Historian David McCullough spoke at Michigan’s Hillsdale College earlier this year on “Knowing History and Knowing Ourselves.” The address is a delight for several reasons, but within his speech McCullough made some interesting and timely observations about the American Revolution. Enjoy these excerpts:
Keep in mind that when we were founded by those people in the late 18th century, none of them had had any prior experience in either revolutions or nation-making. They were, as we would say, winging it. And they were idealistic and they were young. We see their faces in the old paintings done later in their lives or looking at us from the money in our wallets, and we see the awkward teeth and the powdered hair, and we think of them as elder statesmen. But George Washington, when he took command of the continental army at Cambridge in 1775, was 43 years old, and he was the oldest of them. Jefferson was 33 when he wrote the Declaration of Independence. John Adams was 40. Benjamin Rush – one of the most interesting of them all and one of the founders of the antislavery movement in Philadelphia – was 30 years old when he signed the Declaration. They were young people. They were feeling their way, improvising, trying to do what would work. They had no money, no navy, no real army. There wasn’t a bank in the entire country. There wasn’t but one bridge between New York and Boston. It was a little country of 2,500,000 people, 500,000 of whom were held in slavery, a little fringe of settlement along the east coast. What a story. What a noble beginning. And think of this: almost no nations in the world know when they were born. We know exactly when we began and why we began and who did it.
In the rotunda of the Capitol in Washington hangs John Trumbull’s great painting, “The Declaration of Independence, Fourth of July, 1776.” It’s been seen by more people than any other American painting. It’s our best known scene from our past. And almost nothing about it is accurate. The Declaration of Independence wasn’t signed on July 4th. They didn’t start to sign the Declaration until August 2nd, and only a part of the Congress was then present. They kept coming back in the months that followed from their distant states to take their turn signing the document. The chairs are wrong, the doors are in the wrong place, there were no heavy draperies at the windows, and the display of military flags and banners on the back wall is strictly a figment of Trumbull’s imagination. But what is accurate about it are the faces. Every single one of the 47 men in that painting is an identifiable, and thus accountable, individual. We know what they look like. We know who they were. And that’s what Trumbull wanted. He wanted us to know them and, by God, not to forget them. Because this momentous step wasn’t a paper being handed down by a potentate or a king or a czar, it was the decision of a Congress acting freely.
The Revolutionary War was as dark a time as we’ve ever been through. 1776, the year we so consistently and rightly celebrate every year, was one of the darkest times, if not the darkest time in the history of the country. Many of us here remember the first months of 1942 after Pearl Harbor when German submarines were sinking our oil tankers right off the coasts of Florida and New Jersey, in sight of the beaches, and there wasn’t a thing we could do about it. Our recruits were drilling with wooden rifles, we had no air force, half of our navy had been destroyed at Pearl Harbor, and there was nothing to say or guarantee that the Nazi machine could be defeated – nothing. Who was to know? I like to think of what Churchill said when he crossed the Atlantic after Pearl Harbor and gave a magnificent speech. He said we haven’t journeyed this far because we’re made of sugar candy. It’s as true today as it ever was.
Happy Independence Day to all. McCullough’s latest book, 1776, is a chronicle of the Revolutionary War and its leaders — especially George Washington. The text of his Hillsdale address is available through the college’s Web site and its publication, Imprimis.