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Nothing Ever Had to Happen the Way It Happened

Summer 2002, Vol. 65, No. 2

Excerpts from David McCullough's Remarks at the Philadelphia Bar Association's Bicentennial Dinner on March 12, 2002 at the Park Hyatt Philadelphia at the Bellevue


Thank you all very much. My gratitude couldn't be greater, and my sense of responsibility greater, as I'm asked to say a few words for this audience on its 200th anniversary in this great city of Philadelphia, this great American place, which has taken a place in my heart that is unequaled from my time that I've spent here working on the life and times of John Adams. I have walked this city in every season, at night, early morning, and I have felt, as I'm sure you have, the presence of those who went before us here. And I'm reminded again of how much history has taken place here beyond the founding time. And really in the evolving story of our country in these two extremely eventful centuries that your Bar Association has been in business.

A couple of lessons of history. One is that there's no such thing as a self-made man or a self-made woman. Every single one of us has always, with all mankind down the ages, each has been shaped and formed by others. By people who have encouraged you, or reprimanded you. Or opened the window to a new idea. People who have sent you off in the right direction. People who have corrected you when you needed that. Sometimes it's a parent, sometimes it's a teacher. Sometimes it's a professor, and sometimes it's someone you don't like. And very often it's someone you've never met before, never saw before. Because it's a person who wrote a book a long time ago. Or composed a symphony. Or painted a portrait. Or wrote a poem. All those forces are shaping us all the time. You know that in your own profession.

The second lesson is that nothing ever had to happen the way it happened. Ever. Nothing is pre-ordained. Not in the life of a nation, not in the life of an individual. Any past event could have gone off in any number of different directions for any number of reasons, anywhere along the line. And that's very hard to convey when teaching history or writing history, or perhaps presenting a case before a jury.

There was nothing whatever to say that this country would succeed. Nothing whatever to say that this little city, in 1776, could have produced the people that it produced. There was nothing ever to say that we would defeat the Nazi machine. There was never anything to say there would be a Thomas Jefferson, or a John Adams. Or a Theodore Roosevelt, or a Franklin Roosevelt. Or that there would be a Gershwin. Or that there would be a Winslow Homer. Or that there would be a Mark Twain.

There's no such thing as the past, if you stop to think about it. Jefferson, Adams, Washington, they didn't walk around saying, "Isn't this fascinating, living in the past? Aren't we quaint in our funny clothes." They lived in the present. But it was their present, not our present. And it was different from our present. And they were different from us. Again and again we hear, "Oh, they were just like we are." They weren't just like we are, because they lived in a different time, in a different culture. They saw things differently.

The people who came here to attend the First Continental Congress in 1774, came knowing that more than 300 people had died within less than a year before from smallpox in Philadelphia. Three hundred people was an enormous number of people, considering the size of the city.

Philadelphia had a population of about 30,000 people in 1776. It was a town by our standards. But it was the largest town in the Colonies. Boston had maybe 15,000. New York, 18,000. But imagine, out of that city of 30,000 people came the Bartrams, David Rittenhouse, Benjamin Rush, Charles Wilson Peale and his family, James Wilson, John Dickinson, on and on.

Now, the country then was not a place where one could go to see great architecture, or be influenced by magnificent paintings, or by performances in great theaters. All of those people who went to Europe in those days, all of the Americans, were astounded by what they saw abroad in architecture, painting, music, theater. What was here was very simple by the standards of Europe of the day. But something magic happened here.

Once in a while I see a statistic that practically lifts me out of my chair. When I was working on the Adams book, I read that in the same week as the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the British Army began landing 32,000 troops on Staten Island, unopposed. And I realized that the largest city in the country, Philadelphia, this city, had 30,000 people. The enemy had just landed more people than the largest city in the country. And they were only about a day-and-a-half, two days march from here. Then one begins to realize what courage those people had, those who signed the Declaration of Independence.

I want to make the point that those people then, our founders, as we call them, your great predecessors in your great profession, were all human beings. Flawed human beings. By no means spotless. Each had his own failings. Each had his own weaknesses. None was perfect. They were not gods, or demigods. And it's really a terrible disservice to them to think of them as gods, or demigods. Because they really would deserve no credit had they been gods. Because gods can do whatever they want. It's the fact that these flawed, fallible human beings could rise to the occasion and do what they did. It is so extraordinary.

The opening line of the Declaration of Independence, written here, makes the point: "When in the course of human events." Human events. They're up against the strongest military force in the world that just landed troops of the best, equipped with the best. They're only a day-and-a-half, two day march from here. Each of those men who is about to sign his name to the Declaration of Independence is going to declare himself a traitor. If captured, he could be taken and hanged. When they said we pledge "our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor," that was not just rhetoric. That was exactly the case.

So it took tremendous courage and a sense of tremendous purpose. In one of the most compelling of all her letters, Abigail Adams writes to John Adams, "I wonder if future generations will ever know what we have suffered in their behalf." We see them in their powdered wigs and their satin britches, their ruffled shirts, the men, and we think, "what a bunch of fops! What a lot of softies!" In fact, they were very tough.

"The pursuit of happiness," that wonderful expression, was in the Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson. It had never appeared in any similar document ever before. What did it mean? What does it mean to them? It did not mean material wealth. It did not mean ease. What it meant most of all was learning. The life of the mind and the spirit. The enlargement of the experience of being alive through the life of the mind. Through books. Education.

And if there is one great theme that runs through our story, as a people, from the beginning to the present and on, it's this idea and ideal of education, that nothing works without education. And most particularly, a government of the people, by the people, for the people, will not work without an educated people. Jefferson said it very simply and memorably. He said any nation that expects to be ignorant and free expects what never was and never will be. If we're going to be self-governing, we have to be informed and we have to be educated. And furthermore, an enlargement of the mind is an enlargement of the spirit.

Now as it happens, John Adams was our first President who had training as a lawyer. And he was, by all reputation, one of the greatest lawyers of his day. A magnificent advocate in court. And as he proved here in Philadelphia, in memorable fashion, he was a very persuasive member of Congress. It was John Adams, more than any other single person in the Continental Congress, who drove the Declaration of Independence through the Congress. He made it happen when it happened, which was crucial.

And the crucial day was July 2nd, not July 4th, when they voted for independence. In fact, as I expect many of you know, nothing much happened on July 4th. The great scene of the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4th never actually occurred. They started signing in early August, and there was no one day when they all signed. They signed when they appeared. Some of them didn't sign until early 1777.

But it was Adams, from the time he began to appear as a public person, who also stressed the ideal that we are and must be a government of laws and not of men. The line was not his own. The line was from the seventeenth-century English political philosopher James Harrington, "We must be a government of laws and not of men."

And it was Adams, in Massachusetts, during the Revolutionary War, in the year 1778, who wrote the oldest written constitution still in use in the world today. The Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which in its essential architecture is the same as our national constitution. Three part government; three part system, legislative, executive and judicial. And most importantly, an independent judiciary. Adams, more than any other single figure of that time, argued for, worked for, believed in, fervently, the independent judiciary as essential to a government that would survive. And that's in his Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, as is one paragraph, the likes of which had never been written before. And when he wrote it he was quite certain the legislature of Massachusetts would reject it. And when the legislature in fact passed it, and in fact passed it unanimously, it was one of the great moments of his life. The state still functions under this paragraph. And I must say that it is with a great deal of humility, I think, that one reads what he wrote then because it tells us, it reminds us, how far we still have to go. I must tell you, too, that the literacy rate in Massachusetts at this time, the late 1770s, early 1780s and 1790s, was higher than it is today.

Adams was an extremely honest man. He was known in some quarters as Honest John Adams. Honesty, he felt, was at the heart of his life as a citizen, his life as a father, husband and professionally. And nobody that I know ever entered into the profession of the law filled with quite such a sense of calling. Now this might sound like the rhapsodic, still-naive hoax of a budding attorney, but it isn't. This is really what he meant. He wrote this in 1759. In other words, about seven or eight years before his great moment here in Philadelphia in 1776. He wrote to his fellow attorney, a man he dearly loved, named Jonathan Sewell, who was a loyalist, and who ultimately left the United States to go live and spend the rest of his life, sadly, in London.

Jonathan Sewell and John Adams were about as close as any two young men could be, and they poured their hearts out to each other, even in old age when they ran into each other once again after the Revolution was over. And Adams wrote to Sewell, "Now, to what higher object, to what greater character, can any mortal aspire than to be possessed of all this knowledge," meaning of the law, "well digested and ready of command to assist the feeble and friendless, to discount the haughty and the lawless, to redress the wrongs, to procure the advancement of right, to assert and maintain liberty and virtue, to discourage and abolish tyranny and vice." The same young man, who less than twenty years later, will write the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

The men who came to this city in 1776 were by and large all educated men, which meant that they read Greek and Latin. And they were fluent in Greek and Latin. Some of the most wonderful passages in the great correspondence between Jefferson and Adams is in their retirement years when they carried on an exchange of letters that really stands out as one of the great exchanges of ideas and plot in the English language. It went on from 1812 to the year of their death, in 1826. And they discussed the proper pronunciation of certain Greek words and phrases. Imagine, two former Presidents of the United States. It's sort of refreshing to think of that. But the point was that they could read Greek and Latin. The point was that they were steeped in the ideas and ideals of the Greeks and the Romans.

I was reading the letters of John Adams and I came across one letter (he was writing to Abigail at a time when everything looked very dark for the cause) and he said, "We can't guarantee success in this war, but we can deserve it." And I thought, what a wonderful line. How different from our time where nothing seems to matter so much as succeeding, being number one. It doesn't matter how you got there, what terrible things you did to other people to do it. He's saying something quite different. He's saying that whether we succeed or not is in the hands of God. It's not for us to determine. We can't control that. But we can control our own behavior and we can deserve to win. Or, to put it another way, if we're in a noble cause, and we're going to fail, let's at least fail nobly. Well, I was so impressed by that, I think I knew then I was drawn to Adams as my subject.

And then a little later on I read the exact same sentence in a letter of George Washington's. And then in another letter of Washington's, the sentence turned up again. And I thought, you know, I'll bet it's not their line. So I took down the old handy Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, as I know you all consult at times of stress, and sure enough, there it was. It's a line from the play "Cato" by Joseph Addison.

The point is, it was a play they all knew. It was a line they all knew. It was like scripture. They didn't bother with quotation marks because they knew the person to whom they were writing those lines. And, they didn't bother with quotation marks anyway in the eighteenth century.

When Nathan Hale was hanged in New York for being a spy, his famous last line was "My only regret is that I have but one life to lose for my country." It's not his line. It's from the play "Cato." Now there he is, he's got a few minutes left, what's he going to say? He spoke something that he feels very deeply. I also think he's throwing that line back at those English officers who were about to hang him because he knows they know it, too. It's part of the culture, part of their world. They believe it. Honor. Our lives, our fortunes, our sacred honor. They saved what was most important for the last in that lineup of three.

I really think if John Adams was afraid of anything-I don't think he was afraid of anything, but if he was afraid of anything-it was dishonor. Again and again, they referred to these classic examples, the classic model. They see themselves as characters in a great historic drama. And they use the words drama, theater, stage, proscenium arch, again and again. They are playing great parts and they better very well live up to them. They have a sense of history and a sense of the vast importance of what they're doing.

I think that one of the most eloquent buildings in our whole country-to me, one of the most moving places in our whole country is right here in Philadelphia- is Carpenters Hall. That beautiful little building that so few tourists see because of the way it's tucked back there at the end of that little alley. Beautifully proportioned, exactly in the spirit of the eighteenth century. Lots of light and balance. And what's so eloquent about it is that it's so small. Fifty-by-fifty. And think what began there. Think who sat there. Think what courage they had.

The people that are talking about where we are now, and the dark time we're in now, and the uncertainties of now, need to be reminded that there never were any certainties. And dark as the times are now, we have been through far darker.

It's commonly said that everything's changed. Well, a lot's changed. And it's probably changed more deeply and in a more lasting way than we have any idea. But everything hasn't changed. We are still the most powerful, wealthiest, best educated, most generous, freest nation in the world. And in all of history. We have the greatest natural resources of any people ever. And the most important of this, of course, is our brain power. It's that territory behind the eyes and between the ears. And we seem to be keeping our heads and using our heads.

We've seen heroism, real-life heroism. Not celluloid heroism, but the kind that many of us never saw in our lives. And we have come together in a way that many of us thought would never happen in our lifetime. There's some talk about how we shouldn't be shown the horrors of what happened at the World Trade Center or the Pentagon. I disagree with that. I think we should see the horrors. We should remember the horrors. That is the reality.

But we should also take heart because we have this inexhaustible source of strength that is our story of what we've done before, of who we are, how we got to where we are; why we have a free country; why we are a government of laws and not of men; why we believe in the open mind, the open society; freedom of religion when we are in conflict and contest with forces in the world that believe in enforced ignorance. That enforced ignorance is the exact opposite of everything that the founders and so many others all the way along have felt so fervently, and fought for, and worked for and achieved to build this country. All you have to do is fly across the country and look down and see what we have done, what we've built; the roads, the farms, the cities. To see the reach of this land of opportunity. This favored land. And what noble achievements we have created.

Now, of course, it hasn't all been perfect and it hasn't all been easy. And there have been terrible injustices. People have been ground down and destroyed through no wrongdoing of their own again and again. But we've learned. We've moved forward. And we're going to continue. We're going to be stronger. We're going to come through this stronger than we ever were. Because we believe in the good society. The open society. In education; equality; freedom of religion; freedom of the press; freedom of conscious; freedom to assemble. We're lucky. We're very, very lucky. And we have a right to be proud. But we also have a right-we have a need-to take stock of who we are with humility.

President Bush, in his comments at the national prayer service in the National Cathedral following September 11, said "The commitment of our fathers will be the calling of our time." Amen. The commitment of our forbearers. All of us. Our forbearers who crossed the oceans. Our forbearers who fought for civil rights, who fought for equality. Who fought for an opportunity for their children, such as they never had. Who worked their whole lives to make the future for the next generation better than what they had.

I salute you in your 201st year. We Americans, as much as we draw strength from our past, are people interested in the future. We greet each other by saying "What's new?" Nobody turns over an old leaf. We love the future. We believe in the future, for good reason. So, on you go with your very good work. And never forget that you live in one of the most wonderful cities in the world, and you're going to make it even better. Thank you for including me in this, your very important event.

(David McCullough, famed author and historian, just received the Pulitzer Prize for his biography John Adams. He has been called a "master of the art of narrative history." His books include Truman, The Johnstown Flood, The Great Bridge and Brave Companions.)