in becoming who you are today?

If you are conscious to yourself that you possess more knowledge upon some subjects than others of your standing, reflect that you have had greater opportunities of seeing the world and obtaining knowledge of mankind than any of your contemporaries. That you have never wanted a book, but it has been supplied to you. That your whole time has been spent in the company of men of literature and science. How unpardonable would it have been in you to have turned out a blockhead.

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Take care and have a great rest of the week,

— EJ

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