- Historic Sites
“There Isn’t Any Such Thing As The Past”
DAVID McCULLOUGH tells why he thinks history is the most challenging, exhilarating, and immediate of subjects
February/March 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 1
“There was no simpler time. It may seem simpler to us, but it certainly didn’t seem simple to them.”
But that isn’t the way it happened. In the nineteenth century, for example, when the world was all sort of giddy over the ideal and the promise of progress, they didn’t know that World War I was just over the horizon. They didn’t know what the machine gun and poison gas and tanks and all that were going to do. They didn’t know. But for us to say, “Wasn’t that naive of them to believe in progress?” It wasn’t naive. They were judging from experience. Things were getting better all around them, and there wasn’t any reason not to expect that they would continue to get better.
Don’t you have to resist the temptation to condemn those people for being naive?
Absolutely. You have to fight what you might call the hubris of the present. I think if a historian or a biographer could build up a quality in the way one would build up a muscle, it should be the capacity for empathy. Put yourself in their place, in their shoes, in their time. You hear so often, “Oh, that was a simpler time.” There was no simpler time. It may seem simpler to us, but it certainly didn’t seem simple to them. Some say we live with greater horrors than they did, but is it worse to die with a spear through your chest or to have gone down in an airplane? I don’t know.
We will probably never be able to comprehend, for example, how honest, kind, Bible-reading, decent Americans could actually own people. How could they have had slavery? What was on their minds? What was wrong with them? We see that, and we feel that intensely. But you can be sure that someday they’re going to look back at us and say, “What in the world were they thinking about? What kind of blinder were they wearing?” It’s anyone’s guess what that will be. I suspect it will be what we’re doing to the environment. They’ll say, “Look what they did. Had they no sense of the time, no sense of responsibility? Look what they did.”
Is that why Thomas Jefferson has become “politically incorrect”?
Well, some historians seem to have just discovered that Jefferson had slaves. I think that’s been known. What is bothersome about Jefferson’s position in our life is that he was such a very lofty idealist, and therefore the reality that he was living on the labor of people in bondage, that that provided him with his wealth, his free time to think lofty thoughts, seems a huge contradiction and hypocritical. And it is.
I think Jefferson was in many ways a tragic man, because he was the captive. He kept people in captivity, and he was captive to the way of life that captivity creates. Just as he was, in a way, a captive of the Southern tradition of hospitality, generosity. He was giving great parties, everybody was welcome to his house. He served the finest wine. And the man was bankrupt. But he kept on doing this, as if he was incapable of not doing it, because that was the way of life. Just as holding people in slavery was the way of life, and he didn’t know how to get out of it.
Everybody is a contradiction within himself. All of us are inconsistent, contradictory, and at times hypocritical.
I personally think that Jefferson is perhaps best understood if we see him as an artist. He was, after all, one of the greatest American architects ever. He was very inventive, very imaginative, very creative. Now, when you think of great composers, or great painters or playwrights, they all in their real lives were hypocritical, contradictory, inconsistent. But Jefferson’s idealism flies in the face of that. And one tends to say, “Hey, wait a minute.”
I think there’s too much of a tendency not to give credit where credit is due. We have swung away from the great man theory of history, which is right. But in going that far, sometimes we tend to forget that there were indeed great men and women who did very great things. That doesn’t mean greatness is synonymous with perfection. Often our predecessors were quite imperfect, flawed, their feet mostly clay, but they rose to greatness and did things of which we are the beneficiaries.
Do you think most of our Presidents rose to greatness?
There’s a theory that we have great Presidents only when there’s a time of crisis: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, great men, great times, faced with great national crises. But there was no crisis in the time of Theodore Roosevelt. He was a force unto himself. And he changed that office, he changed our attitude as we entered this new twentieth century.
Do you like Harry Truman because he was himself? Is that the quality you admire in him?
I liked Harry Truman primarily because he’s a great story, a great American story. I wanted to focus on a very different kind of American after writing about Theodore Roosevelt.