Tom Smart, Deseret Morning News
Author, historian and Pulitzer Prize winner David McCullough.

LAYTON — Anyone who refers to the past as a simpler time is speaking nonsense.

"There was no simpler time," historian David McCullough, a two-time Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner, said Tuesday.

Imagine if you were Abigail Adams getting up at 5 a.m., waking up the hired girl, raising the children and educating them at home because the schools were closed in the midst of war in 1776.

Then there was disease and coping with it. Teeth were pulled and mastectomies performed without anesthesia.

"Life beat them up more," McCullough told a sold-out crowd at Layton High School on Tuesday night. "We have no idea how difficult life was."

McCullough was in town at the invitation of Davis Reads, a community-based program which encourages literacy in Davis County, sponsored by the Davis School District and Davis Education Foundation. Davis Reads has encouraged county residents to read McCullough's latest book, "1776."

People ought to drop the phrase "self-made man" from their vocabulary, McCullough said, because people are shaped by everything and everyone around them — a parent or teacher or someone who gives a second chance.

"We're also shaped by people we never knew or never met because they went before us," he said.

Some of those people are those often considered to be the founding fathers, but not the old men pictured on paper money.

George Washington was 43 when he assumed command of the Continental Army. John Adams was 40 when he signed the Declaration of Independence and Thomas Jefferson was 33 when he wrote it.

"None of them had fomented a revolution before — started a new country before," McCullough said.

History is essential to leadership, he said.

"We have to educate people to be leaders or we won't have the qualities of leadership we need when we need leaders," he said.

Washington had never commanded troops in battle and yet he became commander in chief of the Continental Army.

"What he was, was a leader and a leader at exactly the right time," McCullough said.

But leadership begins with education, which begins at home, he added.

"We're not doing a very good job of teaching history to our children and grandchildren," he said. "We've got to do something about it."

Parents should take their children to historic sites.

"Let them see how much you like it," he said. "Show them what you love."