The Soul of America

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“This book is a portrait of hours in which the politics of fear were prevalent – a reminder that periods of public dispiritedness are not new, and a reassurance that they are survivable.” (5)

Jon Meacham has written an excellent volume responding to the hypertensive political atmosphere gripping the United States today. His intent, as stated above from the introduction, is to add a dose of sober reality to the moment by placing today’s events in the context of American history. As a long-time professor of history I have come to know that Americans don’t value history very much, beyond using it as a narrative to inculcate American exceptionalism, or as an interesting hobby where one can glory in the triumphs of our forebears.

This is not only sad, it is short-sighted. Because I can think of nothing more important to the life of a democracy than an objective sense of how we came to the questions of the moment. Without knowledge of the true nature of how our predecessors acted we cannot know who we really are. Academic study of history equips the student with skills enabling the discernment of what is likely to be true from emotional hyperbole. It teaches how to think critically, a skill sorely lacking in contemporary American discourse. Put simply: if we don’t know our history, and if we don’t know how to discern it, we are at the mercy of those who would twist it to their own ends. Take, for example, the Tea Party.

Meacham’s book is a well-researched and artfully articulated study of the internal tensions in America’s sense of itself, its “soul.” America declared itself to be a landscape and liberty and equality for all, but at the same time Americans have from the outset struggled with fear of the “other.” Meacham’s book considers some of the times when those conflicting impulses came to light: Jacksonian populism, Reconstruction, the Progressive era, the Red Scare, the Depression, the Cold War, and the Civil Rights era.

In telling the story Meacham focuses on American leadership from above, the Presidents particularly (i.e., either of the Roosevelts, Coolidge), and from below: those who began as nameless activists to articulate the will of the people and struck a spark for revolutionary change (i.e., Jane Addams, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.). His analysis shows that there are no perpetually good or bad influences in American politics. Sometimes the leaders act in ways that must be curtailed by the power of the masses, and sometimes the other way around. But the hopeful conclusion is that American democracy, though often (perhaps always) in crisis, has always been able to return to “the better angels of our nature.”

I was amazed at the chapter considering America’s response to the Cold War. The description of the character and career of Joseph McCarthy is uncannily reminiscent of another contemporary demagogue. Meacham surmises that the defeat of Joe McCarthy was inevitable because the people will eventually always see past fear to the greater American ideals. One can hope for a similar awakening soon, but McCarthy was a Senator, and Trump is the President. And the President has the power to do irrevocable damage to the American soul.

I recommend this book to everyone who believes in the American creed, the ideals articulated in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Gettysburg Address, Calvin Coolidge and Harry Truman’s speeches on Civil Rights, the soaring oratory of Dr. King, and the often no less lofty conception of America articulated by Ronald Reagan. One of the greatest achievements of this volume is to pull American discourse out of the mud, to highlight the eloquence of the American vision. It reminds us that historically we have always sought to be a force for the most positive human aspirations. That is our history. Whether it is to be our future depends on whether we remember it.