The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels

  • By Jon Meacham
  • Random House
  • 432 pp.
  • Reviewed by Talmage Boston
  • May 9, 2018

A timely, urgent appeal to remember our shared values.

Anyone who succeeds in condensing and deriving lessons from the guts of American history in fewer than 300 pages is demonstrating synthesizing powers bordering on the supernatural. Such is the achievement of Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Jon Meacham in The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels.

As declared in the book's acknowledgements, the inspiration for taking on the task of profiling the condition of America's soul since the country's inception began with the author's reaction to the August 2017 conflict in Charlottesville, Virginia, instigated by a group of armed white nationalists whose actions were triggered by the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue from a public park.

The turbulence then escalated with Donald Trump's commentary to the effect that there were "very fine people on both sides," which brought praise for the president from former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke.

This chain of events prompted Meacham to drop everything and immediately start this book based on his assessment that "I am writing now not because past American presidents have always been right but because the incumbent president is so often wrong.”

The author's historical analysis reviews how situations like Charlottesville have been going on intermittently since the country's formation, though as long as Trump is president, Meacham believes we should expect fear-driven demons to attempt to increase their influence upon our society.

Who has the power to prevail over such demons? Better angels, of course, guided by their hopes of inclusion, social justice, and the flourishing of the masses.

Better angels?

For those unfamiliar with Abraham Lincoln's speeches, in his First Inaugural Address on March 4, 1861, delivered while facing imminent war between the country and the newly formed Confederate States of America, our 16th president did his best to inspire hope for the restoration of the Union.

He concluded his address by saying the emerging split could be healed if Americans rededicated themselves to achieving domestic camaraderie, which could only occur when people became "touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature." Alas, Father Abraham's eloquent words did not induce enough angels to work their magic on the divided nation, and the war came.

As summarized by Meacham, American history is the story of slow, painful progress — two steps forward (when better angels drive the train) and one step back (when demons have their day). In bad times, it's vice versa.

The road to reform is often treacherous, and Meacham accurately describes American politics as "an uneven symphony," because people's consciousness almost never elevates simultaneously, which results in serious disharmony.

The author's focus on the historical struggle between good guys and bad guys naturally centers around the presidency. That's where the power is, and it's also the federal government's only elected position where the officeholder's constituency is not his district or state, but the whole country.

Over time, the leaders of fear-driven forces during their eras — people like John C. Calhoun, Jefferson Davis, Andrew Johnson, Huey Long, Joseph McCarthy, Strom Thurmond, and George Wallace — all had their days of influence for a while but were ultimately pushed out of power by presidents Andrew Jackson, Lincoln, Ulysses Grant, Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, and Lyndon Johnson, respectively, who each had his own sustained angelic period.

Rising above all presidents in stature, of course, is standard-bearer Lincoln, the man who restored the Union, abolished slavery, and demonstrated such clear vision and execution as commander-in-chief that his performance prompted Theodore Roosevelt to realize that the best strategy for doing a good job in the Oval Office was to keep asking and answering the question: "What would Abraham Lincoln do?"

That strategy is still the standard for best practices in presidential leadership in large part because of Lincoln's comprehensive grasp of public sentiment and his capacity to shape the people's perspective in ways that oriented the nation's moral compass toward true north.

Until Trump's entry into the Oval Office in 2017, better-angel presidents have usually defeated their antagonists and kept the country moving forward in spite of obstacles, some of which they brought on themselves. Jackson's blind spot was his racism; Grant's was choosing corrupt lieutenants for important positions in his administration; FDR's, his internment of Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor; and LBJ's, his dishonest mishandling of Vietnam.

After reviewing history's low and high points, Meacham ends the book by bringing the reader back to the present, hoping the lessons he's provided from the past can clean our windshield, allow us to see the road that lies ahead, and hopefully produce a better, safer drive going forward.

Moving ahead, it's a given that future leaders and followers will always have their flaws, causing mistakes to be made and progress to be uneven. Having said that, in order for smart, hope-filled people to keep the country out of the ditch will require enlightened civic engagement that the author calls "The First Duty of an American Citizen," the outline for which he provides in his final chapter.

With the arrival of a new baseball season, hope springs eternal that the home team will have a good record in the months ahead. With its release yesterday, The Soul of America is the author's swing-for-the-fences effort to inspire his country to execute a future game plan for restoring the nation to its pre-Trump mindset.

Talmage Boston is a lawyer and historian in Dallas, Texas, whose latest book is Cross-Examining History: A Lawyer Gets Answers From the Experts About Our Presidents (Bright Sky Press 2016).

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