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The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels Hardcover – May 8, 2018
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“Appalled by the ascendancy of Donald J. Trump, and shaken by the deadly white nationalist rallies in Charlottesville in 2017, Meacham returns to other moments in our history when fear and division seemed rampant. He wants to remind us that the current political turmoil is not unprecedented, that as a nation we have survived times worse than this. . . . Meacham tries to summon the better angels by looking back at when America truly has been great. He is effective as ever at writing history for a broad readership. . . . [Meacham] is an adroit and appealing storyteller.”—The New York Times Book Review
“Gripping and inspiring, The Soul of America is Jon Meacham’s declaration of his faith in America. . . . Meacham, by chronicling the nation’s struggles from revolutionary times to current day, makes the resonant argument that America has faced division before—and not only survived it but thrived. . . . Meacham believes the nation will move beyond Trump because, in the end, as they have shown on vital issues before, Americans embrace their better angels. This book stands as a testament to that choice—a reminder that the country has a history of returning to its core values of freedom and equality after enduring periods of distraction and turmoil.”—Newsday
“Meacham tells us we’ve been here before and can find our way out, urging readers to enter the arena, avoid tribalism, respect facts and listen to history.”—The Washington Post
“This engrossing, edifying, many-voiced chronicle, subtly propelled by concern over the troubled Trump administration, calls on readers to defend democracy, decency, and the common good. Best-selling Meacham’s topic couldn’t be more urgent.”—Booklist (starred review)
“Meacham has become one of America’s most earnest and thoughtful biographers and historians. . . . He employs all of those skills in The Soul of America, a thoroughly researched and smoothly written roundup of some of the worst parts of American history and how they were gradually overcome. . . . 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. Finally, Meacham provides advice to find our better angels—enter the arena, resist tribalism, respect facts and deploy reason, find a critical balance and keep history in mind. He’s provided a great way to do it.”—USA Today
“This is a brilliant, fascinating, timely, and above all profoundly important book. Jon Meacham explores the extremism and racism that have infected our politics, and he draws enlightening lessons from the knowledge that we’ve faced such trials before. We have come through times of fear. We have triumphed over our dark impulses. With compelling narratives of past eras of strife and disenchantment, Meacham offers wisdom for our own time and helps us appreciate the American soul: the heart, the core, and the essence of what it means to have faith in our nation.”—Walter Isaacson
About the Author
Jon Meacham is a Pulitzer Prize–winning biographer. The author of the New York Times bestsellers Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House, Franklin and Winston, and Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush, he is a distinguished visiting professor at Vanderbilt University, a contributing writer for The New York Times Book Review, and a fellow of the Society of American Historians. Meacham lives in Nashville and in Sewanee with his wife and children.
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By the “soul” of America, he doesn’t want us to think in terms of a “speculative and gauzy” entity, but rather of “an immanent collection of convictions, dispositions, and sensitivities that shape character and inform conduct…” The soul he presents is not the essence of all things good and noble in America, but a conglomeration of contradictions. “…sometimes the soul’s darker forces win out over the nobler ones.” One on side there is MLK, while on the other there is the KKK. We can’t deny the existence of the latter, but it is the former that we have chosen to celebrate and honor.
And so the battle has gone throughout a number of points in our history where we had to choose between the clenched fist of anger or the open arms of acceptance: the Civil War and Reconstruction, women’s suffrage, the rebirth of the KKK in the 1920s, the paranoia of the Red Scare, McCarthyism, and so on.
Meacham covers these struggles of the American soul largely through the actions of the presidents in whose administrations they occurred, an effective approach given his extraordinary familiarity with the American presidency. It also had the effect for me of forcing me to adjust my evaluations of various presidents. I found myself admiring Eisenhower a little bit less over his tepid reaction to Joseph McCarthy, but liking Harry Truman a great deal more for some of the key decisions he made.
As for our current president, well, Mr. Trump’s style is one of the primary motivations for this book: “I am writing now not because past American presidents have always risen to the occasion but because the incumbent American president so rarely does.”
It’s undeniable, of course, that our “incumbent president” has his enthusiastic supporters, but it’s also undeniable that they are outnumbered by those who look upon the current White House with attitudes ranging from concern to downright horror. And for this less-than-enthusiastic majority, Meacham’s work offers a very encouraging and informative dose of good medicine.
I requested this book as I have read a number of books (all biographies) by the author and the description made it very interesting.
Meacham describes accurately this book with the subtitle "The Battle for our Better Angels." The books is about how we as a country have endured and overcome extremeism and racism in the past. Whenever past political leaders have tried to gain ground through fear and blaming other groups (primarily ethic and immigrants) we as a nation have overcome these shortsighted grabs for power.
He uses numerous examples and rather than trying to recreate what was said, uses many direct qoutes from speeches of those involved in providing leadership to overcome the attempts at spreading and feeding fear in the people (in particular specific groups).
I strongly recommend this book for anyone who thinks that we are doomed due the current political atmosphere in our country. We are not and we will surivive and rise above the political spin, social media garbage, sound bite news and real fake news.
Meacham tells great stories as to when and how America was going off track, the better angels of our nature took command. For example when slavery divided our land, Lincoln unified it. When a few year later the KKK was running wild, Grant crushed them. I wish Meacham would have done a “might have been” had James Garfield survived his assassination and reinstituted reconstruction. Segregation might have died in its crib in the 1880s instead of waiting until 1954.
Meacham gives credit to both Harding and Coolidge in their defusing the 1920s revival of the KKK. This bit of history is not generally taught. Where Meacham is most acute is his discussion of Huey Long’s challenge to Roosevelt in the 1930s. Here was a politician who understood media and would say practically anything to get attention. Sound familiar. Similarly when much of the country was terrorized by the very media savvy Joe McCarthy in the 1950s, Republican Senator Margaret Chase Smith stood up to him and his henchman, Roy Cohn. Although Eisenhower did not act quickly his wait him out strategy worked as McCarthy burned himself out. The link to today is Roy Cohn who mentored Trump in the dark arts in the 1970s and early 1980s.
Meacham also intertwines the stories of Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King in their bringing on the civil rights revolution of the 1960s. He also rightly notes that much of the progress achieved by our leaders were brought about by very active citizen movements giving backbone to our better angels.
I have few criticisms of the book. He rightly notes how Truman’s victory over the segregationist Strom Thurmond in 1948 led to the desegregating of the military. However, had the Republican Tom Dewey won, it probably would have happened anyway. Dewey as governor of New York led the fight for path breaking civil rights legislation. Also although he gives some credit to Lyndon Johnson in his role in passing the 1957 civil rights act, much of the credit should go to Attorney General Herbert Brownell who authored the initial bill that was watered down by Johnson. The lesson here is that there are more than a few better angels among us and they can come from very unexpected places.
So let us hope there are angels in place to lead us away from a president who lies when he is moving his lips and divides us by appealing to our most base instincts. It’s time to get to work as we are called to defend liberty.