Saturday, August 2, 2008

David McCullough Tells a Good Story

But what happens to history?
by Ray Soller

On April 24, 2007, my wife and I attended a lecture at Emory University presented by the well-known author, David McCullough. The title of his talk was "Leadership, Ambition, and the History You Don’t Know.” I brought my copy of 1776 with me so I could get it autographed. I also brought a folder full of historical material relating to Washington's first inauguration on April 30, 1789. The folder duplicated my earlier effort where I had already sent a lengthy e-mail with similar material to the Emory program coordinator, Andrew Shahan, hoping that Shahan would pass it on to McCullough.

McCullough's presentation was outstanding. Afterwards, a hundred people gathered in the book signing line. When I arrived at the table Mr. Shahan served as an assistant. He opened each book so it could be autographed. He, likewise, took my book and inspected my folder. He then told McCullough that I was the gentleman who had written the material he had already received. McCullough looked up at me with a penetrating gaze that seemed to say, "So you're the guy." My senior citizen face didn't impress the author. He put my material aside and then signed my book without saying a word. Finally, my wife and I moved on as everyone else had already done.

The material I submitted to David McCullough reviewed Washington's first inauguration as narrated in his book, John Adams. A close examination of his narrative prompts the reader to ask, "Given McCullough's ability to tell a good story, what happens to history?"

Here's McCullough's narrative of Washington's inauguration (page 403):
On the day of his inauguration, Thursday, April 30 1789, Washington rode to Federal Hall in a canary-yellow carriage pulled by six white horses and followed by a long column of New York militia in full dress. The air was sharp, the sun shone brightly, and with all work stopped in the city, the crowds along his route were the largest ever seen. It was as if all New York had turned out and more besides. "Many persons in the crowd," reported the Gazette of the United States "were heard to say they should now die contented – nothing being wanted to complete their happiness … but the sight of the savior of his country."

dot - dot - dot

[When the anticipated moment arrived] Washington, his right hand on the Bible, repeated the oath of office as read by Chancellor Robert R. Livingston of New York, who had also been a member of the Continental Congress.

In a low voice Washington solemnly swore to execute the office of the President of the United States and, to the best of his ability, to "preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States." Then, as not specified in the Constitution, he added, "So help me God," and kissed the Bible, thereby establishing his own first presidential tradition.

Confabulated six white horses: It certainly would have been grand if the inaugural parade had included a "canary-yellow carriage pulled by six white horses," but the record shows there were only four horses. (All of the other carriages were pulled by two horses. See Arriving in Style, page 3: "A Carved and gilded English-made coach drawn by four horses carried Washington from his home on Cherry Street to Federal Hall on Wall Street, escorted by militia, members of Congress, and other eminent citizens. A chorus of cheering crowds observed the procession and followed in carriages and on foot." A detailed newspaper account given in the New York Packet of May 1, 1789, the day after the ceremony, reported that "the President joined the procession in his carriage and four.")

Later in Washington's term, the president toured the southern states in a canary-yellow carriage with six horses, but at the time of the inauguration he rode alone in the gilded carriage of state that was loaned out for Washington's use by the wealthy Beekman family. Washington was so impressed that he ordered one for himself. It was shipped from London and arrived in New York that same year.

Post-dated article from the Gazette: When reading the McCullough's text for Washington's inaugural ceremony one would assume that the author is citing a Gazette article for April 30, 1789, but he wasn't. The article in question is dated April 25th, which was five days too early. It described the events of April 23rd when Washington arrived in New York City, and, indeed, some people in the crowd may have felt thay could "die contented." Others, however, thought that the monarchial trappings were overdone. A very contrasting representation appeared at the same time in the form of a caricature, which portrayed "General [Washington] mounted on an ass, and in the arms of his mulatto man, Billy, --- [David] Humphreys leading the jack, and chanting hosannas and birthday odes. The following couplet makes the motto of this device:
'The glorious time has come to pass,
When David shall conduct an ass'"

Back-dated tradition - So help me God: McCullough, along with an almost countless number of other authors, have taken what is essentially a modern-day inaugural tradition and conjured up the notion that George Washington started this "hoary tradition" by his first adding "So help me God" to the presidential oath. It's simply not true, since no elected-President has been documented as having added "so help me God" until the beginning of the twentieth century. Furthermore, in spite of the widespread notion to the contrary, there is no contemporary or firsthand historical evidence showing that George Washington added anything to his presidential oath of office. The first report claiming that Washington added "So help me God" to his presidential oath came sixty-five years after the event.

So, my fellow readers, If you like your historical narratives confabulated with a super-sized team of six horses mixed in with a post-dated newspaper article and a back-dated inaugural tradition, then McCullough's biography of John Adams and HBO's adaptation are just right for you.


bpabbott said...


Personally I do not understand the desire to inject fabrications, misrepresentations, prophetic perspectives, or other colorful extrapolations into the historic record.

I have not read McCullough's biography of John Adams, but did enthusiastically watch HBO's adaptation ... only to be disappointed. The intelligence and principles of Adams are quite evident in his writings, but are generally clouded in the movie.

Perhaps, if an attempt had been made to imprint an accurate image of John Adam's personality and character in the minds of those reading/watching the breadth of the audience the result appealed to would be reduced.

Thanks for the post, the sentiment is one I share.

Anonymous said...

I must disagree. McCullough is a great man and perhaps has information that you don't.

Brad Hart said...

Sorry, anonymous but you are going to have to do better than "McCullough is a great man" to prove your point. Ray has raised some good points and has a wealth of documentation to back it up. Where is your rebuttal?

Tom Van Dyke said...

Well done, Mr. Soller. Many or most Americans have the impression that American history is a book where the ink has long been dried, and all we can do is recite from it, but this is not so.

And the history of ideas and theological/philosophical landscape at the Founding remains even less certain, which is what makes this blog such fun.

Anonymous said...

Okay, sorry for overreacting. I think that McCullough did fabricate this a bit, but I suppose that I did not like the tone in which this post was written. He has helped so many people to love history, including myself. Though I read his books with doubt now, I must admit that it is he who inspired me to major in history. I'm disappointed to hear this of him.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Anonymous, as a human being, I wouldn't blame McCullough too much. I don't think any of us are immune to his reaction.

But if you read everything skeptically, or at least with only provisional acceptance from now on, it'll make you a better historian and seeker of truth. Words for all of us to live by, as David Barton has painfully discovered over the last 10 or 15 years, as there were many things he was forced to retract.

Tim Polack said...

While it's fully possible that George Washington did not say the lines "so help me God", it seems to be equally possible that he did say that. When faced with some of the most momentous moments in history, he often invoked God for assistance. It's certainly not out of the realm of possibility that he did, as a matter of fact, it's quite possible.

Now, I notice that many professional or not so professional historians today seem to be of the angle that if it's not witnessed or there's no proof, it more than likely didn't happen. But considering the religiosity of the period in which he lived, saying something of this sort would have prompted a mild reaction of, "well, yea" (excuse the injection of modern expression) for people during that time, including the elites that may have been close enough during the swear-in to have heard him.

So while there is not very strong evidence to the positive that he said this, there is also equally weak evidence that he didn't say this. It feels this blog has sided with him not saying it just because there's isn't better evidence to prove it did. Granted I understand the disdain of those who accept it wholeheartedly without understanding the uncertainty of the truth. But the truth of history is a battle with often changing battle lines.

bpabbott said...

Publius commented: "I notice that many professional or not so professional historians today seem to be of the angle that if it's not witnessed or there's no proof, it more than likely didn't happen."

Historians seek to record the facts. If there is no proof then it is not part of History.

Do you mean to imply that Historians should entertain all unsubstantiated claims? ... if not by proof/evidence, then by what manner shall Historians determine/judge the truth?

Tim Polack said...

bpaboot, thanks for the reply. When I said without evidence, I should have been clearer and said without specific evidence for a particular event (i.e., no evidence for, none against, in this case for the possibility of Washington’s inauguration addition of ‘so help me God’).

History does deal in evidence, but it’s often fragmented evidence. In the very focus of this blog, the religiosity of the founding, it is quite unclear the exact type of Christianity, or if any Christianity each of the founders had. Or more broadly, what exactly the founding meant for religion in this county. I think the ferocity of the arguments and the decades or even centuries spent debating these issues confirms this.

So evidence is not always black and white. There are shades of gray and context to take into account.

bpabbott said...


I am not refuting the nature of GW's faith, only pointing out misrepresentations or invented events do not serve the pursuit of history and understanding the perspectives of those who present.

Regarding "fragmented evidence" or "shades of gray", the claim that GW appended the claimed words does not have even that much support.

In the event that the historic record relies upon cloudy or vague evidence, it does not extrapolate such and make specific claims.