I grew up in upstate New York, in a town called Fayetteville, which is not how most people picture the American dream. Its cities have long struggled economically, while its rural backroads go largely ignored. I also spent several years of my early adult life in Charleston, South Carolina, where the sun is out, the seafood is fresh, and people are happy to be living in such a colorful, historical treasure of the east coast. But past the vibrant and bustling city lay tiny, close-knit communities unknown to the rest of the country.
One such community was Walterboro, a small town about 30 minutes southwest of Charleston. In many ways, this town served as a gateway from the gentrifying Carolina coast to the distressed inland of the state. While distressed itself, it was also a treasure trove for antiquing. People from Charleston and other surrounding towns would travel to Walterboro to buy and sell their American relics because they were drawn to the cultural treasures of their own bygone nation. Naturally, I made frequent visits. After antiquing, you had your choice of about 5 little restaurants on the main strip to enjoy a nice heartland meal and a fresh iced tea.
Whenever I taste real American cuisine or visit an antique shop I think of David McCullough, the great popular historian who passed this month. McCullough didn't ignore the little faded dots on the map of America. In fact, he made them a focal point of his writing.
I discovered McCullough in college—though I was a marketing and communications major, I have always had a passion for history and culture, and I was instantly drawn in by his writing in books like his critically-acclaimed The American Spirit. Amid a sea of lecturers and authors who only wanted to focus on America’s faults, McCullough was one of the few who inspired.
The American Spirit collects McCullough’s speeches, spanning years of his successful career, including addresses to Congress, universities, historical societies, and more. Following the 2016 election, at a time of great turbulence, he decided to compile this collection to offer a look into the American psyche and a new way to carry forward what the founders envisioned.
With his recent, tragic passing, I have been reflecting on what made McCullough great. Yes, he is a thorough and carefully-researched historian, but more importantly, he is able to communicate with charisma and rich language that flooded every page with imaginative patriotism. He is the definition of a storyteller, which is apparent to every reader from their first encounter. I continued on to read many other popular works of his, from John Adams to 1776. All were great, but my favorite covers a relatively obscure topic that seemed custom-fit for my love of heartland culture: How the little town of Marietta, Ohio came to be.
The Pioneers is a quintessential pioneer story. In 1788, a band of pioneers left New England for the untapped wilderness of the Northwest Territory. After a long journey through rough terrain, raging rivers, and woody forests, the handful of families settled on the banks of the Ohio River. The book chronicles the growth of the humble town they established, the challenges they faced, the formation of Ohio, and how they lived every day, all drawing from the personal diaries of five settlers.
The Pioneers is a unique history, in that it doesn't tell us the story of San Francisco, Dallas, or Phoenix—it tells the story of a town most have never even heard of. Towns like Marrietta and the story of the pioneers who settled it are what make America great. The pioneers could have chosen a comfortable life in New England, but they chose to venture out into the unknown, hundreds of miles away from civilization to seek out opportunity and build a community better fit for them—and this spirit is still present in America today.
We are still a vast nation primarily made up of small, tight-knit communities established by the brave. Each of these communities is one small thread, all stitching together into the fabric of our national story and character. And, despite the challenges many small communities face, McCullough reassures us that our story won't fade. It will only become more vibrant. As he remarked in a speech to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, “we think we live in difficult uncertain times. We think our leaders face difficult decisions. But so has it nearly always been.”
David McCullough understood imaginative patriotism as second to none, and each of his writings offers us a glimpse into the rich, dynamic culture we call our own. His writings inspired me to lean into my love for history in college rather than replace it entirely with business curricula. He deepened my understanding of our country and why it is special. And, perhaps most importantly, he instilled in me a feeling of hope that comes from few historians today.
The loss of David McCullough is a tragic one, particularly in an America that is trying to find its way again. However, it brings me comfort to know that his books will live on for centuries and, if we let them, they can serve as a guiding light back to patriotism.
Nick Lindquist is a Strategist at Beck & Stone. Born and raised in New York, he now lives in Fort Worth, Texas.