The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels, Jon Meacham. New York: Random House, 2018.
Summary: A review of American presidential leadership and the battle between the politics of fear and the politics of hope for our national soul.
Jon Meacham thinks that even more crucial than an affirmation of the American creed is the fight for the American soul. Meacham characterizes this fight as a struggle between fear and hope, and surveys the forces in American history that appeal to each and the crucial role of presidential leadership. He summarizes his thesis as follows: “Our greatest leaders have pointed toward the future–not at this group or that sect.” Among others, he quotes Harry S. Truman as one who upheld this ideal:
“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 have to appeal to people’s best instincts, not their worst ones. You may win an election or so by doing the other, but it does a lot of harm to the country.”
Meacham’s book is a survey of this struggle throughout our history. We begin with George Washington’s expansive vision: “The bosom of America is open to receive not only the opulent and respectable Stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all Nations and Religions.” He was followed by John Adams who passed the unpopular Alien and Sedition Act, leading in turn to Jefferson’s presidency. He explores our “peculiar institution” of slavery that eventuated in the Civil War, Lincoln’s movement to an emancipation vision and a generous peace, and the cruel reaction of the rise of Jim Crow, the Klan, and lynchings during the failed Reconstruction.
His chapter on Teddy Roosevelt focuses on the mixed record of this president whose progressive agenda fought for the poor and who was the first to welcome a black, Booker Washington, to the White House and invoked high ideals, yet also made racist remarks and yield to the forces of the Lost Cause. Nevertheless, he worked with Jane Addams on poor relief and the rights of women. He epitomizes the struggle between fear and hope in his person and yet articulated a vision of one America:
“There can be no divided allegiance….We have room for but one flag, the American flag; for one language, the English language [an idea some would contest today]; for but one soul loyalty and that is loyalty to the American people.”
The post World War I era brought new struggles even as America prospered. Women’s suffrage finally became the law of the land, yet fear over the rise of communism and a resurgent Klan aroused the fears of Americans against enemies without and within. Prosperity gave way to Depression. Politics contrasted between the demagoguery of Huey Long, and the expansive vision of Franklin Roosevelt who declared that we had nothing “to fear but fear itself.”
Post World War II found America with an expanding middle class thanks to the GI Bill, and a renewed paranoia about communism, incarnated in McCarthyism. Later when Lyndon B. Johnson succeeds assassinated President Kennedy, he uses all his political skill to pass Kennedy’s civil rights agenda, losing the South to the Democrats, but ending desegregation, establishing many civil rights protections, and giving blacks the vote.
He concludes this work with a ringing plea for Americans to enter the arena, to resist tribalism, to respect facts and use reason, to find a critical balance between the extremes of our politics, and to keep our history in mind. It is clear that he has our current political administration in his sights in tracing this struggle between the rival visions of hope and fear that many have used to try to capture the American soul. His argument falls on the side of hope, as he cites examples over and over of how leaders have appealed to our “better angels” to overcome hate, and that this hope should animate us even in a time of fear.
What is somewhat troubling to me in this book is that the book uses, even quotes rhetoric I’ve heard since my childhood–in fact the quotes are one of the highlights of this book–they are so good. And yet, there is a humanistic optimism here that I think does not adequately reckon with the darker angels of our nature as a country. It is evident in the underlying struggle with racism and white supremacy that runs through the book. I don’t think Meacham reckons with how strongly and unrepentantly embraced this is in many sectors of white society, even the parts that try to deny we are racist; that try to pretend we are colorblind. I think Meacham is right to contrast fear and hope, but I would suggest he neither adequately assesses the roots of fear, nor explores the faith and convictions that animate hope amid desperate circumstances. The closest he gets is Martin Luther King, Jr.’s encounter with an inner voice when his home was bombed and his family threatened. The voice said,
” ‘Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And, lo, I will be with you even until the end of the world.’ I heard Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone.”
We live in an age of sentiments rather than convictions. Meacham reminds us of people motivated by compelling ideas and moral principles. If hope is nothing more than a preferable feeling to fear, it won’t take us very far. But if a hope grounded in deep conviction takes the measure of the deep roots of fear and hate, and “stands up,” there is yet a chance that the soul of America might be turned. I hope.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.