Why history matters... and how

Here's a wonderful talk by historian David McCullough from 2003, just sent to me by Nick Zahn. I strongly recommend it for such insights as "When the world is storm-driven and the bad that happens and the worse that threatens are so urgent as to shut out everything else from view, then we need to know all the strong fortresses of the spirit which men have built through the ages." Now that's history as it should be done. And as we need it in these characteristically troubled times. McCullough draws together all kinds of things in this talk including the famous 1819 painting Declaration of Independence by John Trumbull which has been on display in the U.S. Capitol since 1826. It's not an accurate depiction of an actual historical event, yet somehow it embodies the meaning of the Declaration in a way that continues to compel and attract attention almost 200 years later.

McCullough also describes George Washington's fascination with architecture and interior design, expressed particularly in his renovation of his Mount Vernon home in the midst of the pressing public concerns that led to the Revolutionary War. "He cared about every detail -- wall paper, paint color, hardware, ceiling ornaments -- and hated to be away from the project even for a day."

Which makes this a good moment to remind people of Brigitte's new C2C Journal piece The Political Power of Art. Such matters are not only a fitting concern for conservatives, they are an indispensable one, because as McCullough says, "it is in their [the American Founders'] ideas about happiness, I believe, that we come close to the heart of their being, and to their large view of the possibilities in their Glorious Cause."

Their ideas about happiness were not narrow and cramped. But nor were these men without flaws. McCullough's talk is the 2003 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, a series created by the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1972 and described by the NEH as "the highest honor the federal government confers for distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities." And of course McCullough is not blind to the various Founders' failings including that Jefferson was "evasive, at times duplicitous" and like many others a "stunning" hypocrite in championing liberty while holding slaves.

These men were human, all too human. As are we. History is our story. For as McCullough also wisely notes, "One might also say that history is not about the past. If you think about it, no one ever lived in the past. Washington, Jefferson, John Adams, and their contemporaries didn't walk about saying, 'Isn't this fascinating living in the past! Aren't we picturesque in our funny clothes!' They lived in the present. The difference is it was their present, not ours. They were caught up in the living moment exactly as we are, and with no more certainty of how things would turn out than we have."

I won't reprint the whole thing here; I hope I have excerpted enough to send you to read it. It is wise and thoughtful and full of fascinating details about these real human beings including Washington's preoccupation with design of which I confess I was not aware. But I will conclude with one more crucial quotation from it: "Daniel Boorstin, the former Librarian of Congress, has wisely said that trying to plan for the future without a sense of the past is like trying to plant cut flowers."

This lecture shows how history should be done. And why it matters.