Tag Archives: David McCullough

The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal by David McCullough

  1. McCullough’s master story-telling skills are evident through this epic tale of the construction of the Panama Canal
Key Takeaways
  1. Apart from Great Wars, the building of the Panama Canal was the largest, costliest effort attempted anywhere on Earth
  2. A vision of cutting through Central America to connect the Atlantic and Pacific had been around since the 1500s but it wasn’t until the late 1800s that it became feasible. This would not only be a boon to global commerce but help America assert itself as the Western Hemisphere’s superpower
  3. The success of the Panama Railroad in the 1850s showed glimpses for how much demand there was (mostly from the California gold rush and other trade) and paved the way for the canal some 30 years later. A gap found in the mountains and the proof that the sea levels were not too different made the project more realistic. The construction was brutal due to disease, poisonous animals and an impossibly thick jungle and there are estimate that that 6-12,000 died throughout its construction. Nicaragua was a competing pass between the oceans and was originally funded by Cornelius Vanderbilt. Selfridge was the first American to explore Central America for plausible routes and although he failed, determined it must be Panama
  4. The two oceans came closer together at The Gulf of San Blas that at any other point in Central America
  5. The French were the first to take a crack at building the canal and it was Ferdinand de Lesseps who led the effort. De Lesseps had gravitas due to his ability to get the Suez Canal built due to his friendship with the new Viceroy of Egypt. He had no rank, no office, didn’t represent any group, defied financiers and people with technical ability but spurred enthusiasm and belief in the project – an original entrepreneur with no desire for money but wanted to improve the world
  6. Although there were many geographic and technical reasons not to build the canal in panama, de Lesseps had such standing and influence due to success at Suez that he was able to overcome great opposition and get the project passed. The project was estimated to cost $240m and take 12 years to build. The stock issue was a great disaster but didn’t dissuade de Lesseps one bit and was able to raise most of the money from French investors alone. His trip to Panama and healthy return brought massive enthusiasm for the project from the French population. The stock issue for La Compagnie Universelle ended up being the largest in history as the undertaking was to be the most expensive and audacious attempted thus far in human history. It ended up becoming a matter of national pride for France and Panama became synonymous with a fantastic investment in France. De Lesseps success at Suez gave him great influence over the crowd and his building it up blinded people to the immense difficulties that lay ahead
  7. The project turned out to be way more expensive and take way longer than was originally planned so a bond issue had to be made in France. De Lesseps built the hype and got hundreds of thousands of Frenchmen to sell what few possessions they had in order to buy more stock and bond. However, unfortunately, the minimum amount needed to keep the company afloat was not raised and they had to declare bankruptcy. This was one of the world’s largest and most painful financial failures, bringing ruin to hundreds of thousands of common citizens and later brought bankruptcy to France as a whole and toppled the government. Ferdinand’s son, engineer Eiffel, Hertz and many other highly esteemed men behind the Panama Canal were brought to trial and many were financially ruined. The French effort went bankrupt after spending about $285m and losing an estimated 20k lives due to diseases and accidents, financially ruining over 800k French investors. De Lesseps, his son, Eiffel and others were prosecuted and found guilty of misappropriating funds
  8. Teddy Roosevelt became president after William McKinley was assassinated. He truly brought in the 20th century and had mass, nationwide appeal. Teddy had a vision for the US as a global, commanding power and the canal which breached the Atlantic and Pacific was the surest way to get there
  9. Nicaragua seemed like the US’ choice for where to build the canal but Teddy Roosevelt changed it to Panama last minute. Bunau Varilla was a French soldier and engineer who greatly influenced Teddy’s decision to build in Panama instead. The decision was passed in the Senate in 1903 and was heavily influenced by the engineer’s insistence on Panama rather than Nicaragua. America was going to buy the land from Colombia but thought they were trying to screw the US so they instead planted revolutionaries in Panama and let them know that they’d have the backing of the US if they were to overthrow the Colombians who were currently in charge of Panama. Panama soon declared independence and the US recognized them as a nation and gained the rights to build and indefinitely administer the Panama Canal Zone and its defenses
  10. Teddy Roosevelt changed the treaty with Panama so that the US would act as the sovereign and would hold the zone in perpetuity rather than leasing it for 100 years. Bunau Varilla signed the treaty in 1903 along with Hay without truly understanding the changes he had agreed to. He thought the US would cease protecting Panama if they did not immediately ratify but Teddy was so set on Panama that this was unlikely
  11. Malaria and yellow fever killed so many people that they made a concerted effort to figure out how to stop or at least stem the diseases. They made slow but considerable progress and determined that mosquitoes were the culprits and went through great lengths to limit the amount of mosquitoes and their access to sick patients. Gorgas was head of sanitation and was vital in this effort and after two years nearly eliminated the mosquito-spread tropical diseases
  12. The Americans eventually came to understand better than the French that the construction of the canal was essentially a railroad problem (to transport the dirt away from the site). They hired and promoted men with a lot of railroad experience. John Frank Stevens was a self taught engineer who had built the Great Northern Railroad with James J. Hill. He took over from Wallace and bypassed much of the stifling bureaucracy by going directly to Teddy with requests, drastically speeding up the process
  13. Roosevelt visited Panama in 1906 to see the progress and became the first president to leave America while in office
  14. George Washington Goethals was named chief engineer by Teddy in 1907 in order to oversee the administration and supervision of the construction after Stevens stepped down. McCullough argues that Goethals should receive the majority of the credit for the successful construction of the Panama Canal – ahead of schedule, below budget and with no bribery or kickbacks
  15. The canal was an engineering feat for the ages. The locks were the largest by far, taller than all but a handful of buildings in modern day New York. The scale of materials used, especially steel and concrete is pretty much unsurpassed even today. The scale of everything is hard to even imagine. They utilized the flow of water to power generators, allowing the locks to power themselves. Though the steel and cement manufacturing was vital, General Electric played the most important role in building and installing all the electrical equipment and power generators
  16. The Panama Canal was the embodiment of the power of the United States at this time and showed how far the industrial revolution had taken it
  17. The only issue with the canal have been consistent landslides but given the scale and grandeur, this is a minimal problem. It worked almost perfectly from day 1
What I got out of it
  1. I didn’t appreciate the scale and effort that went into building the Panama Canal. The war on mosquitoes and tropical diseases was also interesting to learn about. Geopolitical relations and events in Central America and how this effort affected them, how expertly the canal was built so that even today it works pretty much flawlessly, how big of an impact the initial failure had on the French economy and how much Teddy Roosevelt championed this effort

John Adams by David McCullough


  1. Good biography on John Adams, his contributions, life, personality
Key Takeaways
  1. Adams was a lawyer and a farmer, was brilliant, extremely hard working, self absorbed, prone to depression, proud, quick to anger, stubborn, ambitious, an early revolutionary and supporter of American rights and liberties who would become one of the most powerful and influential of the founding fathers
  2. His wife, Abigail, was also very politically involved and influential. They were equals in many respects and marrying her was one of the best decisions he made. She was very smart, candid, and hard working. They were very close and loving and their constant separation due to the war and other political matters caused both a lot of anxiety
  3. Adams was instrumental in getting Washington elected to lead the American army
  4. Adams entered Harvard to become a minister but soon changed his mind to become a lawyer. He lost a case early on which was embarrassing to him and his family and after that he devoted much more time and energy to his profession
  5. Adams was one of the key actors in both the First and Second Continental Congresses
  6. Adams was one of the first and strongest supporters of independence. Him, more than any other member of th Congress, helped unify the colonies and sell the vision for independence. He also was an early advocate for slave’s and women’s rights
  7. Jefferson and Adams were key allies and friends in the Continental Congress and throughout the early parts of the American Revolution. Him and Jefferson were instrumental in drawing up the Declaration of Independence
  8. Adams was sent to Paris to serve as US Envoy to France. He was woefully unprepared for this post but his ambition and duty compelled him to accept. He spent much time with Franklin who was universally adored in France, especially for his scientific prowess
  9. Adams, after coming back from France and rejoining his family, was selected to write the Constitution for Massachusetts which was one of the most successful ever written. It is the oldest functioning constitution in the world
  10. Adams was soon called back to France again but due to a leak in the ship, he had to stop in Spain and make the rest of his way to Paris over land. He soon butted heads with French politicians and even Franklin himself and made his way to Amsterdam to see if he could secure a large loan for America. He met a lot of resistance in France and the Netherlands but finally got backing from the Dutch when it was quite clear the Americans would win the war with Britain
  11. Abigail and the rest of the family eventually moved to Paris to be with John and the sons who had come with him. Abigail at first detested Paris and the pretentious people but soon came to love the opera and some of the people including the Lafayettes. During their time in France, the Adams and Thomas Jefferson became very close
  12. Adams and his family soon moved to London as Adams was named the American ambassador to the UK. Once this stint was over, the family moved back to the US where they found a very different America from they had left years earlier. Adams would eventually become VP, behind George Washington and then President and then lose the presidency to Jefferson and the Republicans
  13. Adams’ son, John Quincy Adams, traveled extensively with his father and was very well read and ambitious. He was eventually assigned to be minister to the Netherlands, later a senator, then ambassador in Russia and would later become the sixth president of the US
  14. There was much worry about the French Revolution and America almost entered into a war with France but Adams was able to take a long term view and kept the peace between the two nations which helped Jefferson later be able to acquire the Louisiana Territory from Napoleon
  15. Soon after Jefferson was elected president, a sex scandal with one his slaves, Sally Hemings, broke and hurt his reputation
  16. Jefferson and Adams stopped talking for a while but made amends towards the ends of their lives
  17. Jefferson and Adams lived very long lives and both fought through their old age to make it to one last 4th of July. Both died July 4, 1826. Adams left a modest estate and Jefferson in quite a lot of debt
What I got out of it
  1. Wanted to read after getting through Hamilton by Chernow and found it helpful to get Adam’s point of view on many of these events

1776 by David McCullough

  1. David McCullough outlines the actions and strategies of both the British and the colonists leading up to the independence of America in 1776.
Key Takeaways:
  1. Introduces King George III and the conditions in England prior to and during the deployment of British troops to Boston. King George was a simple person and not pretentious which I found unusual for an English King
  2. Depicts the conditions in America and outlines the leaders of the army and a few who were representing the colonies. It described the American army to be made of undisciplined, poorly armed volunteer force of farmers. The army’s morale was decreasing continually until the New Year, 1776.
  3. The British army had the advantage of good discipline, artillery, leaders, and hygiene over the rugged Continental Army.
  4. Independence initially was not the goal of the rebellion but simply protection of one’s liberties
  5. George Washington was known for his extreme self control. He was at first very disappointed and distraught at the caliber of men in his army and was very unsure if he was the right man to lead the colonial army
  6. Washington had an incredible ability to see things as they were and not as he wish they were
  7. Washington led his troops across the Delaware river to attack the British in Trenton. There was extreme weather and delayed them but they went on. It was a huge success for the Americans as they beat the Hessians and British. However, it would be more than 6 years after a treaty was signed with the British in 1783 in Yorktown 
  8. Support from Spain and France was vital. Washington’s ability to learn from his mistakes and to encourage his army were his biggest strengths. He never forgot what was at stake
What I got out of it:
  1. An extremely enticing read which draws the reader in to this extremely important historical time. Interesting to note how unsure the battle was the entire time, that Washington was doubted by his top men and was often unsure of his own ability. However, by never losing his temper, he was able to see things as they truly were, instead of as he wished they were and made better decisions because of it.

Continue reading