David McCullough’s ‘Spirit’ – Now and Then

Review by Bill Doughty

Rarely does a relatively thin and small book command so much respect. McCullough’s “The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For” (2017, Simon & Schuster) is a collection of some of the great historian’s speeches from 1989 through 2016.

An essential read in this collection is the speech, “The Spirit of Jefferson,” which McCullough gave in a naturalization ceremony at Monticello, Charlottesville, Virginia in 1994.

In 1776, the founders gathered together to stand up to authoritarian imperial control by King George and Great Britain.

“To Jefferson,” McCullough writes, “the Revolution was more than a struggle for independence; it was a struggle for democracy, and thus what he wrote was truly revolutionary. Why do some men reach for the stars and so many others never look up? Thomas Jefferson reached for the stars:”

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…”

The Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation and the Constitution are included in the canon of reading published by Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson in the CNO’s Navy Professional Reading Program, considered fundamental.

These founding documents demand, establish and perpetuate equal dignity of human beings, separation of powers, freedom of the press (among other freedoms) and self-government by the people.

“Never, never anywhere, had there been a government instituted on the consent of the people,” McCullough reminds us.

“When he wrote the Declaration of Independence he was speaking to the world then, but speaking to us also across time. The ideas are transcendent, as is so much else that is bedrock to what we believe as a people, what we stand for, so many principles that have their origins here, with the mind and spirit of Thomas Jefferson. Sadly, too many today take for granted public schools, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, equality before the law, forgetting that these were ever novel and daring ideas.”

Like the other founders, Jefferson was a product of his time — the 18th century. Like other humans, the founders were flawed when it came to living up to the ideals they espoused. But those ideas were to be realized later.

Abraham Lincoln, certainly one of our greatest presidents, called on Americans to honor Jefferson on the eve of the Civil War.

Lincoln interpreted Jefferson’s words in the Declaration to be “an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times.”

McCullough shares a poignant moment standing on the South Portico balcony of the White House, built there on orders of Truman after the Second World War, “in keeping, as he explained to a critical press, with Jefferson’s designs for the University of Virginia.”

It should be noted that one of Truman’s greatest achievements was issuing an executive order ending segregation and promoting integrating of the military, further realizing Jefferson’s and Lincoln’s ideals.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…”

“On that evening, beside me, stood the highest ranking officer in the military services, General Colin Powell. We were looking across the Mall, past the Washington Monument to the Jefferson Memorial, which was just catching the last light of the day. It is his favorite of all the memorials in Washington, the general told me. Then, slowly and with feeling he recited the line – ‘I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.'”

McCullough says, “The Declaration of Independence was not a creation of the gods, but of living men, and, let us never forget, extremely brave men.”

(An extended version of this review appears at http://navyreads.blogspot.com/)

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