David McCullough Lecture at BYU


One of the unique features of BYU is that every week on Tuesday, there's a one-hour time slot where no classes are scheduled. Three weeks of the month, there's a devotional. The fourth week is called forum and it's usually some national figure who's been invited to address the BYU faculty and student body. You'd be surprised how well attended devotionals and forums are. We hold them in the Marriott Center and sometimes there's as many as 25,000 people there.

Today's forum address was by David McCullough, the author of 1776 and the biographies of John Adams and harry Truman (among others). The title of his address was "The Spirit of 1776." I estimate the attendance at today's forum to be about 10,000.

In the introduction., John Tanner, the Academic VP said that "we read history not just to tell us what happened, but to tell us who we are." That's a good description of why I think historians like McCullough are important. Academic historians frequently lament "popular history," but if it weren't for narrative historians like McCullough, lots of people would not know who they are in this sense. The remainder of this post is my transcription and paraphrase of what McCullough said.

Nothing ever had to happen the way it happened. History isn't pre-ordained even though it's often taught that way. There didn't have to be a revolutionary war, or a Declaration of independence, or a Constitution. Nobody ever lives in the past. Washington, Jefferson, and Adams didn't walk around saying "isn't this fascinating, living in the past?" They were living in their present and they didn't know any more how things would turn out than we do. History teaches us that there's no such thing as the foreseeable future.

If we enjoy the blessings of freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and so on, then we ought to know how it came to be, who was responsible, and how much they suffered. Abigail Adams wrote that posterity who reaps the blessings of the Revolution will scarcely be able to understand the hardships that we went through. And, of course, we do not. We tend to see these people as figures in some costume pageant. They are depicted as old, but at the time of the revolution, they were all young. George Washington was the oldest of the founding fathers at 43 in 1775. Benjamin Rush was 30 years old when he signed the Declaration of Independence.

These weren't experienced revolutionaries. They were winging it. George Washington had never commanded an army in battle before. He wasn't chosen because he was a great military person. He was chosen because Congress knew his character and integrity. He was the first of our political generals. Political in the sense that they understand how the system works; They recognize that they're not the Commander-in-Chief.

Washington was not a learned man or a gifted speaker, but he was a leader; he was a man whom people would follow. He was a man whom a few would follow through hell. Those that stayed with him, stayed with him because they "could not abandon this good man." Washington had high intelligence and great moral courage. He was a quick learner, especially from his mistakes. He made inexplicable, almost inexcusable mistakes in 1776, but he always learned from them and remembered what he was about. He would not quit.

When he took command of the army in 1775, he had 14,000 troops. From the officers whom he had under his command, he selected two to serve as Major Generals. Washington was a great judge of people's ability. He picked out Nathaniel Greene and Henry Knox. Greene knew nothing of the military but what he'd learned in books. Knox had the equivalent of a 5th grade education, but he was a bookseller and a self-taught man. Keep in mind that these people were living in their present: an age where people believed that if you wanted to learn something that you read a book. Greene and Knox were to be the only General officers in the Revolutionary War besides Washington who stuck out the entire war. Greene turned out to be the best general we had.

The revolutionary war was eight years long--the longest except for Vietnam. 25,000 Americans lost their lives (1% of the population). If we fought a war today with an equivalent loss of life, 3,000,000 people would die.

America lost the Battle of Brooklyn in a staggering way. What saved the day was a miraculous escape--the Dunkirk of the Revolutionary War. If the wind had been blowing the other way, and the British had been able to bring their warships into the East River, Washington and 14,000 troops would have been captured and the war would very likely have been over. An orderly retreat is the hardest maneuver for an experienced army. That this ragtag band was able to pull it off seems impossible, but they did it. The wind was too strong to allow the make-sift armada to make its way across the river from Brooklyn to Manhattan. Almost as if the waters had parted, the wind stopped suddenly and the crossing was successfully made.

That escape was not just due to providence or the hand of God. There also had to be men of skill and daring to carry it off. John Glover from Marblehead MA and his band of fishermen made it happen. A combination of circumstance and courage.

By the time Washington started his long retreat across New Jersey in the fall and early winter of 1776, the army was down to a few thousand men. Sickness and desertion had taken a huge toll. We honor the people who signed the Declaration of Independence, but none of their noble words would have been worth anything without the nameless people who were fighting to make it happen. Not just Nathaniel Greene, Henry Knox, and George Washington, but 16-year old boys, farmers, and fishermen.

Washington's plan was to get his army across the Delaware so that he would have time to recoup. Again John Glover and his men made the crossing happen. The morning after the crossing, Charles Wilson Peale visited the camp and said he'd never seen such miserable human beings in his life. He came across one man who was most wretched and studied him for some time before he realized that it was his own brother. The sacrifice was indeed great.

At this point, everyone concluded that the war was over and we had lost. Washington did what you do when all is lost: he attacked. Going back across the Delaware, he carried the war to the enemy and struck at Trenton Christmas morning. There was a storm that muffled the sound of the crossing and march, but increased greatly the suffering of American troops. Two men died on the march from exposure. In 45 minutes of house-to-house combat, the American's prevailed. It was a small engagement, nothing like later battles, but it's impact was pivotal, changing the attitudes of the army and civilians about the war.

Washington thought a leader ought to look like a leader. His uniforms were always splendid and immaculate. He never showed self-pity of discouragement in public.

As of January 1, 1777, all of the enlistments were up. He called his troops together and urged them all to re-enlist. He promised them that if they re-enlisted, he'd pay a bonus of $10. He called for people to step forward if they'd re-enlist. No one moved. Washington turned and rode away. He turned and rode back and said, affectionately: "My brave fellows you've done all I've asked you to do and more than could be reasonable expected. But your country is at stake. Your wives your home and all you hold dear. You've worn yourselves out, but we know not how to spare you. If you consent to stay one month longer, you'll render that service to the cause of liberty and to your country that you could not in any other circumstances." The drums rolled again and the men began to step forward. A great scene, but also one that told these men that they were fortunate to be there. It echos similar scenes from literature.

When the war was over, in the spirit of Cincinnatus, Washington turned his command back to Congress. When he heard that, King George III said, "If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world." Congress knew the man and knew his integrity.

History is a source of strength and a source of example in difficult times, but also read history for pleasure. The reality of the revolution is that these people were not Gods. They were not perfect. They were people who rose to great heights in spite of their shortcomings and the odds.