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Founding Fathers' Lessons are Timeless, David McCullough Tells DePauw Audience

March 18, 2002

March 18, 2002, Greencastle, Ind. - Video Link [DOWNLOAD VIDEO: "Beautiful Campus" 724KB] Audio Link[DOWNLOAD AUDIO: "Beautiful Campus" 399KB] "It looks like college used to look in the movies," Pulitzer Prize-winning author, historian and television host David McCullough said of his first visit to the campus of DePauw University. "It sort of looks like the college I dreamed I would go to someday," the author of John Adams and Harry Truman added as he wrapped up his day at DePauw, which he called a "rare and very welcome experience," with a Timothy and Sharon Ubben Lecture entitled "First Principles."

McCullough spent much of his more than hour-long talk focusing on Adams and the other founding fathers of America, and Audio Link[DOWNLOAD AUDIO: "The Miracle" 601KB] "the fact that they all rose to the occasion and did what they did, accomplished what they did against the most horrendous odds is the real miracle. And the more I know about that period, the more I read about it, and the more I come to understand it, the more convinced I am that it's a miracle that the United States ever happened." (BONUS CLIP: Audio Link[DOWNLOAD AUDIO: "We're the Beneficiaries" 529KB])

McCullough says one of the first principles of the signers of the Constitution was clearly bravery, as they literally risked their life to take a stand for independence. [DOWNLOAD VIDEO: "Poll-Driven" 1000KB] Audio Link[DOWNLOAD AUDIO: "Poll-Driven" 488KB] "If the people of Philadelphia, the founders, had been the kind of politicians who are poll-driven, they would have scrapped the whole thing, because only about a third of the country was for it-- at most a third of the country was for it; at least a third, or more, were adamently against it; while the remaining third, in the good old human way, were waiting to see who came out on top."

McCullough says America's founders also embraced education, reading about and learning from the past. Audio Link[DOWNLOAD AUDIO: "Powerful Motivation" 703KB] "They were steeped in, soaked in, marinated in, the classics: Greek and Roman history, Greek and Roman ideas, Greek and Roman ideals. It was their model, their example. And they saw themselves very much like the Greeks and the Romans, as actors on a great stage in one of the great historic dramas of all time, and that they, individually and as a group, had better live up to these heroic parts in which history had cast them. That's a powerful motivation," the author asserted.

A two-time winner of both the National Book Award and the prestigious Francis Parkman Prize, McCullough worries that some shortchange early America as a time when people were primitive. Video Link [DOWNLOAD VIDEO: "Hubris" 11100KB] Audio Link[DOWNLOAD AUDIO: "Hubris" 524KB] "I'm always distressed by some of the hubris of some historians and biographers, who kind of look down on people of the past for not knowing as much as we do. There were quite as intelligent, maybe more so than we are, and very much more articulate than we are. And a lot that we think is the upward road of progress hasn't been at all. Do you know the literacy rate in Massachusetts in 1776, or 1780 or '90, was higher than it is in Massachusetts today. And we think we've come a long way," McCullough said.

Over the noon hour, hours before his speech, David McCullough shared lunch with history faculty and their students in DePauw's Memorial Student Union Building, as seen in the pictures above and at left. McCullough says he spends three to ten years researching and writing each of his books, and that he's never chosen a subject with its market potential in mind. Video Link [DOWNLOAD VIDEO: "My Life" 498KB] Audio Link[DOWNLOAD AUDIO: "My Life" 265KB] "My life for the last nearly 40 years has been involved with writing history, reading history, enjoying history. I love it. I wouldn't trade it for anything. If I had to, I'd pay to do what I do."

In closing his Ubben Lecture and before signing books in the lobby of Kresge Auditorium, David McCullough told his audience, "you can't understand yourself or your country without a sense of the past.... Video Link [DOWNLOAD VIDEO: "Keeping History Alive" 1400KB] Audio Link[DOWNLOAD AUDIO: "Keeping History Alive" 751KB] We need to encourage better teaching of history, encourage more people to major in history, and we need to thank our lucky stars that we have wonderful liberal arts colleges like DePauw. I really think that DePauw and the other great small liberal arts colleges in America are the vital mainstream of higher education in our country. And, as a consequence, I am extremely proud and pleased to be invited to come here."

Endowed by Timothy and Sharon Ubben, both 1958 graduates of DePauw, the Ubben Lecture Series is designed to bring the world's top leaders, thinkers and creative minds to the Greencastle campus. See a list of all Ubben Lecturers by clicking here.

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