We should kneel down in gratitude!
McCoullough’s comment, “We should kneel down in gratitude!” applies, of course, to more than the personage of George Washington. Still, after watching and listening to McCoullough talk about our first president, I read 1776 a second time.
It’s an astounding read. The book reads like a novel as it reveals the immensity and impossibliity of the task looming in front of George Washington. In less than 300 pages, McCoullough relates the extraordinary events of the first year of the American Revolution: 1776. And does so in his classic understated prose.
- When Washington took over the command of the ragtag collection of farmers, merchants and itinerants, the men had only enough gunpowder for nine rounds each.
- The “soldiers” were farmers, merchants, a far cry from the professionally trained British soldiers on warships surrounding Boston.
- A twenty-five year old bookseller named John Knox led a force to steal badly needed munitions and a cannon from New York. Along with the cannon, 58 mortars—120,000 pounds—of muntions from Fort Ticonderoga made the three-hundred mile trip in the dead of winter. It took two months. An incredible, impossible feat.
- The jubilance of the British retreat from Boston was followed closely by the calamitous losses in New York.
- We lost 25,000 men in the battle-one percent of the population at the time, a loss of more Americans than in any other war excepting the Civil War.
McCoullough’s summary of the first president?
“He was not a brilliant strategist or tactician, nor a gifter orator, not an intellectual. At several crucial moments, he had shown marked indecisveness. He had made serious mistakes in judgement…Above all, Washington never forgot was at stake and he never have up….Without Washington’s leadership and unrelenting perserverence, the revolution almost certainly would have failed….Especially for those who had been with Washington…at the beginning…the outcome seemed little short of a miracle.”
Indeed, we should kneel down in gratitude!
Like millions here and around the world, I’m a huge fan of David McCoullogh.
And was extremely saddened to read of his death last week, just two months after the death of his wife and best friend, Rosie. My introduction to the biographer occurred at a long ago book club. Truman was to be the read for the following month. Gasping at the size of his biography, Truman, I thought, “I’ll never get through this tome!”
But I did. In fact, savored almost every word of that 1000 plus page book. And then felt the same about John Adams, because I got hooked on McCoullough’s style, refreshing candor, and the sympathetic portraits of the times and their characters. McCoullough placed me there, taking me out of our 21st century comforts, conveniences, immediacy, and transporting me to an entirely different era.
In order to write his books, McCoullough needed to like and admire the person he wrote about. In the preface to his book on Adams, McCoullough said that he’d intended to write about Thomas Jefferson, until he began doing the research and learned that it was Adams, not Jefferson, whose principled brilliance and steadfast character built the foundation of this country while Jefferson was mostly in France.
Reading McCoullough’s books always feels like an experience. He has a gift of transporting our psyches into the guts of crises and events and making us feel we’re part of it all. Part of the successes and even more, the humiliations and gravely costly errors. We end each book with a bit of awe at the nobility of our brothers and sisters, a kind of pride in our shared humanity.
In a 1992 interview about his new biography,Truman,
McCoullough said something worth shouting from the rooftops:
“… always you have to keep in mind at every step along the way: What didn’t they know? To look at it from the mountaintop, so to speak, as many historians do, and to take the grand view is to have a huge advantage of hindsight, which they never had, which we don’t have right now. So to fault a figure in public life or to condemn a whole generation because they failed to know what we know is really, to me, it’s dishonest and unfair.”
Dishonest and unfair, indeed. There’s no shortage of dishonesty and unfairness in our world, is there? A seemingly universal refusal to appreciate historical and cultural context.
But guess what? There’s nothing new about that.
The last three of my novels were historical fiction. Hence extensive research was required. Because The Reluctant Queen was the third in my ancient novel series, I expected its writing to be simpler. After all, I was writing of the same period, give or take a couple of hundred years. But only when looking at the Greco-Persian wars through the Persian perspective did I learn that there’s nothing new about revising history to fit our biases and prejudices.
While researching and writing I Claudia and My Name is Saul, the thought that the ancients would be as tempted as we moderns to revise history never once occurred to me. But as I pondered that obvious fact, once more the distance between us and the ancients narrowed considerably. All of these challenges incited and excited me.The Reluctant Queen
That’s the thing about history, isn’t it?
The only way to get even an echo of understanding for historical figures is to join them in their culture. What they knew and believed. And once we do, we find the most extraordinary thing, don’t we?
My sympathetic writing about the characters of Pontius Pilate and King Xerxes has yielded criticism. Both are men many in our culture-especially the scholars-think we understand. But that’s the thing about writing, the awful humility of it. If we’re honest, we learn that we don’t really know. Anything.
In the eigthteen minute video with McCoullough above, the author vehemently opines against those who think ours are the worst of times in America. At the time the video was filmed, the chasm between Democrats and Republicans was well on its way to apparent irreconcilability. But if you listen carefully to his remarks about the early years of this country, —better yet, learn about them for yourself—instantly, you know the foolishness of such statements.
Not just foolishness, McCoullough admonishes, but ingratitude.
Yes, the seeming incapacity to see the blessings we Americans have and do receive. In a world where want is the norm and clean water a precious gift, so many of us manage to be mostly unhappy. Mostly depressed.
Because I think about gratitude more than a little, I write about it. Often wondering, what is it?
As a child, I witnessed the mystery of gratitude and its absence. My non-church-going father seemed grateful. Tired, usually, but grateful for his work and the living it provided for him, his wife and girls. While my mom seemed mostly incapable of seeing the blessings of her life. Her lens revealed only a dirty house and Dad’s relentlessly oil-stained clothes and hands which bugged her, often making her angry.
All these years later I wonder about that: we should kneel down in gratitude! In my memory, admittedly faulty, the grateful person in our family was my father. The man who only began attending church after she died.
Weekly, I pray
the Patriotic Rosary for the consecration of our nation. It begins this way:
Come Holy Spirit
For the Conversion of our Nation’s Capital
The Apostle’s Creed
For the Holy Father
For Bishops, Priests, Religious
Three Hail Mary’s
For the Conversion of our Country
Included in these magnificent prayers are those from five founding fathers upon the birth of this nation.
Each is sobering and haunting.
George Washington’s prayer precedes the first mystery for the Presidency of the United States. The man who made the momentous decision to step away from the presidency after two terms. An act, declares David McCoullough, that makes him worthy of being “our greatest president.”
The American Lucius Qinctus Cincinattus.
“No one can rejoice more than I do at every step the people of this great country take to
preserve the Union, establish good order and government, and to render the nation happy at
home and respectable abroad. No country upon earth ever had it more in its power to attain
these blessings than United America. Wondrously strange then, and much to be regretted
indeed would it be, were we to neglect the means, and to depart from the road which
Providence has pointed us, so plainly; I cannot believe it will ever come to pass. The Great
Governor of the Universe has led us too long and too far on the road to happiness and glory,
to forsake us in the midst of it. By folly and improper conduct, proceeding from a variety of
causes, we may now and then get bewildered; but I hope and trust that there is good sense
and virtue enough left to recover the right path before we shall be entirely lost.”
George Washington, June 29, 1788
We should kneel down in gratitude!