Acclaimed historian speaks on leadership

“History” is not just what happened at a given time, but to whom it happens and why, said Pulitzer Prize-winning author David McCullough, who spoke this week in Greensboro for the Joseph M. Bryan Distinguished Leadership Lecture Series. And not all presidents are exceptional, he said, adding that Americans should “count our blessings when a real leader arrives on the scene.”

David McCullough: “We have to understand that exceptional presidents of the United States are the exception.”

Hundreds of people filled the Carolina Theatre in downtown Greensboro to hear the noted historian, whose talk, “George Washington & Nathanael Greene and the Miraculous Outcome of the American Revolution,” followed the same narrative thread he uses in his book 1776. The lecture series supports the Elon University School of Law.

McCullough’s evening lecture was preceded by a one-on-one interview with the Office of University Relations. He answered questions about the importance of leadership and the law, what sort of qualities the next president of the United States will need to possess – and the historic nature of the 2008 election. Click on the links to the right of this page for links to the interview videos.

The city of Greensboro is named for Greene, commander of the Southern Army during the American Revolution. Greene led a decisive fight at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse (today off Battleground Avenue in Greensboro) where, despite the Americans’ tactical loss, the British suffered such casualties that it slowed their advance to the north and turned the tide of the war in the Continental Army’s favor.

“Greene was not victorious, he did not win big battles,” McCullough said. “In fact, he lost battles, again and again, he was always running, always retreating … but he understood the point was to make them pay dearly.”

McCullough talked briefly about leadership in general and what makes some presidents more remarkable than others. “We have to understand that exceptional presidents of the United States are the exception,” McCullough said, and while he professed his dislike for ranking presidents, he shared his perception that Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt were the best that the United States has ever seen.

All three held office during periods of strife or armed conflict, and Washington, unlike most other men of his day, was perhaps the one person who surrendered his command of the Continental Army back to Congress once the Revolution was won. That, McCullough said, was the sign of a great man.

McCullough warned his audience of the growing ignorance among American youth as to the history of the nation. Sharing stories of visits to other college campuses, McCullough, who grew up in a home where history and tradition were valued, told of students that claimed not to know the 13 original colonies were on the East Coast, or who lacked knowledge of the British surrender at Yorktown during the Revolution.

“It is somewhat indicative of a very serious problem that we face, in how we educate our grandchildren and children,” he said. “We’re raising young Americans, even in the best colleges and universities, who are by and large historically illiterate.”

McCullough authored the Pulitzer Prize-winning works Truman and John Adams, the latter of which has been made into an HBO miniseries. Other works include The Johnstown Flood, The Path Between the Seas, The Great Bridge and Mornings on Horseback.

He lives today in Massachusetts.