The American Spirit
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The American Spirit

Who We Are and What We Stand For

David McCullough

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eBook - ePub

The American Spirit

Who We Are and What We Stand For

David McCullough

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About This Book

A New York Times Bestseller A timely collection of speeches by David McCullough, the most honored historian in the United States—winner of two Pulitzer Prizes, two National Book Awards, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, among many others—that reminds us of fundamental American principles. "Insightful and inspirational, The American Spirit summons a vexed and divided nation to remember—and cherish—our unifying ideas and ideals" ( Richmond Times-Dispatch ). Over the course of his distinguished career, McCullough has spoken before Congress, the White House, colleges and universities, historical societies, and other esteemed institutions. Now, at a time of self-reflection in America following the bitter 2016 election campaign that has left the country divided, McCullough has collected some of his most important speeches in a brief volume that celebrates the important principles and characteristics that are particularly American. " The American Spirit is as inspirational as it is brilliant, as simple as it is sophisticated" ( Buffalo News ). McCullough reminds us of the core American values that define us, regardless of which region we live in, which political party we identify with, or our ethnic background. This is a book about America for all Americans that reminds us who we are and helps to guide us as we find our way forward.

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The Ties That Bind



Easton, Pennsylvania
The triumphal return of the Marquis de Lafayette to America in the year 1824 produced a public outpouring of goodwill and gratitude across the nation unlike that ever inspired by a visitor from abroad, before or since. The grand tour that began with his arrival at New York on August 16, covered all twenty-four states of the Union and went on for thirteen months. The country had never experienced anything like it. Everywhere Lafayette was greeted with huge, unprecedented, wildly enthusiastic crowds. “All through this trip,” he wrote, “we have felt everything which can touch or flatter the human heart.” When the mayor of a little town near Boston told him, “Sir, America loves you,” Lafayette replied, “Sir, I truly love America,” and no one doubted he meant every word.
Marquis de Lafayette by Samuel F. B. Morse
He traveled more than six thousand miles, as far north as Burlington, Vermont, west as far as St. Louis, south all the way to New Orleans. He traveled the Mississippi River, the Ohio, the new Erie Canal. He saw Niagara Falls. He was Jefferson’s guest at Monticello and visited Andrew Jackson at the Hermitage. At Mount Vernon, in one of the most moving moments of the odyssey, he paid homage at the tomb of George Washington. Daniel Webster delivered the welcoming oration at ceremonies at Bunker Hill.
He visited Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. Dedicating a library at Brooklyn, he paused to bestow a kiss on a little boy who happened to be Walt Whitman. At Philadelphia, Independence Hall, which had fallen into shameful decay, was resuscitated and thus saved, in order to provide the famous guest a fitting place to greet his adoring public.
He was hailed as the last remaining general of the Continental Army and “the venerable symbol of a past heroic age.” One contemporary account after another describes the resplendent triumphal arches erected, the parades and elegant carriages drawn by white horses, banners and flags flying, cannon booming, dinners and dancing and choral oratorios, and crowds such as no one had ever seen. And Lafayette, though old and lame, thrived on it. Indeed, by all appearances, it was the happiest he had ever been. As Jefferson noted, the illustrious Frenchman had “a canine appetite for popularity and fame.”
Though the so-called Era of Good Feeling under President James Monroe was, like Monroe’s time in office, drawing to a close, and there were issues of insistent, troubling kinds manifesting themselves—the extension of slavery being not the least of them—the mood of the country overall was confident, optimistic. Signs of material progress were plain to be seen on all sides, as countless speakers, including Lafayette, made a great point of.
Above all, the show of gratitude was both resonant and genuine—gratitude not only for the heroic part Lafayette had played in the struggle for American independence, but for those of the whole founding generation of Americans who had made possible the blessings and unparalleled opportunities of the new nation.
Moreover, the yearlong pageantry marked a celebratory start to what would prove down the years an extraordinary relationship between France and the United States, which, if not always smooth or easy, was nonetheless like that we have known with no other country, and of greater, more lasting benefit than is commonly appreciated. And this was all the more remarkable given that France, let us remember, had been our first enemy, during the French and Indian War, and only a scant decade or so before the start of the American Revolution.
It was well into the Revolutionary War before we and the French became allies. That was agreed to formally early in 1778 in Paris and it was one of the most fateful agreements in our history. The young Lafayette, meanwhile, had arrived on our shores at age nineteen to offer his services as a soldier in the Glorious Cause of America and to earn his place as a full-fledged American hero.
Perhaps we could have won the Revolutionary War without help from France, perhaps not. There is no clear answer. But certainly we would not have succeeded when we did had it not been for the French. As too few Americans seem to understand, the French troops under Rochambeau at Yorktown, the last great battle of the war, numbered more than our own forces under Washington, and it was the arrival of the French fleet at exactly the right time off the Virginia Peninsula that left Cornwallis no choice but to surrender.
It was again in Paris that the treaty was signed ending the war—the all-important treaty in which His Britannic Majesty George III recognized the United States to be “free, sovereign, and independent states.” A plaque on the white wall of the old Hôtel d’York on rue Jacob marks the spot.
American history was made that day in Paris, September 3, 1783. The new independent United States of America had arrived on the world stage. And in the time since, more American history has unfolded in France than in any country other than our own.
Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, having served all-important diplomatic roles in Paris during the war, and in the negotiations that ended it, were afterward joined by Thomas Jefferson, who was to stay on in Paris as our minister to France for five years—five of the happiest years of Jefferson’s life.
During World War I more than two million American soldiers served “over there.” (Contrary to popular understanding, the famous line, “Lafayette, we are here,” was not delivered by General Pershing on his arrival, but by Colonel Charles Stanton at a ceremony at Lafayette’s grave.) Nearly 80,000 Americans died in France in World War I. During World War II another generation of American soldiers, in all 790,000, served in France, and more than 57,000 died there.
France is truly hallowed ground for Americans, let us always remember. Of the American dead from both wars more than 60,000 are buried in French soil, at Meuse-Argonne, Normandy, and four other cemeteries. At Meuse-Argonne, the largest, lie fully 41, 246 American dead.
Charles de Gaulle and Dwight Eisenhower, Paris, 1944
It was also in France—in Paris close by the Place de la Concorde—that headquarters for the Marshall Plan was established in 1950.
Much of this is familiar history, I know. But some things bear repeating. As Samuel Johnson wrote, we “more frequently require to be reminded than informed.” Besides, there is far more to history than wars and foreign affairs, and that, too, must be taken into account in any fair appreciation of the ties that bind America and France.
The love of Paris by talented, aspiring young Americans, its large importance as a place of inspiration and creative freedom, dates from our very beginnings as a country. Time and again Paris changed their lives and thus hugely influenced American art, American literature, music, dance, and yes, American science, technology, and medicine.
It was in Paris in 1784, in the library of Jefferson’s mansion on the Champs-Élysées, that Jefferson and the young American artist John Trumbull blocked out on a small sheet of paper the idea for Trumbull’s famous portrayal of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the painting which, over time, has been seen by more people than any ever done by an American. And it was there in Paris that Trumbull, ambitious to make a mark and encouraged by Jefferson, embarked on the series of historic portraits and paintings of the Revolution that were to be his great life works.
John Singleton Copley, another of the eighteenth-century American masters, wrote of “something in the air” in Paris that quickened creative vitality. James McNeill Whistler, who arrived in Paris in the 1850s, unknown, penniless, and precocious, would all but reinvent himself there. Mary Cassatt from Philadelphia, settling in Paris in 1877, felt she could at long last work with total independence. “I began to live,” she wrote.
Paris was the capital of the art world, the Louvre, its Pantheon, and the legion of aspiring Americans who flocked to the city to paint, sculpt, study, to live the vie de bohème reads like a Who’s Who of American Art—Trumbull, Copley, Samuel F. B. Morse, Whistler, Mary Cassatt, John Singer Sargent, Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins, Henry Tanner, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Childe Hassam, to name only a few.
Samuel F. B. Morse spent the better part of his time in Paris, during the early 1830s, painting a huge interior view of the grand gallery at the Louvre. Earlier, while Lafayette was in New York, Morse had been chosen to do the French hero’s portrait, a dramatic, life-size painting that hangs still in New York’s City Hall. It was later, on his voyage home, inspired by something he’d seen in France, that Morse conceived the fundamental idea for the telegraph.
John Singer Sargent was an immediate triumph. His Madame X, the portrait of Madame Pierre Gautreau that caused a sensation in Paris, was done when Sargent was all of twenty-eight.
Inspired by French Impressionists, Americans by the dozens became Impressionists. Childe Hassam learned to paint as readily with the fluid brushwork of the French Impressionists April showers on the Champs-Élysées as he would an October morning on Beacon Street, Boston, or Fifth Avenue with all flags flying on Allies Day, 1917.
Those artists who didn’t get to Paris wished they could. And the pull for writers was no less. Some of the greatest landmarks in American literature—works as thoroughly American as any we have—were, in fact, written under the spell of Paris, “the light of Paris . . . the far spreading presence of Paris,” as Henry James wrote.
I have fallen in love with American names,
The sharp names that never get flat,
The snake-skin title of mining claims,
The plumed war-bonnet of Medicine Hat,
Tucson and Deadwood and Lost Mule Flat.
These, the wonderful opening lines of Stephen Vincent Benét’s poem “American Names,” were composed not, as one might assume, somewhere west of the Brazos, but in Paris. And so, too, was Benét’s great narrative poem of the Civil War, John Brown’s Body.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, recalling his own time in Paris, a generation earlier, had observed, “We go to Europe to be Americanized.”
No less an American classic than James Fenimore Cooper’s The Prairie was written during the seven years Cooper made Paris his home. Ethan FromeEthan Frome of all books!—was written in the library of Edith Wharton’s sumptuous apartment on the rue de Varenne in 1911, in the heyday of the Belle Époque or about as far removed from the bleak New England setting of her classic novel as one could imagine. In fact, her story had its origins in French, as an exercise done for her French teacher in Paris.
In the New York society of her childhood, as Edith Wharton recounts in her autobiography, the arts were a world apart. Her mother and father considered authorship in particular as “something between a black art and common labor,” and certainly not for her. In Paris, as nowhere else, she wrote, her work became “the core” of her life. With the outbreak of World War I, she was one of the first American women to volunteer in the French war effort, collecting clothing, food, and medical supplies. By the time the war was over, 25,000 American women served in France, a point of history too little known or appreciated on both sides of the Atlantic. Among those men and women who came home from the war were a substantial, though unknowable, number whose outlook was no longer the same, as expressed by the popular song of the day: “How Ya Gonna Keep ’Em D...

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