Barbara Tuchman's interview with Bill Moyers for the Public Television series A World of Ideas (circa 1988) explored the changes in America since the time of George Washington, Samuel Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. At the time of the series, her latest book was The First Salute which explores the American Revolution. Alas it was to be her last book in an impressive bibliography spanning decades.

The conversation touched on four changes in American Culture: loss of initiative, loss of moral sense, and loss of true heroes. These are weighed against the theme of greater freedom enjoyed today by the average citizen.



1. Loss of Initiative

"...we have a lapse in initiative and the exercise of activity toward a goal.
When people don't have an objective, there's much less dynamic effort,
and that makes life less interesting."
(page 3, Bill Moyers A World of Ideas)

In the Revolutionary War era there was a sense of exhilaration because they were freeing themselves from tyranny. Today's (1988 prior to the Fall of the Berlin Wall) negative vision of containing the Russians doesn't excite anyone.

She continues by saying America in the late 20th Century has lost a positive goal. For instance our society is not concerned with solving poverty or homelessness. This can be dangerous to everyone's ordinary life. If government doesn't concern itself with the basic necessity of living, then conditions that led to the French Revolution could arise here. The French Revolution occurred because the government ignored the misery of the masses.



2. Loss of Moral Sense

Tuchman explains this as "the loss of moral sense of what is inherently right and wrong, and of following your belief in what is right." (page 5)

This loss of moral sense is the common thread that

There has been a dumbing down of our moral sense through the trash offered on television. There is a loss of quality of thinking or of truth as shown in the lack of outrage over

While these evils are endemic in every age. For example,

The problem is the prevalence of these evils in modern society. We become accustomed to it. We have lost a sense of respect for serious, honest conduct. America has suffered for that loss since the Watergate scandal and then again with Iran-Contra. We have become accustomed to government officials who are either venal or stupid. Those who would govern should be trained in it, as Plato said.



3. Loss of Heroes

America has no heroes or has lost the ability to discern an hero from mere popularity. Examples of the modern definition of an hero are Superman, Elvis Presley, and the Mayflower Madam. For Ms. Tuchman the definition of a true hero includes two characteristics among others:

During the Revolutionary era there was a abundance of talented political men - Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton. In modern America, business is the main activity that draws talented people, not politics. One characteristic not brought up in the discussion between Tuchman and Moyers is that many of the men leading political life in 1776 were men of independent means. They did not have to earn a living as do the talented people of today.

She briefly raised a comparison of George Washington to William the Silent of the Netherlands. Both were true heroes.



4. Greater Freedoms

She concluded on a positive note saying that America has gained a lot in the last 200+ years. We have greater freedoms now than ever before, particularly the right of the individual

  • to guide his or her own life; and
  • to think for his or herself; and
  • to live where he or she wants chooses.

Finally, Ms. Tuchman would have us consider history in the same manner we value Beethoven's sonatas - it gives us pleasure, makes us think, and makes our life more valuable.

"History tells you where you've been. Well, that's worth knowing" (page 12)

Her books are listed on the node Barbara Tuchman.


"Bill Moyers A World of Ideas: Conversations with Thoughtful Men and Women About American Life Today and the Ideas Shaping Our Future", edited by Betty Sue Flowers, Doubleday, New York, 1989, pages 3-13. ISBN 0-385-26346-5 (paper)

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