Figures of Speech

A two-time Pulitzer winner shares lessons from history in a timely collection


The American Spirit by David McCullough
Published by Simon & Schuster, 192 pages, $25

It’s bracing to read the pre-Twitter language of presidents and other leaders of past centuries. In this collection of 15 speeches he’s delivered at college commencements and civic occasions, lauded local historian David McCullough enumerates the colossal achievements of these men.

Dynamo Benjamin Rush signed the Declaration of Independence, served as a physician in Washington’s army, opened America’s first free medical clinic and denounced slavery. The author of that document, Thomas Jefferson, also managed to be a lawyer, a meteorologist and an architect, pursuing many other interests beyond politics. McCullough praises the Marquis de Lafayette, who became a feted American hero for his role in the Revolutionary War. He uses a speech on Lafayette’s 250th birthday as an opportunity to explore the ties between France and the United States, noting the pull of Paris on countless American artists and writers (a topic he’d go on to tackle in his 2012 book The Greater Journey). McCullough, John Adams’ biographer, also quotes from the second president’s thrilling, poetic diaries. We get stories of his life and wife Abigail, their devotion and the more than a thousand letters sent between them. Take that, texters!

As many of these selections are graduation speeches, they blossom with inspiring proposals for the cap-and-gowned. Making his points through slices of history, McCullough suggests the young can follow in the footsteps of our impressive forebears. Intellectual curiosity can make future presidents more like the wise ones of the past.

From Page 107: How can we not want to know about the people who have made it possible for us to live as we live, to have the freedoms we have, to be citizens of this greatest of countries? It’s not just a birthright, it is something that others struggled and strived for, often suffered for, often were defeated for and died for, for the next generation, for us. ♦

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