Transcription of the

video-taped speech



"Time Was, Time Is"






David G. McCullough



given at the


New England Historic Genealogical Society

Sesquicentennial Conference




Friday, July 14, 1995


in the


Essex Ballroom of the Westin Hotel in Boston, Massachusetts









transcription and footnotes by Larry M. Wilson,

done in the summer of 1996



Before the speech began, the audience heard several songs and were introduced to several members who made special contributions for book preservation. Additionally, some special guests in the audience that were introduced included Associate Justice David H. Souter of the U.S. Supreme Court and U.S. Congressman Peter G. Torkildsen, Republican of Massachusetts.





Ralph Crandall, Director of NEHGS, introduced Mr. McCullough with the following:


It is my great pleasure to introduce our speaker for the evening, Mr. David McCullough. Mr. McCullough was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and was educated there and at Yale. He now lives in West Tisbury, Massachusetts with his lovely wife, Rosalee. They have five children and six grandchildren. Mr. McCullough has taught at Cornell University and at Wesleyan University Writers Conference. He is the president of the [Society of] American Historians and is a founding member of Protect Historic America. He has been awarded the Pennsylvania Governor's Award for Excellence in the Humanities, the Harry S. Truman award for Public Service, and a Guggeheim fellowship. He has won many book awards including the Samuel Eliot Morison award, the St. Louis Literary Award, and the Los Angeles Times Biography Prize. In 1994 he was elected an honorary member of the New England Historic Genealogical Society.


Mr. McCullough is one of the most widely read and acclaimed historians of our time. His books include:  The Johnstown Flood[1]; The Great Bridge[2], the story of the building of the Brooklyn Bridge; The Path Between the Seas[3], an epic chronicle of the creation of the Panama Canal; Mornings on Horseback[4], the story of a young Theodore Roosevelt; Brave Companions[5], essays on heroic figures past and present; and, his monumental Truman[6], which won the Pulitzer Prize and remained forty-three weeks on the best seller list. Truman has sold over one million copies and is surely one of the most popular biographies of the twentieth century.


My family and I listened to the audio tape of Truman as we were traveling to northern Quebec on vacation last year. I soon realized that this book would have a profound impact on the nation when my three teenage daughters, who generally insist that I stay tuned to hard rock [radio] stations kept asking me to play Truman. Even more impressive was they asked me to replay sections of the book. So you are a big hit in my household, Mr. McCullough.


Many of you, I know, have enjoyed Truman and his other marvelous books and have enjoyed listening and watching him as the host of "American Experience"[7] and as the narrator of Ken Burn's "The Civil War"[8].


Please join me in welcoming Mr. David McCullough.


David McCullough begins speaking:


Thank you, Ralph, very much. And I thank all of you, especially in the earlier introduction when you introduced those of my family who are here. I thought it was not only a compliment to me, it pleased me very greatly, but, of course, it was absolutely appropriate for this organization to include the family.


I want to tell you that nothing you just heard in that wonderful introduction, that very pleasing, flattering introduction of Mr. Crandall's, none of that would have happened, nor would I be standing here, if it were not for my partner, my editor-in-chief, my mission control, my X checker, my wife, Rosalee (Barnes) McCullough and I'd like to re-introduce her. [applause] The most vigorous applause, just now, came from our oldest daughter, Melissa, because she knows the truth in what I just said.


I was sitting here this evening looking at this great banner [on the wall] behind me and thinking what wonderful words those are: New England, Historic, Genealogical, Society. All of them are good words, provoking good ideas and good feelings. And put them all together and they're unbeatable, right?


I was also reminded by that wonderful version of the Grandfather's Clock[9] about the expression "long, long ago". One of the rewards of being a writer is that you get to know other writers and one of the writers that I've admired both on the printed page and as a person is the Native American novelist, Scott Momaday[10]. And Scott Momaday is a huge bear of a man with a wonderful voice and a great story teller, particularly with children. And once he was among a group of little children, first grade, second grade, kindergarten, all around him, sitting on the floor. Scott was right in the middle. And he started off by saying "I'm going to tell you a story of a time long, long ago when all of the animals could talk". And a little voice from the back said "Ah, those were the days!".


In a way, we are all brothers and sisters in spirit tonight because we are in the long, long ago, "Time Was, Time Is" business. We care about the reach of time and we care about all of those people who didn't happen to share our time on earth, but who were nonetheless just as real, just as alive, just as full of life and uncertainties as we are. We refuse to be provincial in time anymore than we would wish to be provincial in space. We understand that the great majority, as it used to be called, is part of the human experience, and that an interest in history, an interest in the past, is part of being alive -- it is an extension of life. And to deny one's self that extension would be like cutting yourself off from music, or art, or literature, or poetry, or food. It is part of life. And what could be more important, what could matter more to the heart, as well as to the mind and the spirit, than the family.


Now, I've been doing a little reading about the Society and about genealogy and genealogists. And I must say, I was surprised by some of what I read. And maybe this is information or material of which you well know, but I didn't know it. Did you know, for example, that Elvis Presley[11], Jimmy Carter[12], and Jesse Helms[13] all have a traceable common kinship? Oh, you did know that! There also exists, apparently, a traceable lineage from Jesse James and his brother, Frank[14], to Mrs. Wallis Simpson[15], the Duchess of Windsor. Isn't that terrific? And the other one I love is, that Muhammad Ali[16] and Senator Malcom Wallop[17] are third or fourth cousins. And apparently, when word of this reached them, they both were extremely unhappy.


I've been told that your numbers exceed 16,000, nearly 17,000, and that 12,000 people visit the headquarters here every year. 12,000 people! And that genealogy, except for coin collecting and stamp collecting, is the major interest of more Americans than any other single hobby. I have also been told that your membership includes people who are in their teens and includes a gentleman who, I'm glad to say, in Concord, Massachusetts, is 104 years old. And apparently, tonight, at the conference, at your meeting, there are representatives from four different countries and all but five states [are] here, and that one of those states is Wyoming, one of the states that is not represented here, and I just flew in from Wyoming, so I hope I can qualify for that.


I'm going to read a few things to you, not very long, but I hope you'll take them as I do as a kind of text of what I have to say tonight, and I have a lot I'd like to say, because I know I'm with my brothers and sisters. You are almost all, without exception, amateurs. So am I. So am I. I am not a trained historian. I was an English major in college. I have no advanced degrees. I did not know how to do research when I first began. And had I not run into a genealogist of extraordinary skill and experience, one of your members, the head of the genealogical division of the New York Public Library, Tim Beard, I would have been a lot slower at catching on to how one goes about research. He really set me on the road. He set me on the "noble pursuit"[18], to use the title of the book. Because he didn't put me down or put me in my place because I admitted to him how much I didn't know about how to go about what I wanted to do. I knew what I wanted to do, I wanted to tell the story of the terrible disaster at Johnstown in 1889 and why it happened. And most of the characters in that story were people who would not normally figure in History, they were ordinary -- that's a poor word but we all have to use it -- ordinary Americans, nobody is ordinary, anymore than there is a "foreseeable future". Anymore than there is a self-made man or woman, there is no such thing! We are all the beneficiaries of others who have helped, and including others who have helped before we ever were born, that's what we're talking about. And Tim Beard, wonderful, enthusiastic Tim Beard, who loves what he does, welcomed me in to the tent.


Do you know what the definition of the word "amateur" is? Look it up sometime. It doesn't mean somebody who doesn't really know how to do it because he isn't a professional. The first definition of the word "amateur" is "devotion to an interest". "Love". That's what you have. That's what I have. That's why the decibel level was so high in this room tonight. If you were all here because you were paid to be here, if you were here because you were attending an association for business purposes, it wouldn't be the same. You're here because you are really interested and you care about something that is exciting.


It's not just good that you feel that way, it's good for you. If you've ever read John le Carre's[19] A Small Town in Germany, there's a wonderful scene in there, a wonderful passage, two or three pages, they're trying to check out who among the German business people of the time were in fact, Nazis. And they began to build a file on these people. And pretty soon they all get excited because they were on the hunt, they're on the chase. It's become a detective case. They're on the track. And what happens is that their interest, and we have all experienced the exhilaration of this, their interest accelerates the farther they go. Like gravity, it accelerates. That's what divides us from the cabbages.


I'm sure you've had the experience. I have it all the time. People come up to me and say "where in the world do you get all the information that's in your books" as if they've never gone to a university or college or heard about a library. Incidentally, you are sitting almost side by side with one of the five greatest libraries in the country, which means it's one of the five greatest libraries in the world, the Boston Public Library. The five great libraries in the country, are: The Library of Congress, New York [Public] Library at 42nd Street, the Boston Public Library, the Harvard Library, and Yale. So that means that two of them, Harvard and the Boston Public Library, are here in Boston. And Boston is a small city, let's not forget that. This is an extraordinary city. This is an exciting city. And I often say to people, if you go to Boston and you don't find yourself interest in history, there's something wrong with you. And it isn't just the [Boston] Tea Party[20] or the old North Bridge[21], it's Julia Ward Howe[22], just like we heard tonight. And it's the beginning of the Evolution [?Revolution] movement catching fire. This is the city where Martin Luther King[23] was a student. This is the city of Emerson[24], and Louis Agassiz[25], and so many who have figured in the full spectrum of the culture. And you can't understand the past, and, more important, you cannot understand the attitude of the characters you are working on, if you don't understand the full culture. Essential. History just isn't politics and the military and social issues. It's music, art, poetry, finance, the works. It's all of it. And it's only when you get inside that bubble of the time, that culture, immerse yourself in it, soak yourself in it, that you can begin to maybe fathom how they perceived things.


We think of what a paradox, what an awful juxtaposition it is, of the people in the south, who were good, decent people, kind to their family, adoring of their children and their parents, church-goers, Christians, devoted, who owned slaves. How could they do that? How could they have possibly have been that way? It's a very difficult question. And we have an awfully difficult time understanding it. But you may be sure, someday, they're going to be saying things like that about us. I don't know what it will be. I don't know, I don't. I think about it a lot. But you can be certain they might say: "how could they driven around in those big iron things that went 80 miles an hour and they killed each other by the thousands? How courageous they must have been!" I think they may wonder why in the world we're doing to the environment what we're doing. "What did those people think? What did they imagine they were doing dumping all of that into the atmosphere and into the water system, and into themselves?" We just had a wonderful dinner, filet mignon. If the statistics continue to go the way they are, it may someday be said "they used to eat meat! They were not only courageous, they were canine!".


But then, of course, there is so much that is the same, irrespective of the era. So much that is the same because of the common human denominator. They, too, were human beings. An onion smelled just like an onion, we may presume. And we have so much in common with them, including an extremely important point, that they didn't know, none of them, any more than we do, how it's all going to come out. They don't know what's going to happen next anymore than we do. And you must keep that in mind in understanding decisions that are made, or attitudes they had.


This was written in the sixteenth century in Florence, by Francesco Guicciardini[26]: "Past things shed light on future ones, the world was always of a kind. What is, and will be, was, at some other time. The same things come back, but under different names and colors. Not everybody recognizes them, but only he who is wise and considers them diligently." I love to read that because it makes such a good point, and, because the language is so beautiful, and, to be honest, because I love to say: Francesco Guicciardini.


If you read the Boston Globe this morning, which you probably haven't because there wasn't time, but if you did, you would see that, in the Boston Globe, everyday they have a column that says "This Day in History". I often wonder who assembles that. Do you know what the date is? July 14, Bastille Day[27]. No mention of Bastille Day. Boy, what an audience, you all knew it!


"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times". I would normally scorn any speaker who brought this into the evening. But in view of what day it is and in view of what else Dickens[28] does in those first pages of The Tale of Two Cities. It isn't just these great lines: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope". This is, of course, the eighteenth century, the age of enlightenment. "it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us". Then he goes on. And how wonderful this writer, Dickens, was. "There were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a plain face, on the throne of England; there were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a fair face, on the throne of France.".


Have you ever read E. M. Forster's[29] wonderful book on the art of fiction. There's a great line in there about the difference between the sequence of events and a plot in a story. And he used this analogy: "if I tell you that the king died and then the queen died, that's a sequence of events. But if I tell you the king died and the queen died of grief, that's a story". And what you're doing in your work, you're not just getting facts, you're not getting just evidence, picking up pieces of the puzzle for the abstract completed picture of the puzzle. You're doing it because you're trying to get to the essence of life. The wonderful thing about the supposedly dead past is that every time you scratch the surface of it, you find life. And that's why you're here, that's why you're genealogists, because you're interested in people, the most interesting of all subjects, by far. And one of the reasons it's so interesting, maybe the most important reason, is that it is a mystery.


Dickens goes on: "In both countries it was clearer than crystal to the lords of the State preserves of loaves and fishes, that things in general were settled for ever". This is the way it is, this is the way it'll always be. And of course, it will never always be. It's always changing. Now, this concept, when you are working with history, you are dealing with the two most fascinating of all subjects: people first, and secondly, time. And it, too, is a mystery. What is it? What is the past? What is the present? What is the future? I'm convinced that there is no such thing as the past. I really mean that. There is no such thing as the past, it is only somebody else's present. Those people who were here in Boston, or at Philadelphia, in 1776. They weren't walking around, Jefferson[30], Adams[31], saying: "Isn't this terrific, living in the past". Nor were they saying "everything that we're doing is only a prelude to that wonderful moment called the late twentieth century". They didn't all serve so we could come along and feel the hubris of our own supposed higher reach toward the angels, our own supposed progress. Stand in front of Botticelli's[32] Birth of Venus in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, at the time of Guicciardini, and look at that painting, and you will have yourself put in your place as a twentieth century bragger. Who could do that now? Nobody! Nor could anybody before! The idea that time is both yesterday, today and tomorrow, always together, first struck me when I was working on my book about the Brooklyn Bridge. Now, if we think of the late nineteenth century we might think of the Age of Sail, the great clipper ships that went out of Boston and around the Horn[33] and the rest. Or, we might think of it as the Age of Steam, it's the Victorian Era[34], the 1870's. But, in fact, if you go to the records and look at the bridge as a timeline, let's say, across that river, and the river can be time flowing, the flowing on the river was both clipper ships and the Age of Steam. They're both there. The past is always present with us, just as the future is always present with us. And if we could determine what of the future that is with us right now is going to become bigger and more important, and perhaps dominant, then we could perceive of a foreseeable future.


So the trick for historians, and biographers, and genealogists working on trying to puzzle out the story that genealogists work with, is to try and see what was the character of the time as a composite, a conglomerate, if you like geological terms. It isn't just granite, it isn't just silt, it's a conglomerate -- past, present, future, always, always. And its always changing, because life is always changing. And it's about life, that's what history is about, it's biographies of people and how they affect each other.


Now Dickens, to go back to this wonderful genius, tells us this in the very first two pages of The Tale of Two Cities. He's writing in the mid-nineteenth century about the eighteenth century. So he's looking back in time. But he's also fixing you at a point where he's telling you how the future is present at that moment too. And how's he do it? Vividly. Memorably. "Under the guidance of her Christian pastors," he's talking about France, "she entertained herself, besides, with such humane achievements as sentencing a youth to have his hands cut off, his tongue torn out with pincers, and his body burned alive, because he had not kneeled down in the rain to do honor to a dirty procession of monks which passed within his view at a distance of some fifty or sixty yards. It is likely enough that, rooted in the woods of France and Norway, there were growing trees, when that sufferer was put to death, already marked by the Woodman, Fate, to come down and be sawn into boards to make a certain movable framework with a sack and a knife in it, terrible in history." The guillotine. "It is likely enough that in the rough outhouses of some tillers of the heavy lands adjacent to Paris, there were sheltered from the weather that very day, rude carts bespattered with rustic mire, snuffed about by pigs, and roosted in by poultry, which the Farmer, Death, had already set apart to be his tumbrels of the Revolution. But that woodman and that farmer, though they work unceasingly, work silently, and no one heard them as they went about with muffled tread".


The future is going on at the very point when the glitter and the extravagance of Versailles is what attracts all of the attention. It is almost impossible to know in any given moment what really matters, what will count in the long run. In the year 1936 it was Mrs. Wallis Simpson who was the most important event of the year, if you measure it by newspaper coverage. It was the year of the Berlin Olympics. It was the year of Charlie Chaplin's[35] Modern Times. These were the things that were filling the headlines. But other things were going on that were, in the long run, far more important, like the woodman and the farmer. A young German physicist, Wernher von Braun[36], had been assigned to a secret project in what used to be East Germany, a little island called Pennemunde, to develop rockets. And at Copenhagen, only about seventy or eighty miles across the water from Pennemunde, Niels Bohr[37] and his colleagues had determined that the uranium atom, if split, would make a power exceeding anything ever imagined. None of those events was in the headlines, or let alone even in the papers.


So the future is always there, under the surface. And it's always there in the lives of the people you work on. And the woodman and the farmer are much more likely to be your subjects than is likely to be Louis XVI[38]. Well, maybe I don't know this audience very well!


We are raising a generation of young Americans who are, to a very large extent, historically illiterate. We have a very serious problem on our hands and I am as devoted as I can be to try and do something about it. And I'm not just talking about youngsters who are growing up in Appalachia or some place in the hinterlands where they don't have the advantages that we consider to be essential to a decent society. I'm talking about the cream of the crop. I was invited to be a Montgomery Fellow at Dartmouth College last year and I met with a seminar of seniors, all of whom were history majors, and honor students. About twenty five of them. And the first day I was just chatting with them and I asked if any of them knew who George Marshall[39] was. None of them, none of them, knew who George Marshall was. We have the constant rattle of animosity between those who espouse the political correctness and those who accuse the political correctness as being "thought police". They argue back and forth, each side calling the other McCarthy-ists, and McCarthy. Meantime, according to the Boston Globe, 40% of all the students on college and universities campuses don't know who Joe McCarthy[40] was.


The problem is manifold, and the problem, is to a very large extent, our fault. It's not the fault of the youngsters. They are wonderful students at Dartmouth. And there's a lot they know that we don't know. But they have been denied, not just the information, not just the facts, not just the ability to take tests concerning history, they've been denied the pleasure of it, the gift of it. It's like saying you can't ever hear Beethoven[41], you're never allowed to see any paintings, or go to a museum. They're cut off from that experience. I tell you, and I know what I'm talking about, any of us in this room who are over the age of 50, knew more American history when we graduated from grade school than most students on university and college campuses do today. [applause]


And now the powers that be in Congress today are talking about cutting off, and killing, the National Endowments of the Humanities. I am so glad that we have one of our Congressmen here tonight. And I'm not saying this to put him under the microscope or to stick the knife in because we talked earlier and he agrees. And he's going to go down to Washington and do everything he... [laughter, applause]


You know, there's such outright lying going on about the National Endowment of the Arts and the National Endowment of the Humanities. Just consider the brittle books program. I don't know how many of you know about it but the National Endowment is doing the most, by far, to microfilm those books, those records, those manuscripts, which are made with paper that is disintegrating, falling apart. There are some 660,000 books that will be persevered, will be recorded upon microfilm, because of the National Endowment of the Humanities program, within the next year or so. The wonderful generosity of the people whose names were announced tonight who have given money to help preserve books is admirable in the extreme but is a tiny drop in the bucket compared to the task ahead. There are three million books estimated that will all, all, fall apart, all disappear, in a fairly short time. And yet we are going to kill, some of them say, a government program, which will stop that. And equally important are the newspapers which are not going to be recorded and which will disintegrate and you know better than I of the value that the newspapers have, particularly of small town newspapers, which will the hardest hit of all.


They also talk about the National Endowment of the Humanities and the National Endowment of the Arts as the province of the elite, and of the effete. Let me just tell you of one vivid statistic: more people go to the Metropolitan Museum in New York each year than go to all of the sports events in New York combined in a year. All of the people who go to hockey, football, basketball, the works, all of it. Four and a half million people go the Metropolitan Museum every year. Another astonishing but very important and indicative statistic is that 75% of all of the museums in this country were established after 1950. The rise of museums, the rise of museum attendance is a dramatic curve on the chart -- it's all up! It isn't that the public doesn't care or turn out. It's quite the opposite, just as library usage, library attendance, is all up. And yet, they talk about we haven't got the money. In the worst years of the Great Depression[42], there is not one known example of a library anywhere in the country closing for lack of funds. We have libraries closing all over the country today, and particularly school libraries, and it's always "well, we haven't got the money". We got lots of money, it's how they're spending it. The government has lots of money, it's how it's being spent. In Wyoming, two days ago, coming down out of the Bighorn Mountains, we went by a massive highway project straightening out some bends in a road that's hardly used. What in the world was it being done for, nobody could answer that question, and I talked to a number of people about it. It's priorities.


Now, I think the answer to what we must do is to begin early with these children in grade school, it has to start then. And what better way would there be than to give them the experience of doing research on their own about their own families. Because that's what they care most about, that's what they love. How many of us in this room remember as a child how we adored hearing our mother or our father talk about what it was like when they were children. You couldn't hear enough of it. Or your grandparents maybe even more so. When I taught at Cornell I ran an experiment where I gave each student a photograph with the barest minimum information on the caption "'American oil tanker being sunk off the coast of Florida on February 6, 1942'. Here's your picture, this is your term paper, go to work". I wanted to get them into the library, into the archives, into the local historical societies, onto the chase, into the detective work because I was sure that once they caught the bug, they'd never ever lose it.


We've got to bring, what we might call, the laboratory technique of teaching the humanities to the schools just as we have it in science. You only learn by doing and you all know that from your work in genealogy. That's how you learn, and, that's how you learn to love it. By doing it. You only learn to play the piano by playing the piano. You only learn to paint by painting. You only learn to investigate and then draw analysis and conclusions and release of the imagination by doing the digging.


One of my favorite of all books, one of the most insightful books that I know about the creative process is the Journal of the French painter, Delacroix[43]. I urge you read it, it's superb. And he had some very interesting things to say about the difficulty in the craft of history and his admiration for those who practice it. But what he says about his own work, he said "what I demand is accuracy for the sake of imagination".


We have too many historians who are too busy talking to themselves, and themselves only, in their own language. We have too many historians who spend their careers writing about people, and events, or developments that they dislike. In some cases, hate. Presidents they hate. Transitions in society, old manners, mores, they hate. We have too many historians who can't write, [applause]  and if they can, aren't interested in writing for anyone else other than other historians because that's the reward system that's build into our academic life. To have a book that, if you're a historian, a professional academic historian, and some, believe me, some of the very best we have, and some of the very best writers we have, are academic historians, if they were to have a book that should become popular, oh my goodness!, what a blow that could be to their career. You might not get tenure. I'm not kidding, this is true! And I don't think it's coincidental that many of the historians who have managed to reach people, readers, fellow citizens, are those who, like you, were amateurs, they are, to a large degree, lapsed journalists. Barbara Tuchman[44], Bruce Catton[45], William Manchester[46]; it's a long list. And it's a school, if you will, that I can consider that I work in, and I think of people like Bruce Catton and Paul Horgan[47] and others, and certainly Barbara Tuchman, as stars to steer by. They are my heroes because they had something they wanted to say, they had a story they wanted to tell, and they went out and did the spade work, did the digging, did the research, the interviews, all of that, the reading, the reading, the reading, and did it -- told the story. "Tell stories" Barbara Tuchman said when asked what is the secret to writing history that people want to read. "Tell stories". And that is what all of you are doing -- telling a story of what you're working on.


I'm sometimes asked what is my favorite book of those I've written. And in a way, that's like asking which is your favorite child -- it's an impossible question. But the true answer is always: the one I'm working on, because that's the truth. I could say that The Johnstown Flood was my favorite because it was the first. Or I could say that The Path Between the Seas was my favorite because it was so difficult and exhilarating and it was also the first book that sort of broke through to a large audience. I could say it was the Great Bridge because I'm still interested in the subject irrespective of the fact that I wrote it twenty five years ago. The hold that that story and that symbol has on my imagination has never diminished at all. I could say it was Mornings On Horseback because it is the most personal of my books in that I was writing in a freer form and I was trying to experiment more with form. Or I could say it was Truman because it has reached by far the largest audience of anything I'd written. Or I could say it was Brave Companions because I got a chance to write a little bit about people in the twentieth century who would not normally ever be written about by a historian or a biographer. But it is in Truman, and in Mornings On Horseback, that I began to get the idea that, and I'm trying to explain this, I haven't put it into words, and maybe never will, that life doesn't just resonate after death, it resonates before birth. The Doppler Effect[48], you know, when a train goes by, there's that sound afterward, and physicists can explain it to you in very boring ways, but there's a sound before the train arrives, we know. In Truman, I began with the grandparents coming up the Missouri River in 1840's, exactly at the time of the founding of this Society. Mr. Roebling's[49] bridge, the first bridge of any consequence, the first suspension bridge, actually a suspension aqueduct, was built over the Allegheny River in Pittsburgh in 1845, the year of the founding of this Society. The Roosevelts in New York hired for their family, for their home, servants, maids, the downstairs of their upstairs downstairs world, who were Irish. Many of whom had fled to this country out of desperation because of the Potato Famine[50], 1845. 1845 was a very important year for lots of reasons. But in the decision to begin with the grandparents of Harry Truman, I was breaking a lot of present style rules about how you write biography. According to the current fashion, heaven help you if you should begin your story at the beginning, let alone before the beginning. But I felt, and I feel, and I always will, that in order to understand Harry Truman, you have to come through that experience of the journey up the river and understand who those people were, the progenitors, all of whom he knew. It wasn't just that he was biologically descended from them, he knew them. And he got a lot of what he was from them. Now consider this: almost everybody in the room could have known Harry Truman, talked to him. Maybe some of you did. Harry Truman knew those people who came up the river in 1845, at the time of the George Caleb Bingham[51] paintings of the Missouri, if you know them. Sure you know them. That's the period. That's the time. He knew them. It's that close and yet it's that far removed from a President and an American who saw men land on the moon.


You have to go back into the progenitors and into the life of the times before the beginning of the life that you are working on, the birth of that, in order to get a sense, not just of the roots, but of the atmosphere. We are all, all of us, if you made a circle chart of each person where there are pie-shaped pieces, sometimes quite big, of the influence of other people which make up who we are, and often that influence is from people we never knew but who were in the family and whose story, whose values, whose sins, if you want, are part of us. So if you don't know the past, you don't know from whence you came, you don't know who you are. You don't know where you might be going.


Now imagine if you came into this room tonight and you sat down and all of a sudden you couldn't remember who you are. You don't know where you were born. You don't know who your mother was or who your father was or your grandparents. You don't know where you went to school or to college. You don't know what the worst thing that ever happened to you was or the best thing that ever happened to you was or the time you fell in love. You don't know any of that. If you look in the mirror, you still have the same color eyes, your shoe size is still the same. Your height is the same, you dress the same way. And everybody would say "well, that's him". But would you be you? No, you wouldn't be. Why not? Because you have no story. And if you have no story, I think you have no soul. So if we lose our story as a nation or as a society, we are losing our soul. You are the keepers of that story because the story is made up of many pieces and Presidents and generals and sports stars are such a small part of the whole as to almost not even be very important.


When I was working on the life of Theodore Roosevelt, what I wanted to do, specifically, was a biography that didn't began with his birth or end with his Presidency or his post-Presidential years or his death. I wanted to take a slice out of the life to get the metamorphosis of when it happened, when out of the cocoon came a very different human being than that terrified, sick and peculiar little boy with the asthma in the house in New York. And I was trying to find out how all of the people around him were influencing him and the idea came to me in a conversation, which is why you should always talk to people, always interview people, pick up anything you can, tell everybody what you are working on, don't keep it close to your chest, spread the word, because you never know where an idea or a piece of information is going to come from. You never ever know. And I was interviewing a man named Jim Roosevelt who was a descendant, a great nephew. And I said, "what, of all that you've read about your famous uncle, what's missing that you know to be true". And he said "the degree to which he was part of a swarm", the swarm being the family. That they went everywhere together. And that they would go off to Europe together, they would go out to the country together. They would come into town together. They would go to church together. Always, grandparents, mother, father, cousins, all together. And how that gave that little boy confidence that he absolutely needed for survival because his life was really on a very thin edge, and, it meant that he couldn't ever be himself until he broke out of it. It was both the greatest advantage he had and the greatest disadvantage he had. And I knew I had my book right there, that's it. So what I had to do was to go the wonderful Houghton Library at Harvard and read the letters. Not just Theodore Roosevelt's letters to his sister or to his brother or to his mother or father, or the father's letter to him or the mother's letter to him, and I can't stress enough how important I feel this is, which is the way it's most often done, but the letters that were being written around that perimeter of that spoked wheel, the brother writing to the sister, the mother writing to the brother, the sister writing to the father, where very often they were saying things about Theodore or life in the house that Theodore didn't know about, that they wouldn't ever say to little Teddy, or imply even. So it took a very long time. And, oh, the rewards of it.


I think we're very lucky. I would pay to do what I do as a career. I would. You couldn't stop me. I think that we are so fortunate to be able to do this work and to have the benefit in this country of the superb library and archival facilities, particularly our public library system, which is one of the wonders of the world, and if you've ever tried to do research in a foreign country, you know what a unique and blessed people we are to have that system. But more than anything else, I think what gives one the biggest lift is to work with fellow spirits. It's the exhilaration that comes of talking shop, if you will, or of sharing discoveries, or passing on pieces of information that might help, and, the sense that we're really involved in good work. Good work.

I want to finish with an event that happened, an experience that I had, I'll never forget, ever. Theodore Roosevelt's diary, the diary he kept here when he was at Harvard, is on microfilm at the Houghton Library and I was reading it and I came upon the date that his father died, which was probably the most terrible thing that ever happened to him up until that point, unquestionably one of the most terrible things that ever happened his whole life, certainly most terrible thing that ever happened to him at that point. And when I came to that diary entry there was, instead of the regular entry, there was a big black splotch like a blot of a Rorschach test[52], right over the whole thing. And I thought that just couldn't be coincidental. He's done that, he's hiding something under there. He's said something there that he doesn't want anybody to see. But I was looking at it on microfilm and so I couldn't tell whether there was anything written under it. So I thought, well, I'd better go down to Washington, to the Library of Congress, and look at the real thing, the diary. I flew down and went up to the library and went into the manuscript division, up to the counter, the front desk, and there was a young fellow there on duty, and I asked for the proper box and out it came and I took it out, and lo and behold, there was something, you know the experience, something electric, you're holding the real thing, and there's a tactile connection with those people who aren't here just now, and I could see clearly that there was something written underneath it. So I went up to the front desk and said "this is Theodore Roosevelt's diary that he kept at Harvard and this ink blot is covering up the entry, I think, that he put in on the day his father died. And I really think there's something really written under there and I'd like to find out if there's a way I can determine what it is". Well, he looked at me as if "we get a few people like this every so often" and he said "sir, if you will take your seat again, I will call my supervisor". So I went dutifully back to my chair and waited and five or six minutes later a very serious looking fellow in a three piece suit came in and he went up to the desk and the young man [whispered and] pointed back at me like "boy, have we got one today" and the man came back, not a sign of any humor or anything but a very serious face. He said "what can we do for you?". I said "you see this diary? This is Theodore Roosevelt's diary that he kept at Harvard and this ink blot right here happens to be on the day that his father died and I don't think that's just accidental, I think he's trying to conceal something and I think that there's something written underneath that and I wondered if there would be any way we could find out".  And the whole time I was talking, his face kept coming down lower and lower until he was about that far [a foot] from the page, and when I said "I really think it'd be interesting to find out if there's something written there" he looked at me and said, "Yeah, wouldn't that be great!". That's the Bunsen burner, that's the fire that keeps us going.


I am enormously honored to be your speaker on this wonderful anniversary. My family and I have loved being with you tonight. And on you go.

Sources Consulted by the Transcriber



Contemporary Authors, 1967-1996, Gale Research Co., Detroit


Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series, 1981-1996, Gale Research Co., Detroit


Fodor's 96 Boston, 1995, Fodor's Travel Publishing, Inc., New York, Toronto, London, Sydney, Auckland


Guide to U.S. Elections, second edition, Congressional Quarterly, 1985, Washington, D.C.


Hitchcock, Hugh Wiley and Sadie, Stanley, The New Grove Dictionary of American Music, 1986, MacMillan Press Ltd., London, Grove's Dictionaries of Music Inc., New York


Magill, Frank N., Great Lives From History: Renaissance to 1900 Series, 1989, Salem Press, Pasadena, California and Englewood, New Jersey


Magill, Frank N., Great Lives From History: American Series, 1987, Salem Press, Pasadena, California and Englewood, New Jersey


The 1993 Information Please Almanac, Atlas and Yearbook, 46th Edition, 1993, Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston


Webster's New World Encyclopedia, 1992, Prentice Hall, New York, New York



[1]McCullough, David G., The Johnstown Flood, 1987, Simon and Schuster, New York

[2]McCullough, David G., The Great Bridge, 1983, Simon and Schuster, New York

[3]McCullough, David G., The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal 1870 - 1914, 1978, Simon and Schuster, New York

[4]McCullough, David G., Mornings on Horseback, 1982, Simon and Schuster, New York

[5]McCullough, David G., Brave Companions: Portraits in History, 1991, Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey

[6]McCullough, David G., Truman, 1992, Simon and Schuster, New York

[7]American Experience, a television series on the PBS network, it was hosted by David McCullough

[8]Burns, Kenneth L., The Civil War, a Florentine Films production, distributed by PBS Video, a 1989 film by Ken Burns, narrated by David McCullough

[9]Grandfather's Clock, 1875 song written by Henry Clay Work (1832-1884) which sold over 800,000 copies, a composer, this song was his best known of the over a dozen he wrote (Grove Dictionary volume 4 page 563). This song was sung to the audience before David McCullough began speaking this evening.

[10]Momaday, Navarre Scott, 1934-, U.S. author, artist, 1969 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, Guggenheim fellowship 1966-67, Kiowa Indian heritage which he reflects in some of his poetry (CANR volume 34 page 312)

[11]Presley, Elvis, 1935-1977, U.S. singer, guitarist, film star, born in Tupelo, Mississippi, died at his Graceland mansion in Memphis, Tennessee, the victim of drug dependence (Webster's page 905)

[12]Carter,"Jimmy" James Earl, 1924-, 39th U.S. President 1977-1981, Democrat, born in Plains, Georgia, served in the navy, studied nuclear physics, peanut farmer, governor of Georgia (Websters' page 206)

[13]Helms, Jesse, 1921-, U.S. Senator from North Carolina since 1973, Republican (Almanac page 34)

[14]James, Jesse, 1847-1882, U.S. bank and train robber, born in Missouri, a leader, along with brother Frank, of the Quantrill raiders, a Confederate guerilla band in the Civil War, was killed by Bob Ford, an accomplice; Frank remained unconvicted and became a farmer (Webster's page 590)

[15]Simpson, Wallis Warfield, 1896-1986, U.S. socialite, twice divorced, married Edward VIII in 1937 after he abdicated the throne of England (Webster's page 1016)

[16]Ali, Muhammad, 1942-, born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr., U.S. boxer. 1960 Olympic light-heavyweight champion, turned professional and became world champion (Webster's page 31).

[17]Wallop, Malcolm, 1933-, U.S. Senator from New York since 1977, Republican, (Almanac page 34)

[18]noble pursuit, a reference to the book A Noble Pursuit: The Sesquicentennial History of the New England Historic Genealogical Society by John A. Schutz, a trustee of NEHGS, this book was produced in honor of the sesquicentennial conference

[19]le Carre, John, 1931-, pseudonym of David John Moore Cornwell, English author of many murder mysteries that have been adapted for television and movies, several awards from 1963 through 1988, wrote A Small Town in Germany (1970, Del Publishing Co., New York) (CANR volume 33 page 94)

[20]Boston Tea Party, a protest against the British tea tax by colonists in Massachusetts, a valuable consignment of tea, belonging to the East India Co., and intended for sale in the American colonies, arrived in Boston Harbor aboard three ships from England, it was thrown overboard by a group of Bostonians, disguised as Indians, during the night of December 16, 1773 (Webster's page 154)

[21]Old North Bridge, located a half mile from Concord Center, Massachusetts, on April 19, 1775, minutemen from Concord and surrounding towns fired "the shot heard 'round the world" signaling the start of the American Revolution, a statue and visitor center mark the site (Fodor's page 152)

[22]Howe, Julia Ward, 1819-1910, U.S. feminist and abolitionist, 1862 write the poem Battle Hymn of the Republic, it became associated with the Union side during the Civil War (Webster's page 539). This song was sung to the audience before David McCullough began speaking this evening.

[23]King, Martin Luther, 1929-1968, U.S. civil rights campaigner, black leader, Baptist minister, born in Atlanta the son of a Baptist minister, a brilliant and moving speaker, an advocate of non-violence, won 1964 Nobel Peace Prize, assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee (Webster's page 623)

[24]Emerson, Ralph Waldo, 1803-1882, U.S. philosopher, essayist and poet, born in Boston, Massachusetts, educated at Harvard, became Unitarian minister, resigned in 1832, settled in Concord, Massachusetts which he made a center of transcendentalism (Webster's page 375)

[25]Agassiz, Louis, 1807-1873, Swiss-born U.S. paleontologist and geologist, interests included zoology and Ice Age geology, came to U.S. in 1846, joined Harvard faculty, known as a conservative in his opposition to Charles Darwin (1809-1882) the English scientist who developed the modern theory of evolution and helped propose the principle of natural selection (Webster's page 18)

[26]Guicciardini, Francesco, 1483-1540, Italian historian, lived in Florence, helped revolutionize history writing by breaking with Humanist conventions, one of the first historians to present history as a series of interrelated causes and effects and to treat history of Italy in the larger context of European affairs  (Great Lives Renaissance volume 2 page 990)

[27]Bastille, castle of St. Antoine, built about 1370 as part of the fortifications of Paris, made a state prison by Cardinal Richelieu, stormed by the mob that set the French Revolution in motion on July 14, 1789, the date became known as Bastille Day (Webster's page 116)

[28]Dickens, Charles, 1812-1870, English novelist, born in Portsea, Hampshire, England, wrote A Tale of Two Cities in 1859 (Webster's page 331)

[29]Forster, Edward Morgan, 1879-1970, English novelist, concerned with the interplay of personality and the conflict between convention and instinct (Webster's page 427)

[30]Jefferson, Thomas, 1743-1826, 3rd U.S. President, 1801-1809, born into a wealthy Virginia family, founder of the Democratic Republican party, principal author of the Declaration of Independence 1776, governor of Virginia 1779-1781, U.S. Vice-President 1797-1801 (Webster's page 596)

[31]Adams, John, 1735-1826, 2nd U.S. President 1797-1801, born at Quincy, Massachusetts, U.S. Vice-President 1789-1797, member of the Continental Congress and signer of the Declaration of Independence (Webster's page 9)

[32]Botticelli, Sandro, 1445-1510, Florentine painter of religious and mythological subjects, his real name was Filipepi but his elder brother's nickname, Botticelli "little barrel" was passed on to him, painted The Birth of Venus about 1482-1484 (Webster's page 155)

[33]Cape Horn, the southernmost point of South America, it was named in 1616 by its Dutch discoverer Willem Schouten (1580-1625) after his birthplace of Hoorn (Webster's page 198)

[34]Victorian Age, a period of English architecture, furniture making, and decorative art between the mid and late nineteenth century in England, covering the reign of Queen Victoria 1837-1901, the style was often very ornate; it was also an era when increasing mass-production by machine threatened the existence of crafts and craft skills (Webster's page 1166)

[35]Chaplin, "Charlie" Charles Spencer, 1889-1977, English-born U.S. film actor-director, made his reputation in silent films as a tramp with a smudge moustache, until sound films became common he was the best known and most popular film star of his day, starred in the film Modern Times in 1936 (Webster's page 225)

[36]von Braun, Wernher, 1912-1977, German rocket engineer who developed German military missiles (V1 and V2) during World War II, later worked for NASA in the United States (Webster's page 1174)

[37]Bohr, Niels Henrik David, 1885-1962, Danish physicist, founded the Institute of Theoretical Physics in Copenhagen, won a Nobel Prize in 1922 (Webster's page 149)

[38]Louis XVI, 1754-1793, king of France 1774-1793, son of Louis the Dauphin and grandson of Louis XV, was dominated by his queen, Marie Antoinette, finances fell into such confusion and in 1789 the French Revolution began (Webster's page 679)

[39]Marshall, George Catlett, 1880-1959, U.S. General and diplomat, born in Pennsylvania, served in World War I, army chief of staff in World War II, secretary of state 1947-1949, secretary of defense 1950-1951, initiated the Marshall Plan in 1947, received Nobel Peace Prize in 1953 (Webster's page 714)

[40]McCarthy, "Joe" Joseph Raymond, 1908-1957, U.S. Senator 1947-1957 from Wisconsin, lawyer, right-wing Republican politician whose unsubstantiated claim in 1950 that the State Department and the U.S. army had been infiltrated by Communists started a wave of anticommunist hysteria, wild accusations, and blacklists which continued until he was discredited in 1954, McCarthyism came to represent the practice of using innuendo and unsubstantiated accusations against political adversaries (Webster's page 688) (Election Guide page 606)

[41]Beethoven, Ludwig van, 1770-1827, German composer and pianist, mastery of musical expression in every genre made him the dominant influence on nineteenth century music, he usually played his own piano pieces and conducted his orchestral works until he was hampered by deafness in 1801 (Webster's page 123)

[42]Great Depression, a period of crisis in the world economy from 1929 through 1939, triggered by the Wall Street crash of October 29, 1929, in general it is an economic period of exceptionally low output and investment with high unemployment (Webster's page 325)

[43]Delacroix, Eugene, 1798-1863, French Romantic painter, his Journal is a fascinating record of his times (Webster's page 321)

[44]Tuchman, Barbara Wertheim,  1912-1989, U.S. historian, author, journalist, lecturer, Pulitzer Prizes in 1963 and 1972, known for her narrative histories (CA volume 127 page 461)

[45]Catton, Charles Bruce, 1899-1978, journalist, author of historical works on the Civil War, Pulitzer Prize in 1954, National Book Award (CANR volume 7 page 108)

[46]Manchester, William Raymond, 1922-, reporter, editor, teacher, author, Guggenheim fellowship, several works adapted for television (CANR volume 31 page 261)

[47]Horgan, Paul (George Vincent O'Shaughnessy), 1903-1995, historian, librarian, illustrator, educator and author, best known for award-winning histories of the American Southwest, two Pulitzer Prizes (CA volume 147 page 231)

[48]Doppler, Christian Johann, 1803-1853, Austrian physicist, he described the change in observed frequency, or wavelength, of waves due to relative motion between the wave source and the observer, it is responsible for the perceived change in pitch of a siren or train whistle as it approaches and as it recedes, his description of the phenomenon is known as the Doppler Effect (Webster's page 345)

[49]Roebling, John Augustus, 1806-1869, German-born U.S. civil engineer, born in the German state of the Confederation of the Rhine (became a part of Prussia in 1815), worked in the mid-nineteenth century when such talents were rare in the U.S., fully exploited the potentialities of the suspension bridge, placing the U.S. in the forefront of long-span, stable, heavy-load-bearing bridges for generations, worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad which needed bridges to transport coal across the country, his first project (1844) was to build a bridge across the Allegheny River at Pittsburgh, most noted for his magnificent design of the Brooklyn Bridge (Great Lives American Series volume 4 page 1940)

[50]Potato Famine, started in 1845 in Ireland caused by a parasitic fungus, resulted in many thousands of deaths from starvation and led to a large-scale emigration to the United States (Webster's page 901)

[51]Bingham, George Caleb, 1811-1879, U.S. painter, born near Charlottesville, Virginia, grew up in Missouri, studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1837, returned to Missouri, painted Fur Traders Descending the Missouri in 1845 (Webster's page 138)

[52]Rorschach, Hermann, 1884-1922, Swiss psychiatrist, developed a psychological test for diagnosis involving the use of inkblots that subjects are asked to interpret and were used to help indicate personality type, degree of intelligence, and, emotional stability (Webster's page 961)