Pulitzer-Prize Winning Author David McCullough Passes Away At Age 89

Historian and author David McCullough speaks at the dedication of the Hancock-Adams Common in September, 2018. Mr. McCullough, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his biography on John Adams, died Sunday. He was 89. Quincy Sun File Photo/Robert Bosworth

David McCullough, an American author and two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, passed away Sunday at his home in Hingham. He was 89.

Mr. McCullough received the Pulitzer Prize for his books “Truman” and “John Adams.” His biography on Adams, the second president of the United States, was adapted into a HBO television miniseries and also sparked a resurgence in the popularity of the Adams family in Quincy.

McCullough had a fondness for the City of Presidents, visiting the city often and helping to raise money for worthy causes here. He was given the honor of unveiling a new bronze statue of John Adams at the dedication of the Hancock-Adams Common in 2018.

At that ceremony, Mr. McCullough began his comments by emphasizing the role John Adams played in the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. John Trumbull’s painting of the signing of the declaration, on display in the U.S. Capitol, is mostly inaccurate, Mr. McCullough said, except for the likenesses of the men included in the painting.

“Almost everything about that painting is inaccurate. The furnishings of the room, the size and shape of the room itself, are in no way close to being accurate,” McCullough said. “The one thing that is accurate – with remarkable skill and proficiency – are the faces. He wanted everyone to know who they were. After all, they were signing a document, putting their names to a document, that could mean their lives. They were committing treason.”

Adams is at the center of the painting, McCullough said, symbolizing his importance to the process.

“If you look at the painting with any sense of composition, at the very center of the canvas…is the only figure who is portrayed full scale, head to toe,” McCullough said. “There is no question that the artist is telling us who, of all these people, mattered most. It’s John Adams.

“John Adams fought for the Declaration of Independence on the floor of the congress in Philadelphia as did no one else, as attributed to not only his determination and his courage but his ferocity in argument – ferocity in speaking for a cause.

“Jefferson by contrast said almost nothing during the whole course of that long summer, but Adams never gave up day after day, and, as Jefferson himself said, he is the one who made it happen. He was the pillar of the Declaration of Independence, and he continued to be that way the rest of his life – his public life and his life here at home in Massachusetts.

“Jefferson, who had his troubles with Adams as time went on, described him as fighting furiously for every word. That he was the pillar of support on the floor of congress, its ablest advocate and defender against multifarious assaults encountered.”

One of Adams’ greatest contributions came right here in Quincy, McCullough said, when he authored the Massachusetts Constitution, the world’s oldest written constitution still in effect. Adams wrote it inside his law office, now known as the John Quincy Adams birthplace, part of the Adams National Historical Park on Franklin Street. The Massachusetts Constitution called for a bicameral legislative branch and an independent judiciary, both of which would be included in the U.S. Constitution.

“When he was back here in Massachusetts after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, he worked on – and in fact was the author of almost every aspect – of the Constitution of Massachusetts…one of the most important contributions – not just to this country and to this state, but to the world,” McCullough said.

“In that document, he said there would be two branches of the Legislature – the Senate and the House – and there would be an establishment of an independent judiciary, with the judges of the supreme court appointed, not elected, and for life – as long as they behave themselves.”

“As time would tell, it reached far,” McCullough said. “It is the oldest written constitution in the world– our constitution in the state of Massachusetts – think of that.”

Adams’ constitution also included a requirement for the state’s government to provide education to its residents.

“Imagine – as no constitution ever before – Adams was declaring the duty of the government not only to provide education, but to cherish the interest of science and literature,” McCullough said.

John Adams and his wife Abigail were also opposed to slavery, as was their son John Quincy Adams, who would later serve as the sixth U.S. president. That made the Adamses outliers among the early presidents, McCullough said.

“John Adams was the only founding father who became president of the United States who never owned a slave,” he said. “He and his wife, like so many of the descendants of the original English puritans who settled this part of our country, was an abolitionist to the heart and soul. They would not go along with that, and they never gave up.”

He noted the next president who never owned a slave was John Quincy Adams, the sixth President and son of John and Abigail.

Americans today, McCullough said near the end of his comments, owe much to the founding fathers.

“I think we are the luckiest people in the world, and almost everything that we have has come to us down the ages from those founders. The high ideals. The sense of mission in life. The sense of purpose in life. It isn’t just about accumulating wealth or prestige…it’s about making your life matter, making the world a little better off because you’ve been here,” McCullough said.

“That was in their blood stream. That was in their whole sense of reality.”

Mr. McCullough was a native of Pittsburg, PA. His work earned him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, more than 50 honorary degrees, two Pulitzer Prizes, two National Book Awards, honors from literary and historical societies and in 2014, membership in France’s Legion of Honor.

David McCullough (third from left) with other dignitaries after the unveiling of the John Adams statue at the Hancock-Adams Common dedication in September 2018. From left: Cong. Stephen Lynch, Gov. Charlie Baker, Pulitzer-Prize winning author and John Adams biographer David McCullough, Mayor Tom Koch, sculptor Sergey Eylanbekov and Ben Adams representing the Adams Memorial Society.
Quincy Sun File Photo/Robert Bosworth
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