The Passing of David McCullough and the Loss of America’s Historian

Ian Oxnevad

In The Tempest, Shakespeare’s final solo-authored play, the character of Antonio declares that “What’s past is prologue.” The recent passing of David McCullough marks the loss of a historian who offered Americans access to their past, and one who did so without politicization. In an era of public discourse characterized by elite-popular divides, partisan popular commentary, and biased media coverage, McCullough offered a stable voice and deep scholarship that was accessible to all Americans. 

McCullough and his work are the product of an American academia from a bygone era. Attending Yale University in the early 1950s, McCullough studied English literature rather than history. In a 2008 PBS interview, McCollough explained his original intent in studying English was to write fiction rather than history. Unlike so many historians, McCullough learned history as he worked and made it accessible to a mass audience. Rather than brand past American figures through the lens of race and gender, McCullough treated his subjects with an empathy for the common human condition.

McCullough’s early work offered readers a window into American tragedy and achievement. His 1968 book, The Johnstown Flood, documented one of the worst natural disasters in American history, while his books in the 1970s explored the American engineering achievement of the Brooklyn Bridge. McCullough won the National Book Award for his two consecutive books on the building of the Panama Canal (1977) and his first biography, Mornings on Horseback (1981), which documented the life of Theodore Roosevelt.  McCullough’s subsequent biographies, Harry Truman (1992) and John Adams (2001), both won the Pulitzer Prize. 

McCullough’s writing demonstrates an interest and affection for the American story that only seemed to grow over time. His 2005 book, 1776, was a New York Times and Amazon bestseller, and offers a riveting clinic on the political dynamics and leadership decisions that birthed the country. In 2006, McCullough won the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

The American Spirit, perhaps McCullough’s most personal address to America, could not have been timelier with its publication in 2017. Written during a time of increasing national divide, The American Spirit offers insights into the thinking of an elite author writing for the common reader on America’s meaning. The book is made from McCullough’s own speeches. McCullough describes history as a “source of strength and inspiration” that offers us a way to understand ourselves, with American history making up our “greatest natural resource.”

The loss of McCullough is doubly tragic for the country due to the loss of his voice in our national discourse.  If past is prologue, McCullough’s work offers clarity amid cancel culture, and a model to be emulated.  He will be missed.

Image: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

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