The American Spirit: A Book Review

On May 14, 2017, in America, Books, Freedom, History, Liberty, Patriotism, by Derrick G. Jeter

It has been said before, and by more eloquent voices than my own, but it bears repeating: David McCullough is a national treasure—not merely because he is one of America’s preeminent historians (which he is), but because he is a good and generous man. McCullough embodies a word rarely used to day: He is a gentleman. At a time when our public men are bluster and bombast, McCullough has remained a gentle man—humble and kind. This is not nothing in our day.

To hear McCullough speak—or in the case of his new book, The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For, to read what he wrote—is to witness something out of history, not only because at eighty-three he has a long history of experiences and wisdom behind him, but also because he brings forth something too often absent in this generation: the uniquely American spirit of optimism. The American Spirit is a collection of speeches McCullough hopes will “remind us, in this time of uncertainty and contention, of just who we are and what we stand for, of the high aspirations that inspired our founders, of our enduring values, and the importance of history as an aid to navigation in such troubled, uncertain times.” In short, McCullough wants to encourage a new generation of Americans that America is a great and good nation—with an unlimited future of greatness and goodness ahead.

Culled from twenty-five years of giving speeches, the fifteen speeches in this volume, as would be expected, revolve around historic events and personalities. In the pages of this book we learn about the famous statue of Clio, the goddess of history, and the clock built within her chariot that oversaw the annexation of Texas, the debate over the Mexican War, the establishment of the Naval Academy, statehood for Arkansas, Michigan, Wisconsin, and California, the battle over the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and the final hours of John Quincy Adams. We learn something of unknown figures like Eliphalet Nott, Margaret Chase Smith, Benjamin Latrobe, Charles Sumner, and Constantino Brumidi; as well as well know figures like George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, Marquis de Lafayette, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan. We visit some of the most historic buildings in America: the U.S. Capitol, Carpenter’s Hall, and Monticello; as well as some of the leading universities the nation has to offer. We remember the death of John Quincy Adams and John F. Kennedy. And through all this history and more, McCullough’s indefatigable optimism points us to America’s real spirit: her love of liberty.

McCullough closes his book speaking about the nineteen-and-a-half-foot high Statue of Freedom, and the U.S. Capitol dome upon which she stands.

Completed in 1868, the gleaming dome remains the focal point of our capital city and though there have been modifications and additions to the building in the years since, it remains essentially as it was then, a symbol of freedom, the structure bespeaking more than any other our history, our American journey, evoking and encouraging powerfully pride in our system and, yes, patriotism. . . . On we go.

On we go—into a future that McCullough no doubts believe will be just as bright and significant for America as was her past.

I invite you to follow me on Twitter @derrickjeter.

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