Lessons from the American Founders
Fall 2015 Distinguished Lecture with David McCullough
Speaking to a capacity crowd at the Missouri Theatre in downtown Columbia, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough began the Kinder Institute’s October 7, inaugural Distinguished Lecture with a quote from President Harry S. Truman: “The only thing new in the world is the history you don’t know.”
Throughout the evening, this theme of the fundamental importance of knowing our history remained at the core of Mr. McCullough’s lecture. Using Trumbull’s iconic painting of the Founders, The Declaration of Independence, as a touchstone for his talk, Mr. McCullough first noted how the accuracy of the work does not reside in the scene’s intricate details—there was, in fact, no such ceremonial signing of the Declaration—but, instead, in the faces of the Founders at the painting’s center, Jefferson, Franklin, and John Adams. Their visages, he argued, not only reflect the political faith and brave intentions of three young individuals who had come together to freely forge a new government, but also spell out our obligation to maintain this faith. Our collective fulfillment of this obligation, Mr. McCullough emphasized, is woefully lagging.
As he went on to make clear, this failure can be traced back, in large part, to a growing lack of knowledge about—and, worse, a growing lack of interest in knowing about—the early history of the nation. Understanding this history, he argued, is absolutely instrumental to supporting and advancing the ideals that were at the heart of the Founders’ intentions for the new government. More than a simple lack of historical knowledge, though, Mr. McCullough added that our unfulfilled obligation to the Founders can be credited to a broader lack of curiosity in contemporary society. Whether expressed in Washington’s love of the theatre or Adams’ 8,500 volume library, the Founders brought an incredible and interdisciplinary breadth of knowledge—and, more generally, an deep-set love of reading—to the task of framing the new government. (Though absent from the process of drafting the U.S. Constitution, Adams, Mr. McCullough noted in a telling aside, insisted that the Massachusetts Constitution articulate the government’s commitment to encouraging literature and the sciences, as well as to creating grammar schools dedicated to promoting the study of agriculture, art, manufacturing, and national history.) Reinvigorating this spirit of intellectual curiosity, Mr. McCullough proposed, might cultivate the spirit of social affection, sincerity, and good humor that was present then, but is lacking now.
In returning to Trumbull’s painting, Mr. McCullough noted how, in addition to their faith in the new government, the faces of the Founders also hinted at a form of contentiousness that was omnipresent in the early Republic but, unlike today, was expressed civilly. With a return to history and curiosity, he concluded, we might begin the process of leading political discourse in the nation away from stultifying disagreement and towards the form of open, considerate dialogue that makes progress possible.
In connection with the lecture, the Kinder Institute also hosted a private luncheon with Mr. McCullough for Society of Fellows and Kinder Scholars participants, as well as a reception at the Chancellor’s residence.