David McCullough spoke at President Lincoln’s Cottage in 2010, when Richard Moe retired as the president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Richard was founder of the Cottage. Previously, he was chief of staff to Vice President Walter Mondale and an assistant to President Jimmy Carter. He is author, most recently, of Roosevelt’s Second Act – The Election of 1940 and the Politics of War.
When David McCullough died recently, Americans lost one of their most beloved story-tellers – and I lost a dear friend of more than 40 years. The award-winning historian was a gift to anyone who loved learning of the remarkable men and women who shaped America through their experiences—“givers of civilization,” as he called them: Engineers who designed and built the Panama Canal, the Brooklyn Bridge or the first airplane that flew in the United States; underappreciated presidents like Harry Truman and John Adams; citizens who crafted the country through grit and character.
It’s not hard to understand why McCullough was often called “America’s historian,” or why he was one of a very few private citizens asked to address a joint session of the Congress. Nor is it hard to understand why all of his books are still in print. He arguably had a greater influence on how Americans viewed their past than any other historian of his time.
But what’s less known is the champion that David McCullough was off the page, of the idea that history is alive now and how it behooves us as Americans to take heed. “Nothing happens in isolation,” he said. And “A sense of history is an antidote to self-pity and self-importance, of which there is too much in our time. To a large degree, history is a lesson in proportions.”
I first met David McCullough in 1979 when President Carter proposed transferring control of the Panama Canal to the government of Panama. The issue was hugely controversial, and David’s gripping history of the canal, The Path Between the Seas, which Carter suggested as essential reading for those of us in the White House. It remains my favorite McCullough book because it brought us together when I had the opportunity to travel to Panama twice with David as our guide; it became the beginning of a warm and valued friendship based on a shared love of history.
When I was approached a decade later about the possibility of becoming the president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, an organization about which I knew very little, the first person I called was David McCullough. He immediately urged me to be open to it as an opportunity to lead an important and respected organization dedicated to saving important parts of our history, and to see it as another form of public service. That was all the encouragement I needed, and soon I retired from my law firm and began a 17-year tenure in the most fulfilling job I ever had. David had played a major role in changing the course of my career.
I asked David to join the Trust’s board of trustees, which he graciously did. After attending his first board meeting in a Boston hotel sitting through two days of long committee meetings, he said maybe this wasn’t the right thing for him. Unable to disagree but eager to keep him aboard, I suggested that instead of attending long committee meetings, perhaps he could simply be available to make occasional appearances for us in bringing attention to endangered historic places and support our efforts in other ways. His face lit up and he quickly agreed, giving the preservation movement a new and respected public voice.
Fortuitously, just such an occasion soon arose when we asked David to join us in opposing the approval of a Disney history theme park in the Northern Piedmont of Virginia 35 miles west of Washington DC. Our fear was that such a large park would attract tens of thousands of visitors which would require major construction of new roads, parking areas, housing units and commercial areas far beyond the park itself. In other words, the proposed park would become a huge catalyst for sprawl in all directions, threatening if not overwhelming centuries-old small towns, historic African American cemeteries, and Civil War battlefields.
David eagerly jumped into the public debate arguing that the theme park didn’t belong in the northern Piedmont which was home to many of our founding fathers and was seen as one of the most beautiful and historic landscapes in America: “what does it say about us, our values and our regard for those who will follow, if we as citizens stand by while others destroy historic America . . . in the name of so-called progress and corporate profits?“
The Piedmont Environmental Council and other groups became heavily engaged locally, but it was the presence and advocacy of David McCullough and Civil War historian James McPherson that made it an issue of national significance, which attracted other historians to join the fight. Previously historians tended to avoid public controversy whenever possible, but David’s and Jim’s leadership changed public opinion and over time the team wore down the “family-friendly” reputation that Disney had so carefully cultivated.
After a year of intense campaigning against the park, I received a call from an executive at Disney who I knew slightly who asked if I was free for dinner the next evening. We had sensed that Disney might be tiring of the fight. When we met, the executive told me that things were indeed changing, but he needed to talk personally with McCullough, and did I suppose he could be free for dinner in New York the next evening? I said I would try, and as expected David said he would be there because neither of us thought this fellow was coming all the way from California just for a nice dinner. But in fact, he was, because he told us the next evening at a superb French restaurant that Disney’s CEO Michael Eisner would call me the next morning to say they would be looking for a new location for the theme park, but that he, the executive, was such a huge fan of David’s and wanted a chance to meet him personally. Later, as David and I wandered the streets of Manhattan still registering that the long and tiring fight was finally over, thanks in large part to his efforts, I suggested that he raise his honorarium rates and offer a special for face-time dinners in New York. He grinned, but demurred.
David continued to give generously of his time and wisdom to the National Trust, comforting us with a memorable speech in Providence soon after 9/11: “We think we live in difficult uncertain times . . . We think our leaders face difficult decisions. But so it has always been;” walking us over the Brooklyn Bridge, still marveling at its engineering and beauty; making a special trip to Quincy, Mass. to guide us through the homes of the Adams family.
At Hillsdale College in Michigan in yet another commencement address he explained how history needed to be conveyed if it was to be understood: “It is a shame that history is ever made dry and tedious or offered as a chronicle almost exclusively of politics, war and social issues when of course, it is the full sweep of the human experience . . . also, music, science, religion, medicine the way things are made, new ideas, high attainment in every field . . . History is a spacious realm . There should be no walls . . .what history is chiefly about is life, and while there are indeed great, often unfathomable forces in history, before which even the most exceptional of individuals seem insignificant, the wonder is how often events turn on a single personality, or the quality we call character.”
David lamented that “we are raising a generation of young Americans who are by and large historically illiterate.” He argued that we must do a better job of teaching our teachers, emphasizing “it should be taught for the pleasure it provides” and suggested that the teaching of history “should begin at home.”
He told the Hillsdale audience of a letter John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail: “We can’t guarantee success [in the war for independence] but we can do something better, we can deserve it.” McCullough said, “Think how different that is from the attitude today when all that matters is success, being number one, clawing ahead, getting to the top.” He explained that the Adams letter says that the outcome of the war is out of their hands. “We can’t control events, but we can control how we behave. We can deserve success.” It was a profound notion that influenced not only his writing, but also how he lived his life.
I once asked David why he didn’t write about the giants of American political history like Washington, Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt. He said in effect, these were indeed great men of character and fortunately they have all had excellent biographers. He added that he preferred to focus on lesser-known figures whose achievements and character may have been overshadowed by their predecessors, a notion that caused him to write about the moral authority of John Adams, and the post-war crisis leadership and courageous pursuit of racial justice of Harry Truman. Both men, he believed, had been underrated in their achievements and character, so he used his talents for meticulous research and persuasive story-telling to concede their flaws (contrary to some critics, McCullough didn’t pull his punches) but to bring out the best in each man to move them up a notch or two in the public’s regard of their presidents.
David would occasionally call me filled with excitement whenever he found new and original material in the form of letters and diaries for whatever new project he had taken on. It seemed nothing could move him more than original material revealing untold stories and the character of the men and women who told them. But nothing, it seems, excited him more than the collection of 1,000 letters that John and Abigail Adams exchanged during their lifetimes. He saw them as a treasure trove that explained not only the unique character of two extraordinary individuals but also of the strong partnership they had formed during the years when John was abroad and Abigail was back in Braintree keeping the family together, but at the same time focused on her husband with constant encouragement for his efforts to achieve independence for the colonies and ideas for how he could do even more.
There was no one to whom John Adams was more devoted than his wife Abigail: “She was his ‘Dearest Friend’ as he addressed her in letters,” McCullough wrote, “his best, dearest, most worthy, wisest friend in the world; “while to her he was “the tenderest of husbands, her “good man.” Even during John’s early absence while serving in the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, Abigail wrote that she was fully understanding of her husband’s “arduous task” and “her determination that he play his part was quite as strong as his own. They were of one and the same spirit: ‘’You cannot be . . . nor do I wish to see you, an inactive spectator,” she wrote, “We have too many high sounding words and, too few actions that correspond with them.”
And so it went during their years apart until independence was achieved, with both of them writing with affection, candor and encouragement, McCullough summarized, “She was in all respects his equal and the part she was to play would be greater than he could possibly have imagined, for all his love for her and what appreciation he already had of the beneficial, steadying influence.”
When David began writing about john Adams, he considered making it a joint biography of Adams and Thomas Jefferson, whose careers crossed paths for more than 50 years mostly as fierce rivals until, in retirement, they gradually mellowed and began exchanging increasingly warm letters to each other. Incredibly, they both died on the same day, July 4, 1826, exactly 50 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, in which both men had played an important part.
After finding the letters between John and Abigail, David shifted gears. While he gave Jefferson his due, he made it clear that Abigail, as her husband’s “dearest friend” and equal partner, would be the other primary focus of his book, and together the two of them would tell their story.
While to my knowledge David never mentioned it, there are clear parallels between the marriage of John and Abigail Adams and that of David and Rosalee McCullough. Perhaps the most significant of these was the idea of partnership. Rosalee never failed to fully support David’s wish to leave behind the security of salaried positions at respected publications, and leap into the uncertain world of writing books full time. It was a huge risk but neither Rosalee nor David ever looked back. It took years of struggle and sacrifice before his “ship came in,” as he told me one day as one of his books hit the top of the best seller list. He was on his way, but he was the first to say it never could have happened without Rosalee at his side every step of the way, bearing the brunt of financial hardship as well as giving him non-stop encouragement and love.
It was an extraordinary marriage and it lasted sixty-six years until Rosalee passed away in June of this year at age 89 at her home on Martha’s Vineyard surrounded by her children. Her daughter Dorie McCullough Lawson called her, ”the star we have all steered by,” according to The Martha’s Vineyard Times , “She had a sense of how to make things better for people. . . Every bit of work he did, she was completely involved in. Her opinion mattered the most. Her opinion he relied on.” Their son Geoff summed it up succinctly calling his mother a contributing partner to his father’s writing career. “With all my father has done for us as a family and the country comes as part of a collaboration. It was their work.”
Speaking at the opening of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum in 2019, David introduced Rosalee saying he “married up,” and returned once again to his “lessons of history:” They are innumerable, he reminded the audience “but one . . . that we cannot forget or ignore, is that very seldom is anything of consequence accomplished alone.”
One of the great joys of my life was spending time with David and Rosalee, never more so than when they invited me to spend a long weekend at their home on Martha’s Vineyard. I met many of their friends, had a great lunch with Walter Cronkite, explored David’s remote small (8 feet by 12) writing shed where he pounded out most of his books on a 1940 manual Royal typewriter, but mostly we hung out at Music Street and listened to the two of them telling stories, laughing, poking fun at each other and simply enjoying the occasion to relax with friends. Over the course of our friendship David extended similar kindnesses to me, including speaking at a dinner marking my retirement as president of the National Trust, a job he had encouraged me to accept 17 years before.
I spoke with Rosalee earlier this summer; I was calling to check on David’s condition and had no idea of hers. And never did she let on that anything was amiss, but rather came across as her usual ebullient self, asking about my own health and family, thanked me for the call and said she would pass on my greetings to David. She couldn’t have been kinder or more thoughtful but that was who she was, as I finally realized when I heard later that she had passed. She was thinking more of me than herself at that time, which was so characteristic of who she was at her core — and why she was so admired and loved by those who knew her well.
In recent days, I have been reminded of the letter which John Adams sent to Abigail saying “we can’t guarantee success, but we can do something better. We can deserve it.” We can’t control most outcomes, he said, “but we can control how we behave. We can deserve success.” David and Rosalee McCullough achieved success in most everything they sought. . . but they also deserved it.
This piece first appeared in the History News Network.