Bruce Dearstyne: Dave McCullough and the Uses of History

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The American SpiritPulitzer-prize winning author David McCullough has published a new book, The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2017).

It is a bit of a disappointment in some ways — there is no overarching essay on the American spirit, and the book itself is actually a collection of commencement talks and other speeches by the author over the years rather than new work.

But like all of McCullough’s works, the book is stimulating and worth reading for its perspectives and insights, its eloquent writing, and particularly for the way it makes the case for the values of history.

A few themes:

CONTEXT OF THE PAST. Speaking of Adams, Jefferson, and Washington, McCullough said “….they didn’t walk about saying ‘Isn’t this fascinating, living in the past? Aren’t we picturesque?’ It was the present, their present. Not our present, their present. And we have to understand that. Nor were they just like we are. Their present was part of a different time, and because of that, they were different from us. We have to take into consideration, for example, all they had to contend with that we don’t have to think about — all the inconveniences, discomforts, and fears. And the hard, hard work.” (Speech to National Trust for Historic Preservation Conference, 2001)

HISTORY IS ABOUT CONNECTIONS. “Nothing happens in isolation, Everything that happens has consequences. We are all part of a larger stream of events, past, present, and future. We are all the beneficiaries of those who went before us — who built the cathedrals, who braved the unknown, who gave of their time and service, who kept faith in the possibilities of the mind and the human spirit. (Commencement address, University of Massachusetts, 1998)

OBLIGATION TO STUDY THE PAST . “…people we’ve never met, never known, because they lived before us….have shaped us– they who composed the music that moves us, the painters, the poets, those who have written the great literature in our language….The laws we live by, the freedoms we enjoy, the institutions that we take for granted — and we should never take for granted — are all the work of others who went before us. And to be indifferent to that isn’t just to be ignorant; it’s to be rude. And ingratitude is a shabby failing. How can we not want to know about the people who have made it possible for us to live as we live, to have the freedoms we have, to be citizens of this greatest of countries? It’s not just a birthright, it is something that others struggled and strived for, often suffered for, often were defeated for and died for, for the next generation, for us.” (Commencement address, Hillsdale College, 2005)


McCullough has written a number of brilliant books. But his most recent book before The American Spirit shows that even he has limitations and demonstrates the power of a book to perpetuate a particular view of history.

The Wright Brothers (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2015) is an in-depth study of Wilbur and Orville Wright, drawing on letters and other materials not used before, and illuminating their family connections. It is vivid and exciting. But it has a narrow focus and does not put the Wright Brothers into the context of the development of aviation in the United States and Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

It slights other pioneers such as our own state’s Glenn Curtiss (1878-1930), from Hammondsport, New York. Curtiss, a contemporary of the Wrights, pioneered in the use of ailerons to control planes, a forerunner of devices by the same name in use on the wings of planes today, and more advanced technologically than the Wright Brothers’ control method, called wing warping. The Wrights received a broad patent for their control method and used it to force competitors to secure licensing rights from them or be sued for patent infringement. Most complied. Curtiss refused and fought them in court from 1909 to 1917, when the government imposed a compromise settlement to speed wartime airplane production. In McCullough’s book, Curtiss appears briefly as a pesky rival whom the brothers had to fight off in court.

Another book, Lawrence Goldstone’s Birdmen: The Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtiss and the Battle to Control the Skies (New York: Ballentine Books, 2015), tells the story in a way that puts Curtiss and other pioneers more at center stage. Goldstone demonstrates that there were lots of startups and entrepreneurs working on the development of early airplanes here in the U.S. and Europe, Curtiss foremost among them. It was a time when inventiveness and innovation were needed.

Goldstone shows that the Wrights’ policy of using their patent to force others to pay for licensing rights probably deterred inventors and innovators and retarded growth of the industry.

Glenn Curtiss, who receives summary treatment in McCullough’s book, is credited with over 500 inventions, including several types of wing designs, controls, throttles, brakes, retractable landing gear, pontoons, and amphibious airplanes. Some of his seminal contributions are still used in modified applications in planes today.

On July 4, 1908, he made the first pre-announced, publically witnessed, and officially certified (by the Aero Club of America) airplane flight in the nation, at Hammondsport, unlike the Wrights’ flights, which had not been public affairs and officially certified.

Curtiss established the first airplane factory in the nation, at Hammondsport, in 1909. He was the first person to fly from Albany to New York City, in 1910. He demonstrated the potential of planes to land on and take off from warships and to bombard ships from the air and in 1911 became the father of naval aviation when he got the first contract to build planes for the Navy and train their pilots. The Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Corporation was for a while during World War I the largest aircraft company in the world and one of the largest companies in New York State, employing about 18,000 workers at its Buffalo plant.

McCullough’s coverage of the Wrights is deeper than Goldstone’s, but Goldstone’s account is broader and more informative. The two books came out about the same time. McCullough’s got lots of attention, Goldstone’s much less attention.

This is an example of how interpretations of history get perpetuated. There are other, accompanying factors.

*Curtiss was a modest person, not given to self-promotion, unlike the Wrights, who were much better at it.

*Curtiss left behind limited documentation; the Wrights, a much richer documentation record.

*There is a terrific Glenn Curtiss Museum in Hammondsport. It is not a state or federal facility. By contrast, the Wrights’ home and shop in Dayton, Ohio is a National Park Service site and there is another NPS Wright site at Kill Devil Hills, NC, near where they made their historic flight. But Curtiss has not received comparable treatment here in New York.

*State promotion counts, too. Ohio for many years Ohio had “Birthplace of Aviation” as the slogan on its license plates, commemorating the fact that the Wrights lived and did most of their work in Dayton. The unit of the Ohio state university system in Dayton is named Wright State University. North Carolina has “First in Flight” on its license plates. New York has nothing comparable.

*The Wright Brothers’ pioneering plane is in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington. Curtiss’ early planes have not survived, though there are replicas at the Curtiss Museum.

McCullough’s view of the Wrights accords with that of most other historians.

But there is countervailing evidence that historians should give more attention to New York’s Glenn Curtiss. Time magazine, reporting on an international air show in 1924 to honor the Wrights at their home town, Dayton, reported that at least half of the planes there were powered by Curtiss engines and that there was “not one plane but bore some evidence of the contributions he has made to mankind’s knowledge of the air” through “ingenuity, mechanical skill, persistence, enterprise [and] daring.” Citing a long list of inventions, Time put Glenn Curtiss on its cover.

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Bruce Dearstyne

About Bruce Dearstyne

Dr. Bruce W. Dearstyne served on the staff of the New York State Office of State History and the State Archives. He was a professor and is now an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland’s College of Information Studies and has written widely about New York history and occasionally writes about New York history issues for the “Perspective” section of the Sunday Albany Times Union. Bruce is the author of two books published in 2015: The Spirit of New York: Defining Events in the Empire State’s History (SUNY Press) and also Leading the Historical Enterprise: Strategic Creativity, Planning and Advocacy for the Digital Age (Rowman and Littlefield and the AASLH). He can bereached at

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