Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

1776, Year One

George Will thinks that David McCullough’s new book 1776 is "a birthday card to his country on this Independence Day. He writes to "inspire gratitude for what a few good men, and one great one, did in the nation’s Year One." Will:

What is history? The study of it -- and the making of it, meaning politics -- changed for the worse when, in the 19th century, history became History. When, that is, history stopped being the record of fascinating contingencies -- political, javascript:doP();
New Paragraphintellectual, social, economic -- that produced the present. History became instead a realm of necessity. The idea that History is a proper noun, denoting an autonomous process unfolding a predetermined future in accordance with laws mankind cannot amend, is called historicism. That doctrine discounts human agency, reducing even large historical figures to playthings of vast impersonal forces. McCullough knows better.

Solid, unpretentious narrative history such as "1776" satisfies the healthy human thirst for a ripping good story. McCullough says that E.M. Forster, the novelist, efficiently defined a story: If you are told that the king died and then the queen died, that is a sequence of events. If you are told that the king died and then the queen died of grief, that is a story that elicits empathy.

Using narrative history to refute historicism, McCullough’s two themes in "1776" are that things could have turned out very differently and that individuals of character can change the destinies of nations.

As a friend of mine recently said, there are three documents--in this age of civic illiteracy--that all Americans know. The first, thank God, is the Declaration of Independence. This is Lincoln’s eulogy
of Henry Clay, July 6, 1852. Take note of this section:

He loved his country partly because it was his own country, but mostly because it was a free country; and he burned with a zeal for its advancement, prosperity and glory, because he saw in such, the advancement, prosperity and glory, of human liberty, human right and human nature. He desired the prosperity of his countrymen partly because they were his countrymen, but chiefly to show to the world that freemen could be prosperous.

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Thank you, Peter, for your work keeping these principles alive in the hearts and words of your fellow teachers and citizens at the Ashbrook Center. And, thank you, David McCullough for writing another incredible book about the American soul.

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