I could use some positive news, and if my Facebook and Twitter feeds are any indication, many others could use a little uplifting news as well.
I don’t know if it is the national mood or just the fact that everyone is talking about these books, but my reading tastes have taken on a dystopian flavor lately. (The Handmaid’s Tale anyone?) I’ve devoured many of them this year—1984, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451—and they each strike me as appropriate for the moment in some way.
Last week was a turning point for me, though. Events in Charlottesville, Virginia, showed us the ugly underbelly of our culture, and the hate we thought we had shamed underground marched through the streets waiving Nazi flags and shouting racist nonsense, emboldened by a president who can’t bring himself to denounce his alt-right hangers-on once and for all. A young woman, Heather Heyer, was killed, and we looked around stunned and said, “This is not who we are.” Because it is not.
I needed to find some optimism, so I finally pulled The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For, by renowned historian David McCullough, off the bookshelf. It’s a collection of fifteen speeches that explore the American ideal through the lens of our history. The speeches span from 1989 to 2016 and were delivered in venues as varied as college commencement ceremonies to the bicentennial anniversary of the White House. Released in April 2017 as the Trump era began, McCullough compiled this collection “with the hope that what I have had to say will help remind us, in this time of uncertainty and contention, of just who we are and what we stand for, of the high aspirations that inspired our founders, of our enduring values, and the importance of history as an aid to navigation in such troubled, uncertain times.”
McCullough is a master storyteller, capable of making history come alive in ways few others can, and his speeches, like a great collection of short stories, are entertaining vignettes of moments in the lives of some of our greatest leaders. Taken as a whole, this book is a love letter to the American people and the principles on which our nation was founded.
What we have here in America is unique. McCullough points out that “never, never anywhere, had there been a government instituted on the consent of the governed.” The Founders were improvising, making it up as they went along, and so are we. Today we are still striving to live up to the highest ideals of our nation—that all men are created equal—and as imperfectly as we sometimes live this belief, the long march of history is moving in a positive direction—even, I believe, after an event such as Charlottesville.
The Founders were fallible human beings, and while the understanding of equality in their time did not include slaves, they left us a legacy, a new way of thinking about each other, to hone and perfect. They set a bar we must keep striving to reach. President John F. Kennedy sums up the American spirit this way: “For I can assure you that we love our country, not for what it was—though it has always been great—not for what it is—though of this we are deeply proud—but what it someday can and, through the efforts of us all, someday will be.”
It is this spirit of optimism I am choosing to hold on to in this difficult moment in America. “It’s said that everything has changed,” McCullough said in a speech shortly after 9/11. “But everything has not changed. This is plain truth. We are still the strongest, most productive, wealthiest, the most creative, the most ingenious, the most generous nation in the world, with the greatest freedoms of any nation in the world, of any nation of all time.”
I won’t lie—there were moments I found this book utterly depressing. The harsh contrast between the strength and character of some of our greatest leaders and what we have today can be downright jarring. However, McCullough points out that we have overcome much worse and will keep overcoming. Our nation has much to be thankful for and proud of. Sometimes we need a little reminder of the remarkable things we did together in the past to point us toward what we will do again in the future.