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David McCullough
Landon Lecture
Feb. 1, 2002

 

The Founders: The Greatest Generation

 

Sometimes in the processes of researching a book one comes across a sentence or a statistic or an observation by a character in the story that just lifts you out of the chair. And I want to speak today about a couple of those moments in my work on John Adams, and I want to try and convey to you my very strong feelings that in this time, this dangerous moment in history since Sept. 11, that we have an inexhaustible source of strength to draw upon, and we mustn't forget it, and that's our story, our history as a people, as a nation.

I'm not very good about remembering statistics and I also feel that a historian or a biographer can have all the facts right but miss the truth. Francis wrote about that brilliantly in the introduction to his great History of the French and Indian War. But two statistics I came across in my work on John Adams, my work on 1776, struck a bell, gave me a sense of proportions that I never would have had otherwise.

The first was that the population of Philadelphia in 1776 was all of 30,000 people, smaller than Manhattan, Kansas, and that the population of New York was about 18,000, Boston maybe 15,000, and the population of the entire country was about 2,500,000, about the same as the State of Kansas. The settlement of the country by European settlers over several hundred years until then, was only about 50 miles deep along the eastern seaboard. Pennsylvania was still two-thirds forest, not woods, but forest. Massachusetts was still two-thirds forest. Worcester, Massachusetts, which is in the eastern part of the state, was considered on the edge of the frontier. The black population, most of whom were held in bondage as slaves, was about half a million, and the audacity of the patriots of that day to claim independence, to stand in opposition to the British empire was such as we probably have to struggle to even comprehend. But the other statistic that I'm going to stress gives a sense of that proportion.

In the same week when the delegates to the Second Continental Congress at Philadelphia were about to vote for the Declaration of Independence, that first week, crucial first week in July, the British were landing a total of 32,000 troops on Staten Island. In other words, they were landing a military force on Staten Island which was larger than the entire population of the largest city in the American colonies. And furthermore, they were the best troops in the world. They were fully equipped, they were veteran troops, and they were only about a day and-a-half, two days march from Philadelphia.

So when those delegates, those founding fathers we sometimes call them, signed their names to the Declaration of Independence, they were signing their names to their own death warrants. They were declaring themselves historically, publicly as traitors. And when they said they pledged their lives, their fortunes, their sacred honor, those weren't just words, that wasn't pure rhetoric for effect, it was the literal truth. So the courage that they had is at least as important as any single factor to take into consideration in trying to understand that time and understand those people.

They were not like we are. It's very commonly said, "Oh, the people of the past are just like we are." They were nothing like we are, because they lived in a different time, they lived in a different culture, the inconveniences, the discomforts, the hardships, the fears, fears of disease, for example, that they had to live with on a daily basis were of a kind that we don't know.

Consider, for example, when the first Continental Congress set off-the members of that Congress set off to go to Philadelphia for the first meeting of the Congress, they were going to a city in which only the year before, really less than 12 months before, more than 300 people had died of smallpox. Now, that's one percent of the population. It would be as if a meeting were going to be held in Philadelphia today and over 10,000 people within the last eight or nine months had died of smallpox. How many would be brave enough to go there? And, of course, there's been no cure for smallpox, and smallpox is a killer. And in fact, one delegate to the First Continental Congress died of smallpox. But they went anyway. They followed their principles, if you will, and we are all their beneficiaries.

One would hope that at least among the most important side effects of a knowledge of history or appreciation of history is a capacity for gratitude, our gratitude for all that has been done for us through essentially, it seems to me, three great qualities that we should draw upon.

The first is courage. We're all descended, every one of us is descended from someone of enormous courage, fortitude, strength, toughness. Imagine just crossing the Atlantic Ocean to come here in the 17th Century or the 18th Century. Horrible, and almost as perilous as anything one could comprehend. And on into the 19th Century, the risks they were taking. This nation was built on risk. We are risk takers, we've always been risk takers.

I think to me as moving to my spirit, as memorable as any moment in the whole process of writing the book about John Adams, was the day I went with my son in the dead of winter, just this time of year, February, to stand at about the place that we think that John Quincy Adams, the father and the little boy, stood on the shores near Quincy at what's called Howe's Neck, with the wind blowing, with the temperature in the low 20s, nearly dark, on a day in mid February, to be picked up in a rowboat and taken out to the U.S. frigate Boston to sail for France, in the midst of winter and in the midst of war, neither the father nor the son having ever set foot on a ship before in his life.

Well, my son and I went to that place. John Quincy Adams was ten years old at the time, a little boy. His father was in his early forties. My son is in his early forties. We got out of nice warm car and we had good L.L. Bean down coats on and we walked down across the snow to the water's edge, and the wind was blowing and it was about 30 degrees, not 20 degrees, and it was bitterly cold. And the sky was lowering, glowering and these big green rollers were coming in, and we tried to imagine what it would have been like to have gotten into that rowboat and gone out to a frigate sitting out on the horizon, to sail to France in the midst of winter. Nobody ever went to sea on the North Atlantic in the winter if it could be avoided, even in peacetime. And to go in the midst of war was to go knowing that there were British cruisers lying offshore just waiting to capture a ship with somebody like John Adams, to take him to London, to the tower to be hanged.

I think I felt then in a way one can only feel from the experience of being at the place in roughly the same conditions, the extraordinary courage of that man, and to be taking his son, because his wife Abigail wanted the boy to go to see history happening and to see his father in action, and to learn from his father and to experience the associations that she knew he would have with some of the greatest minds of that extraordinary 18th Century once they reached France.

The second point I'd like to make besides courage, is that the people who did all these things, these great accomplishments in our national common story, our national experience, weren't gods, they were human beings. They had flaws, they had failings, they had inconsistencies, they were vulnerable. They made mistakes, they did things they regretted, some were exceedingly ambitious, overly ambitious, some could be jealous, vain. Some could be duplicitous at times. And the miracle is not that they did what they did because they were gods, because if they'd been gods they really wouldn't deserve much credit, because gods can do anything. The miracle is that these imperfect human beings rose to the occasion, worked together and succeeded against the odds.

If they'd taken a poll in the colonies in 1776, in Philadelphia in 1776, to see who was for it and who was against it, they would have scrapped the whole thing, because only about a third of the country was for it, a third of the country was adamantly against it, and the remaining third in the good old human way, was waiting to see who came out on top. But these imperfect people somehow understood that they were characters in one of the great dramas of all time. They were playing a part, and they had better play it to the best of their ability.

Another of those moments in my work where I was almost lifted out of the chair by reading something was when I read the sentence in a letter to John Adams' wife, Abigail, written by Adams at Philadelphia in what seemed one of the darkest moments of the whole story, and he knew how worried she was, how frightened she was of what the outcome of all this might be. And he said to her, "We can't guarantee success, but we can deserve it."

And when I read that I thought how different that is from our time, when all that matters is success, being number one, being at the top, irrespective of how you got there, what devices, what elbows and knees and the rest you used to get there. They're saying something exactly the reverse. And when I read that sentence I thought what a mind he had and what a moral lesson that is.

And then I read the same sentence in a letter that Washington had written, and then I read the same sentence again in another letter that Washington had written. And I began to think, maybe it's not their line. And it isn't. I took down the good old Bartlett's Familiar Quotations and started going through all the things that dated from the 18th Century, and bingo, there it was. It's a line from the Play "Cato" by Joseph Addison, the most popular play of the time. Washington is said to have seen it maybe six or seven times. Actually the line in the play is even better. The line in the play is, "We can't guarantee success, we can do something better, we can deserve it."

Now, what does that all mean? It means that what happens, the outcome of what happens, is in the hands of God, it's out of our hands. But how we behave, how we perform, how we measure up, that's something we can control. Or to put it another way, if we are in a noble cause, even if that cause is doomed to failure, let's fail nobly.

So you have to understand the culture of these imperfect human beings and what they read, what they believed in, what were the lines that came naturally to them. Now, the reason they didn't put quotation marks around the lines is because each of the writers knew that the recipient of the letter knew the line perfectly well. It would be, as everybody in the country knows, just as you in Kansas particularly know, as if somebody said, "Well, I guess I'll just have to follow the yellow brick road." We don't need to put quotations around that, they all know it, everybody knows it, and they all knew this line then.

Nathan Hale, a school teacher from Connecticut, captured by the British as a spy, hanged in New York at about somewhere near where Grand Central Station now stands, is reported to have said as his last words, "My only regret is that I have but one life to lose for my country." It's not his line, it's from the play "Cato."

Now, here he is, he's a young man about to lose his life, they're going to hang him, and they tell him he can have his final words. Who can on the spur of the moment think of some wonderful final line? What does he do? He resorts to what was in effect scripture. "My only regret is that I have but one life to lose for my country." And I also think he was throwing that line back at those British officers, because after all, it's their line; Addison was a British playwright.

So imperfect as they were, they understood that they had to play their part, they had to rise to the occasions, and they also had a further model, which I think all of us who were involved with education should take very seriously. Most of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence were learned men. They could read Greek and Latin. Jefferson and Adams read Greek and Latin for pleasure. Now, what's important about that isn't just that they had the facility in those languages, what's important about that is that they were saturated, marinated, if you will, in the classics, in Greek and Roman history, Greek and Roman ideas and ideals, and it's that model that they turned to again and again.

They had all read Cato, Cicero, they'd all read Tacitus, they could quote lines from it. That was their history. There was no American history. That was history for them, so they had the model or the example or the inspiration of a history. They were drawing strength from that history.

The third point that I hope that we can draw strength from, along with the idea that they had courage and they were human beings, if you think about it, the whole emphasis is right in the first line of the Declaration of Independence, "When in the course of human events." The operative word, the key word in that line is human, human events. Then if you go on they talk about the pursuit of happiness. No such phrase had been used before exactly that way. What did it mean? What did they mean then, those different people, about the pursuit of happiness? Well, it did not mean ease and it did not mean affluence or material acquisition. What it meant was the enlargement of the human spirit and the improvement of the good society, the attainment of the good society through the life of the mind, learning, through learning. Learning above all, education, the whole world of the enlightenment is based on this concept, and they were men, people of the enlightenment.

There's a letter, a now famous letter, that John Adams wrote from France after he had arrived and after he'd had time to consider the contrast between the culture of his own country and that of France. Now, keep in mind that every American of that day arriving in France or England, or Europe in general, but most of all in France, was overwhelmed by the music, the architecture, the painting. They had never seen anything like it. There was virtually no painting going on in this country. Our two greatest painters, Copley and Benjamin West, had gone to London to become court painters to the king, because that's where there was a market for their abilities. There was no grand architecture. The largest single building in the United States in 1776 was Nassau Hall at Princeton University, still stands, and by our standards it's a very handsome building but not very grand or impressive. There was no theatre. When Abigail Adams first got to London and then on to Paris, she'd been reading plays and in particular Shakespeare all her life, but she'd never seen a play.

So when Adams arrived alone the first time, walking around Paris, much of which is still there, his Paris is still there. The house that he and Abigail later lived in is still there. He wrote a letter back home which contains a superb paragraph that in many ways expresses as well as almost anything can or did, what they meant by the pursuit of happiness.

Now, keep in mind he's there to get the French to come into the war financially with armaments and most of all with their Navy and their troops. He's very busy, he's under tremendous pressure, and yet he sees all this culture around him and he's torn by this. And he writes, "I must study politics and war that my sons have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. You have to have liberty first. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study paintings, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain." A wonderful sense of what is truly the upward climb that they envisioned.

Now, we are in a struggle today, a deadly struggle with what might be described in this war against terrorism-what might be described as a war against enforced ignorance, enforced inequality. Nothing like freedom of religion. We live under a constitution written by imperfect human beings struggling, striving to attain something noble, and the oldest written constitution still in use in the world today, is the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which was written by John Adams 10 years before our national constitution, and which is in its fundamentals essentially the same thing. It's the architectural concept of our national constitution, with a three part system: independence, judiciary, strong executive, and so forth, and the Bill of Rights, and so forth years in advance of the national constitution, written in the midst of war, and written at a desk-a pine desk that's still at the Adams library in Quincy today, about the size of this podium, just as plain as can be, it's an old-time attorney's desk, you stand up to write at it. And written in a matter of days and with the idea, Adams later said, that it probably would not be passed by the legislature, but he was going to write it as he thought it should be ideally, and particularly one paragraph which he was certain would be stricken. Not only was it passed, it was passed unanimously, including this paragraph which is unlike anything that had ever been written before, and please bear with me while I read it, because it's something that ought to be part of all of us.

"Wisdom and knowledge as well as virtue-" wisdom and knowledge, two different things-"as well as virtue diffused generally among the body of the people, being necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties. And as these depend on spreading the opportunities and advantages of education in various parts of the country and among the different orders of the people." Everybody, in other words. "It shall be the duty of legislatures and magistrates in all future periods of this commonwealth to cherish the interests of literature and the sciences and all seminaries of them, public schools and grammar schools."

This is just something that the government ought to do, it is their duty to provide, and that, again, key word cherish. And let me just point out that within the last five or six years an important case as to whether the public school systems in Massachusetts should be obliged to continue the support of teaching of the arts in the public school systems was won. They are obliged to do this on that one word, cherish. When you talk about the power of words, there's one word reaching down more than 200 years to win a key case.

Then he goes on in this memorable passage to tell us what he means by education. He says, "It doesn't just include the sciences and literature, it also involves the promotion of agriculture, arts, commerce, trades, manufactures and natural history and more. To countenance and inculcate the principles of humanity and general benevolence, this will be part of what we teach. Public and private charity, frugality, honesty, punctuality, sincerity, good humor." It says in the Constitution of Massachusetts there will be good humor. And then these wonderful last words, "And all social affections and generous sentiments among the people."

How marvelous, how strong, how wise. Those are the words of a farmer's son. There's the misconception that John Adams was a rich Boston blueblood. He was none of those. He wasn't rich, he wasn't a Bostonian, he wasn't a blueblood. He was a farmer's son who won a scholarship to Harvard and was transformed by that experience. Education had transformed him. He knew the value of education, he knew the power of words and books and ideas, because that had been his experience.

He got to Harvard, and as he said, "I discovered books and read forever." And he did, he read all of his life. He became the most widely read the most deeply read American of that very bookish era. And he loved books. You know, you can tell a lot about people and about an individual by what they love. He loved books, he loved his family, he loved his town, his farm, his country and he loved the sense of continuity, that it would go on and on and on.

When Jefferson sat down to write what was to be on his tombstone he wrote about his authorship of the Bill of Religious Freedom in Virginia, and he wrote about the writing of the Declaration of Independence, and he wrote and mentioned the establishment of the University of Virginia. No mention of the fact that he had been President or Secretary of State or Governor, not a word. And what is he talking about? He's talking about all the creative things he did.

When Adams wrote what was to be on the only tombstone he wrote anything for, it was for his great, great grandfather, and he described what these people had been through and what qualities of character, what inner values, core values, as we might say, had enabled them not only to survive, but to create the society that he was the beneficiary of in his turn.

After Sept. 11th it became common to hear people on television or to read in some of what was published in the press that everything had changed. Well, certainly a lot changed and a lot of it has changed more and with a more enduring effect that we can yet know. But everything hasn't changed, and we shouldn't accept that kind of analogy. We are still the largest, freest, strongest, wealthiest, most innovative, most productive, creative and generous nation in the world. You fly across the country and you look down and you see the farms and the cities and the roads on and on and on, all of it built before us, all this representation of what a favored people, favored land we are. Every farm, every highway, bridge, all represents hard work and dedication and confidence in the future. You don't go out and do all those things if you think it's just peripheral and of the moment.

We have natural resources that are surpassing, and the most important and valuable of all those resources is this business up here, between the ears and behind the eyes, our brain power, and let's never forget that.

So far we've not only kept our heads but we're using our heads. And we've seen our leaders, we've seen the veteran mayor of our greatest city, we've seen a new then untried, it seemed, untried President rise to the occasion as the best of people in public service in our history ever have.

And then we've been reminded, as we should have been fully aware long before, of the utmost value and the incredible courage those people, those unsung people who are the foundation of our communities and of our society, our civilization, the firemen, the police, the nurses, the medics, the iron workers. And what's so impressive it seems to me is how many of them were young.

Those brave men who fought back on the plane that went down in Pennsylvania, young men. And too long, I think, and I've been guilty of it as much as anybody has, that we've thought of this young generation as soft and without direction, without fiber. Haven't they shown us what courage they have, what bright stuff is in this generation too.

And then there's the story, the history to draw upon, and not just the time of the founders, though I have to say I must - I must conclude that that was the greatest generation, and especially when you consider how few people there were to draw upon, but think how much darker times that we've had than we're going through now. Think what courage our parents, grandparents have had, what sacrifices they'd made, what tragedy, what grief, what loss they experienced, and not just in war.

My mother and father, and I think it was perhaps characteristic of that generation, never talked about the influenza epidemic of 1918, 1919. I wonder if you know how many people died in that horrible, horrible passage. More than 500,000 Americans died and the toll worldwide was infinitely worse. If that same epidemic should sweep through the country now, given the difference in our population well over a million people would die. And they had no understanding what was causing it and no way to stop it.

I'm just old enough to remember Pearl Harbor. I was about eight years old, and I remember the months that followed, with my parents sitting very worried by the radio, listening to news reports. Think how dark that time was, when German submarines were sinking our oil tankers and other ships right off the coast of Florida and New Jersey, within sight of people on the beaches, and there was nothing we could do about it; when young men in our Army were drilling with wooden rifles, that's all they had to drill with, and we had no air force to speak of and half of our Navy had been destroyed at pearl Harbor.

There's a line that's in a speech that Churchill gave late in December, 1941, after Pearl Harbor, when he came across the Atlantic. He said, "We haven't journeyed this far because we're made of sugar candy."

I was tremendously moved, as I expect many of you were too, by the national prayer service in the National Cathedral following Sept. 11th, and there's one line in the remarks made by the President that I hope will in time get more attention.

He said, "The commitment of our fathers will be the calling of our time," Amen. I am certain that we will come through this. It won't be easy, it will probably be longer than we think and heavy blows are to come, maybe heavier even than Sept. 11th, but we're stronger already since Sept. 11th.

We will be stronger still. We will achieve a unity that we haven't seen in a very long time, and remember, unity is one of the oldest themes in American history. It's right there at the very beginning, they were talking about it, worrying about it in the Continental Congress in Philadelphia in 1776; how can you hold this very different cluster of colonies, different geography, different people, different aspirations together?

We’ve seen the unity, we've seen a transformation in the very language of politics. Some may take issue with some aspects of the President's speech the other night before the Joint Session, but one thing we know for sure it was clear. There was a clarity, and there's a clarity to a lot of what we all feel and think now.

We're taking stock as we never did before. What matters? What do we value in our own life and as a people, as a nation? And that's a very good step in the right direction. and when we start thinking about values, let's go back to basics, let's go back to what they had in mind at the very beginning and draw strength from it and take heart from it.