- Hardcover: 416 pages
- Publisher: Random House; 1st edition (May 8, 2018)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0399589813
- ISBN-13: 978-0399589812
- Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1.3 x 9.5 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
- Average Customer Review: 615 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #647 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Hardcover – May 8, 2018
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"I am loath to close. 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 land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature." As the title of his book implies, each president has been challenged to search for the soul of America and seek the better angels. Meacham eloquently reminds us that there are times we have failed but inevitably the American people regroup, rethink, and, sometimes more slowly than hoped for, ultimately choose right over wrong. I have been enlightened by Meacham's history lesson and encouraged by his belief that hope will again bring this country together. Would that every American would take the time to read this book.
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.
Meacham’s 19 page Introduction is an excellent set-up for what is to come. Meacham argues that he has chosen American soul rather than creed because soul goes to the next level – it is about acting on our beliefs. Meacham argues that it is “incumbent on us, from generation to generation, to create a sphere in which we can live, live freely, and pursue happiness to the best of our abilities. We cannot guarantee equal outcomes, but we must do all we can to ensure equal opportunity.” He believes that our fate is contingent on hope winning over fear. Meacham makes reference to dark moments in America’s history and he concludes the intro with “What follows is the story of how we have endured moments of madness and of injustice…..and how we can again.”
Following the intro are seven lengthy chapters about some of America’s dark moments, with a heavy emphasis of what the President did (and didn’t do) in these moments of crisis. The chapters included: Jackson, Lincoln, Appomattox, the KKK, Reconstruction, Teddy Roosevelt, women’s suffrage, the Depression, Huey Long, the New Deal, Lindbergh, America First, McCarthyism, modern media, George Wallace, MLK, LBJ. The concluding chapter is titled “The First Duty of an American Citizen”. Soul offered many anecdotes and historical facts new to me. I have read many bios, particularly on some of the characters here, and I was amazed at how many stories I heard for the first time. I will share a few “aha” moments to give a feel for what you might expect……
Frederick Douglass on Lincoln: “He knew the American people better then they knew themselves.” The author writes that Adam Smith’s (Wealth of Nations) view was that the “human capacity for sympathy and fellow feeling…was essential to the life of a republic”.
Following the Civil War, Southerners shifted from military to political approaches to battle for white supremacy and their way of life.
Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter said he always wanted to be ”the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral”.
Washington and Hamilton had very different views on immigration.
In 1924, every one of the 48 states had a Klan presence. Klan members were governors of 11 states, held up to 75 House seats, 16 in the Senate. Meacham writes that hostility from eastern journalists directed at the Klan convinced a number of middle Americans that perhaps such an organization under press attack must have something to recommend it.
(Silent Cal) Coolidge said at the time: “No matter by what various crafts we came here, we are all now in the same boat.
A small group of Wall Streeters plotted to raise an army, march on D.C. and remove FDR from office. In 1936, a Gallup poll indicated that 95% believed America should stay out of any European war.
Earl Warren, then AG of California supported internment camps.
Edward R Murrow: “We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty”. Meacham writes about McCarthy that he needed the press, and the press needed McCarthy, because he was fantastic copy, a real-life serial. McCarthy was in the spotlight for three and a half years. His attorney Roy Cohn: “ ….any outstanding actor on the stage of public affairs……cannot remain indefinitely at the center of controversy. The public must eventually lose interest in him and his cause.” Meacham again: “He (McCarthy) oversold, and the customers-the public-tired of the pitch, and the pitchman.”
A journalist speaking of attending a George C. Wallace rally: “You saw those people in that auditorium when he was speaking-you saw their eyes. He made those people feel something real for once in their lives.”
Well, the Good News is that we have been here before and the country has survived. As the author points out, we have been a country that people struggle mightily to come to, not to leave. Our democratic system has been tested and stressed and has withstood attacks on our core beliefs and values. In the introduction the author states that he is writing Soul not because past American presidents have always risen to the occasion but because the incumbent American president “so rarely does”. I’ll close on a positive note, a quote that Meacham cites from Eleanor Roosevelt: “The course of history is directed by the choices we make and our choices grow out of the ideas, the beliefs, the values, the dreams of the people. It is not so much the powerful leaders that determine our destiny as the mush more powerful influence of the combined voice of the people themselves.”