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  • America's Republican RefoundingDavid McCullough's Paean to Pioneers in the Old Northwest
  • Gleaves Whitney (bio)

The first half of 2020 will surely go down as one of the more dramatic six months in American history. Three years to the day after Donald Trump was inaugurated—and one month after the President was impeached—the U.S. recorded its first COVID-19 case. There ensued a pandemic; an unprecedented state-by-state lockdown; an equally unprecedented governmentinduced economic depression that left almost 15 percent of the workforce unemployed; a nationwide conflagration sparked by a black man's murder on a Minneapolis street; widespread calls to defund the police; peaceful protests in more than two thousand communities, anarchic riots in threedozen cities; and soul-searing debates over which historic figures and symbols deserve a place of honor in our civic spaces.

The first half of 2020 also saw David McCullough's book, The Pioneers,1 solidify its place as the number one best-selling book about the Midwest.2 Is there a connection?

Amid the tumult of this strange year, the genteel David McCullough has given us a story about the Midwest that is a contradiction to our times. Without apology McCullough reminds us why America is still—to recall Lincoln's words—"the last best hope of Earth." Despite our flawed past, despite the fact that previous generations honored some questionable individuals, our history did not unfold solely within the grid of racism. New England pioneers possessed high ideals of justly ordered freedom, and they carried those ideals west, and McCullough is on nothing less than a civilizational mission to make sure the rest of us know it.

When he was in his mid-eighties, McCullough was asked in so many words about his civilizational mission. He observed: [End Page 165]

I see now that all of my books are about Americans who set out to accomplish something worthy, something that they knew would be difficult—something even more difficult than they expected—who did not give up, who learned from their mistakes, who eventually achieved their purpose … to our benefit. One of the reasons we ought to read and know history is to increase our capacity for gratitude for those who went before us, for what they did for us, for what they achieved for us. For us to take them for granted is rude in the extreme.3

In The Pioneers McCullough never loses sight of the flawed, flesh-and-blood human beings who populate his pages. They are a lot more interesting than marble statues. But rather than dismiss the early New Englanders for not living up to our values today, he foregrounds the virtues the settlers did show—their courage, tenacity, and capacity to redeem suffering. He alerts us to his purpose in the subtitle of his book: "The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West."

Let's focus for a moment on that word, "heroic," in the subtitle. Addressing why he wrote The Pioneers, McCullough emphasized that his moral purpose was to develop our empathy for the "other." In this quest he follows a long line of anti-Enlightenment writers from Vico to Herder who sought to cultivate Einfühlung, our sympathetic identification with those who are different from us. As the past is a foreign country, McCullough challenges us to "put ourselves in the place of those who went before us." And then he wants us to ask, Who are we by comparison? Only partly in jest McCullough answers his own question by observing: "In working the last several years trying to understand what these pioneers who settled in Ohio had to contend with and what they accomplished against such adversities, I can't help but feel that we're a bunch of soft ies!"4

Given the self-indulgence and decadence that characterize large swaths of American society today, we could learn a lot from the Anglo-Americans who first legally settled the Ohio Country, even if they were quite "other." They did not go West to become rich and famous, notes McCullough. "Out of their suffering came a sense of purpose. … They weren't in it for...