A collection of speeches by the Pulitzer Prize– and National Book Award–winning historian and biographer.
Arranged chronologically, the texts of these speeches—most were university graduation talks—reveal both McCullough’s (The Wright Brothers, 2015, etc.) passion for history and his profound belief in America, or at least his vision of America, which is both encompassing and deeply hopeful. A number of significant historical figures appear throughout: John and Abigail Adams—McCullough, of course, published a Pulitzer-winning biography of John in 2001—John Quincy Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. The author also focuses on some who are slightly less well known: Lafayette, Simon Willard (whose clock in the U.S. Capitol appears in both the first and last of McCullough’s speeches), Founder Benjamin Rush, and clergyman Manasseh Cutler, founder of Ohio University. Throughout, the author displays a sincere respect for subject and audience. For the graduation speeches, he researched local history and prominent figures to enliven his talk, and he spoke directly to the graduates, offering advice—e.g., read books, study history, quit saying “like” and “you know.” At the national venues (Monticello, the U.S. Capitol), he rehearses their history both with engaging details and sweeping paeans. McCullough is relentlessly positive. At Monticello, for example, he confines his comments about Jefferson’s slave owning to a single sentence, and in his account of the long friendship between France and the United States, he does not mention the Iraq War, “freedom fries,” etc. But, as Emily Dickinson wrote, “hope is the thing with feathers,” and it is that bird that swoops through all.
Clio, the muse of history, smiles and nods her head on every page.