Cal Thomas: Learning lessons from history

MEGAN BASHAM: Today is Thursday, May 9th. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Megan Basham.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Next up, Cal Thomas on the lessons of history.

CAL THOMAS, COMMENTATOR: Ronald Reagan famously said that freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. The truth of that statement is more evident than ever today.

We Americans desperately need to re-learn our history—and into that context comes a new book from the greatest living historian, David McCullough.

It’s called “The Pioneers” and the subtitle is its theme: “The heroic story of the settlers who brought the American ideal west.”

McCullough writes little of names like Washington, Jefferson, and Adams. Instead, he offers characters who are unfamiliar to most of us—names like Manasseh and Ephraim Cutler, Rufus Putnam, and Samuel Hildreth. These and many others did the grunt work of nation building.

McCullough mostly focuses on the land once known as the Northwest Territory. Its initial boundaries included the Ohio and Muskinghum Rivers.

In 1787 the Confederation Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance to govern the Northwest Territory. The document contained this sentence—long since abandoned to our detriment: “Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”

McCullough details the enormous sacrifices of frontier men, women, and children. They cleared trees, endured harsh weather, and conquered lands, expanding the boundaries of the new nation.

Yes, Native Americans were displaced in ways that were disgraceful. McCullough notes all that remained were their tribal names, which were assigned to rivers and towns. Among the tribes were the Delaware, Miami, Ottawa, Shawnee and Wyandot. Among the rivers named for them were the Cuyahoga and Chippewa Creek.

It was small consolation to native people who preceded white settlers. They believed land was sacred and not to be owned.

As with his other books, McCullough’s writing style makes you feel a part of it all. It’s astounding how much New Englanders were willing to sacrifice to explore foreign and hostile land. Many died of disease, accidents, bad weather and wars. Living conditions were harsh, but they persisted.

In summing up the contributions of these pioneers, McCullough writes: “(They) had finished their work, each in his or her own way, and no matter the adversities to be faced, propelled as they were by high, worthy purpose. They accomplished what they had set out to do not for money, not for possessions or fame, but to advance the quality and opportunities of life—to propel as best they could the American ideals.”

These pioneers believed America had a purpose, sanctioned by God, which the world might wish to emulate. This bears little resemblance to the entitlement mentality of today.

“The Pioneers” should be mandatory reading for all seeking a better understanding of who we are and how we got here—and of the heroic men and women who made it happen.

For WORLD Radio, I’m Cal Thomas.

(Photo/David McCullough)

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