John Meacham’s book, The Soul Of America, The Battle For Our Better Angels. Pulitzer Prize-winning author John Meacham helps us understand the personal moment in American politics and life by looking back at critical times in our history when hope overcame division and fear.
In his first inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln spoke to a divided nation about “the better angels of our nature”. Lincoln’s words failed to prevent civil war, but they serve as a template for the latest book from John Meacham.
The author contends that throughout American history, presidential leadership and citizen activism have overcome “hours in which the politics of fear were prevalent to lift us to higher ground,” particularly in relation to civil rights.
Meacham provides a sturdy history of this steady but halting progress, primarily through the prism of presidential leadership. Thus, while Ulysses S. Grant effectively cracked down on Klu Klux Klan, the post 1877 years featured the rise of Jim Crow and a rewarded disenfranchisement of black voters.
Theodore Roosevelt invited Booker T. Washington to dine of the White House and resisted pressure to remove a black female master in Mississippi, yet he “shared the dream of Anglo-saxon imperialism” and held “ideas of racial superiority.”
Indeed it is not until the 1960s that President Lyndon Johnson’s relentless advocacy and Martin Luther King Jr.’s courage combined to help secure the civil and voting rights of all Americans.
Clearly Meacham hopes that the struggles of the past will inspire readers to contend for America’s soul by resisting the modern-day forces of fear and bigotry in the personae of Donald Trump and his supporters.
Yet whether he is criticizing Trump’s post-Charlottesville comments or fretting over the influence of the largely irrelevant contemporary Klan.
Meacham ably depicts our nation’s struggles to live up to Lincoln’s words, but the oversells the nation that the fruits of past efforts are at risk in today’s America.
To Hope, Rather Than To Fear
“Back of the writhing, yelling, cruel-eyed demons who break, destroy, maim and lynch and burn at the stakes is a knot, large or small, of normal human beings at heart are desperately afraid of something. Of What? Of many things, but usually of losing their jobs, being declassed, degraded, or actually disgraced: of losing their hopes, their savings, their plans for their children: of the actual pangs of hunger, of dirt, of crime.”
W.E.B. DuBois, Black Reconstruction In America 1935
“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though, passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nation.”
Abraham Lincoln, First Inaugural Address, 1861.
The Civil Rights Era
The Civil Rights Era, or going back to the Reconstruction Era featured several instances of progress and light in the passage of crucial constitutional amendments concerning equality and in U.S. Grant’s 1870-71 stand against the Ku Klux Klan, only to give way to Jim Crow laws and nearly a hundred years of legalized segregation.
In the past century, during World War I and after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, a new Ku Klux Klan boosted in part by the movie The Birth Of A Nation took advantage of American anxiety to target blacks, immigrants, Roman Catholics, and Jews.
The fear that “huddled masses” of Emma Lazarus’s poem “The New Colossus” would destroy the America that whites had come to know helped lead to the founding of the twentieth-century Klan, a nationwide organization that staged massive marches down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington in 1925 and 1926.
Isolation and Nazi sympathizers took their stand in the 1930s; their influence evaporated only with the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on Sunday, December 7,1941, and Adolf Hitler’s subsequent declaration of war on the United States.
Then there was the anti-communist hysteria of the early Cold War period and the white southern defense of segregation in the civil rights era.
Leaders Pointed Toward The Future
Harry Truman-the man who won the four-way 1948 presidential campaign triumphing over the segregationist Thurmond, the Progressive candidate Henry A. Wallace, and the Republican Thomas E. Dewy-once said: “You can’t divide the country up into sections and have one rule for one section and one rule for another, and you can’t encourage people’s prejudices. You may win an election or so by doing the other, but it does a lot of harm to the country.”
Truman understood something his legendary immediate predecessor had also grasped: that as Franklin D. Roosevelt observed during the 1932 campaign. “The Presidency is not merely an-administrative office. That’s the least of it. It is more than an engineering job, efficient or inefficient. It is preeminently a place of moral leadership. All our great Presidents were leaders of thought at times when certain historical ideas in life of the nation had to be clarified.”
The Book: The Soul Of America by John Meacham, is a #1 New York Times Bestseller-Pulitzer Prize-winning author John Meacham helps us understand the present moment in American politics and life by looking back at critical times in our history when hope overcame division and fear.
While the American story has not always-or even often-been heroic, we have been sustained by a belief in progress even in the gloomiest of times. In this inspiring book, Meacham reassures us, “The good news is that we have come through such darkness before”-as, time and again, Lincoln’s better angels have found a way to prevail.
Meacham gives readers a long-term perspective on American history and a reason to believe the soul of America is ultimately one of kindness and caring not rancor and paranoia.
While we are all home more nowadays with the Stay Home Orders, or Social Distancing Orders from our individual states, this is a great book to reassure you that we as Americans always bounce back and we will from this deadly virus as well. Get It Here: The Soul Of America By John Meacham:
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All The Best,