David McCullough and the rise of popular history

Published August 11, 2022

By Ray Nothstine

“I think of writing history as an art form,” McCullough said in a 2008 HBO documentary about his life. “And I’m striving to write a book that might — might — qualify as literature.” 

McCullough is well known for his books, but his voice also helped propel history to the masses. His masterful narration of the PBS Ken Burns documentary “The Civil War” brought the sights and sounds of unimaginable American carnage into tens of millions of living rooms in 1990.

His biography of John Adams and “1776” are some of the books that elevated a renewed interest and appreciation for the American founding. It’s virtually impossible to walk into any serious bookstore in America and not find dozens of books devoted to America’s founding generation or fathers. McCullough’s stamp on the genre is a big reason.

“When the founders wrote about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, they didn’t mean longer vacations or more comfortable hammocks,” said McCullough to Harvard Business Review. “They meant the pursuit of learning. The love of learning. The pursuit of improvement and excellence.” 

In an era when many academic historians trash the founding, McCullough reminds us that commercial success is often much closer to finding the truth than many of the so-called “professionals.” How many readers are running to the bookstore to purchase a book on feminist liberationist studies during the American Revolution? And McCollough himself helped push many sane academic historians to publish their popular narrative history accounts, whereby even more Americans can cultivate their love for our history. 

McCullough noted, “How can we call ourselves patriots if we know little of our country’s past?” History so often teaches us the most important lessons we must learn. 

One of the great lessons of American history is that, overall, we can be proud of our legacy. We liberated continents from fascism and those enslaved by Marxist Leninism. In fact, no other nation has liberated more people in the history of the world. We even shed massive amounts of American blood to end the scourge of slavery in this country. 

“The Civil War was fought in 10,000 places, from Valverde, New Mexico, and Tullahoma, Tennessee, to St. Albans, Vermont, and Fernandina on the Florida coast,” said McCullough in “The Civil War.”

But as McCullough noted, history is not just events or military campaigns but ideas. History teaches us moral instruction. Whether Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” or “Letter from Birmingham Jail” penned by Martin Luther King, Jr., those are morality lessons for the mind and soul.

History teaches us about markets and ingenuity, too. McCullough’s bio of the Wright Brothers is a superb account of one of America’s greatest underdog stories and entrepreneurial endeavors from America’s past. It’s a reminder that few investments are as rewarding as persistence and hard work. 

McCullough’s legacy is not that he only helped to grow the love of history for many Americans, but that he knew our American story matters and is worth telling again and again. And in the end, if you don’t love America, you can never appreciate this nation for all the good it has already done. 

Ray Nothstine is Carolina Journal opinion editor and Second Amendment research fellow at the John Locke Foundation.