A Historian’s Historian

McCullough’s history never boring

By Cal Thomas

Tribune Content Agency

I hated college history. The textbooks were mostly about dead white men, Abigail Adams excepted. The lectures were boring. I didn’t see how any of it related to my young life and future plans.

Historian David McCullough, who died this week at age 89, helped change my attitude toward history and its contemporary relevance. At a time when some are trying to tear history down by re-naming highways and removing statues of slave owners, McCullough built history up.

He was fond of saying of those he wrote about: “If they’re not forgotten, they’re not gone.”

Whether it was his book “1776,” described by Amazon this way, “(It) tells the intensely human story of those who marched with General George Washington in the year of the Declaration of Independence, when the whole American cause was riding on their success, without which all hope for independence would have been dashed and the noble ideals of the Declaration would have amounted to little more than words on paper,” or “Truman,” which provides “ a deeply moving look at an extraordinary, singular American,” or “John Adams,” which was made into a film series on HBO, or my personal favorite, “The Wright Brothers,” an American story if ever there was one about two brothers who owned a bicycle shop, built and were the first to successfully fly an airplane. They had no help from the U.S. government and received financing from France until Washington saw it work and then belatedly came aboard. Some things never change.

 McCullough didn’t just recall history. In a sense he revived history and our interest in it.

President George H.W. Bush invited historians to the White House for a series of talks on American presidents. I attended one at which McCullough spoke. His subject was Andrew Jackson. McCullough described the “open house” following Jackson’s Inauguration on March 4, 1829 at which 20,000 people attended. The event became so rowdy, Jackson climbed out a window to escape the mob.

McCullough had the audience laughing as if he were a comedian. In his books, he draws in the reader as if to say, “this is important to you and to your country. Learn from it.” His excellent research and writing style make us feel we are there witnessing the events he describes, not like some other historians who make one feel they are “looking through a glass darkly.”

Other historians, including Stephen Ambrose, Doris Kearns Goodwin and Douglas Brinkley (among several moderns who also deserve credit for re-writing history in a readable and compelling way) share in the credit for making history relevant again, but for me McCullough, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, is the tops.

As George Santayana famously said, “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” Times change, but human nature never changes. David McCullough has shown why the lessons of history remain important, especially for those determined not to repeat history’s mistakes and to learn from its successes.

Fortunately, his works are so good they will be read – and should be – by generations yet to come.

(Readers may email Cal Thomas at tcaeditors@tribpub.com. Look for Cal Thomas’ latest book “America’s Expiration Date: The Fall of Empires and Superpowers and the Future of the United States” (HarperCollins/Zondervan).


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  1. Lee A Thompson on August 10, 2022 at 12:45 pm

    I loved books by David McCullough, an author I marked as following on an online bookseller, writing primarily of America and its rich history. He was one of two of my favorite authors, the other being Stephen Ambrose, a writing machine.

    Mr. McCullough was notable in that he covered multiple tops, my favorite books being perhaps 1776, followed closely by his biography of John Adams and my home state book about the Wright Brothers.

    He will be missed, but he will live on, as noted by Mr. Thomas quoting the author in a different context, “If they’re not forgotten, they’re not gone.”

  2. Richard Wilkinson on August 13, 2022 at 4:43 pm

    Cal, I enjoyed your thoughtful appreciation of David McCullough and his work today. I am Richard Wilkinson, 65, of Amory, MS. I usually disagree with almost everything you write on politics, but I share your feelings about the value of McCullough’s wonderful career in bringing our history to life. Thank you, sir, for reminding us of what a loss lovers of well written American history suffered this week in the avalanche of news, rumor and hype we were all swamped in. if I may, Cal, I want to recommend a recent book to you on cultural, racial and social history that took me by surprise with its insights, ideas and in depth research. It is called South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon Line to Find the Soul of a Nation, by Imani Perry. Perry is a native Southerner, from Alabama, and she goes to the various Southern states to explore the South’s lasting influence, good and bad, on America as a whole. She is a compelling writer and each chapter has so much depth that it demands slow and careful reading to absorb all the information. A native Southerner myself, I found much of value here including things I always felt were present and ignored about my region. When I finished it, I reread it again to pick up what I missed the first time and my copy has little notations, underlines and circled sentences on nearly every page. It is that good. Again, Cal, THANK YOU for your thoughts on McCullough, they were much appreciated.

    • Cal Thomas on August 13, 2022 at 7:27 pm

      Thank you for writing Mr. Wilkinson. It was good of you to take the time.I am always amused when people write me a nice note and include the qualifier that they mostly don’t agree with me but…
      In nearly 40 years of writing a syndicated column I don’t think I have ever said that to my liberal friends (of which I have many). I have always asked people who say such things why they feel it necessary to qualify a compliment? Maybe you can enlighten me when no one else has been able to.
      Again, I appreciate your taking the time to visit my web page and for writing me.
      Cal Thomas
      Gender preference and identification male, pronouns he/him
      I trust you appreciate the humor!