The Paula Gordon Show Logo The Paula Gordon Show

The Power of History

David McCullough

     ... historian and journalist. Author of the widely heralded bestseller, John Adams, Mr. McCullough won the Pulitzer Prize for his national bestseller, Truman. Twice Mr. McCullough has won the National Book Award and has five additional historical works to his credit. He makes his home in New England.


There is no freedom without independence and both absolutely require education, according to John Adams. Thomas Jefferson called John Adams "The Colossus of Independence." Mr. Adams was the only Founding Father who never owned a slave and the person who followed George Washington as President of the United States. David McCullough introduces us to John and Abigail Adams (and Mr. Jefferson,) to the revolutionary times in which they lived, and to the ideas which have shaped today's world in the widely acclaimed book, "John Adams."

Education was a keystone to the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (the world's oldest written Constitution still in use,) which Mr. Adams wrote ten years before Mr. Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence. Mr. McCullough found that if John Adams -- the son of a self-educated Massachusetts farmer and an illiterate mother -- personified anything, it was the fundamental idea that our system will not work if our populace is not educated. The ideal -- the Holy Grail -- of education was and has been a primary objective from well before the Declaration of Independence, Mr. McCullough reports.

Learning about our past is now too often overlooked, Mr. McCullough maintains. It grieves him that Americans do not pass on the fundamental ideas of the American experience to young people and those new to the country. He wants us all to know the historical roots of the country and (democratic) system from which America has reaped enormous benefits. Why was Mr. Adams so certain that the English colonists couldn't have freedom until the colonies were independent? Why does America have freedom of speech? Why does America have freedom of religion? "History" is natural to us, Mr. McCullough contends. He believes it's an extension and enlargement of the experience of being alive.

For those repulsed by memorizing dates, Mr. McCullough has a more palatable alternative.

Tell stories! Mr. McCullough prescribes. That's the way to teach history, says the man whose stories of John Adams and Harry Truman (both trained in the Classics) have captivated millions. History, Mr. McCullough is certain, is the most interesting subject imaginable for a very basic reason -- it's about people. Life.

Mr. McCullough's mystified why we choose to limit ourselves to our own relatively brief time -- our present -- when history is such a source of pleasure. He reminds us that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson didn't walk around in The Past, they also were in the present -- their present. Shutting oneself off to history, Mr. McCullough asserts, is as debilitating as denying oneself other life's other pleasures: Music. Great fiction. Drama. Independence. Freedom. John Adams taught us that education is key to them all.

[This Program was recorded June 13, 2001, in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.]

Conversation 1

David McCullough assures Paula Gordon and Bill Russell that if the American colonists had been polled, there would have been no Revolution. Mr. McCullough expands on the general lack of support for withdrawing from English rule.


Conversation 2

Mr. McCullough gives examples of the (remarkably small) scale of the English colonies at the time they declared themselves independent. He describes how constrained colonists' lives were, contrasting the experience to the England of the time, drawing examples from the daily lives of John and Abigail Adams. Mr. McCullough describes how 18th century transportation and communication were inseparable. He marvels at the audacity of people breaking from an imperial power to attempt to create a new nation and emphasizes (along with John Adams) that the essence of the miracle was that these were real people, not superhumans.


Conversation 3

John Adams' pivotal speech of July 1, 1776, is reconstructed from a letter, which Mr. McCullough quotes. He notes that Thomas Jefferson described Adams as the "Colossus of Independence." Mr. McCullough expands on John Adams' passionate case for educated citizens, with examples from Mr. Adams' life -- a farmer's son whose mother was illiterate.


Conversation 4

John Adams directly linked "the pursuit of happiness" to learning, Mr. McCullough assures us. He expands with examples of what Mr. Adams read and recommended. Mr. McCullough challenges "the hubris of the present," with striking examples from John Adams' time. Mr. McCullough considers the present-day relevance of Mr. Adams' (and others') comment, "We can't guarantee success, but we can deserve it." John Adams and Harry Truman are compared and contrasted. Mr. McCullough notes that John Adams was the one and only Founding Father who never owned a slave and elaborates.


 Conversation 5

Mr. McCullough looks more closely at the role of slavery. Mr. McCullough contrasts the dramatic differences between how Harry Truman and John Adams approached politics and expands on Mr. Adams' profound distrust of political parties. Jefferson's and Adams' perspectives are contrasted. Mr. McCullough expands on Mr. Adams' certainty that Americans were and are just as likely to fall prey to the failings of humanity as everyone else, fearful that we would ruin the great experiment in freedom by failing to meet our responsibilities. Mr. McCullough tells vivid stories of John and Abigail Adams' greatness.


Conversation 6

John Adams' candor and prolific public and private letters captivated Mr. McCullough, he says, recalling why he chose to write this biography of Adams and his time. Mr. McCullough revisits the importance John Adam's emphasis on The Holy Grail of education. He expands on why we must do better teaching and learning history, keep ing history alive by telling stories.



Mr. McCullough's excitement about history is a pleasure to behold and to share. We particularly thank him for revivifying both John Adams and Harry Truman -- two "common" men who both understood the threats aristocracies pose to democracy and were willing to do the work essential to the democratic process.

Additional Links:

Both John Adams and Harry Truman are published by Simon & Schuster.

Edward J. Larson (A Magnificent Catastrophe) and Joseph Ellis (His Excellency, American Sphinx, Founding Brothers, et al) have written thoughtfully about this period when John Adams was helping to create a nation.

The careers of  John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were entwined for decades. Annette Gordon-Reed's prize-winning history, The Hemingses of Monticello, provides a views which provides deep insight into the context within which both men lived.

Quick buttons

© 2001 The Paula Gordon Show.
All materials contained on this website are copyrighted by The Paula Gordon Show and may not be used for any commercial purpose without the express, written consent of Paula Gordon.  Non-commercial use is permitted and encouraged provided that credit is given to The Paula Gordon Show, appropriate urls cited, links are provided where possible and meaning is not altered by editing.