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'The Soul of America' reminds us that living up to our highest ideals has always been tricky

Meacham’s latest book serves as a sobering reminder that protest, divisive politics, and partisan rancor have been near-constants in the United States.

The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels By Jon Meacham Random House 402 pp.

Pundits, politicians, and plenty of voters have described the Trump era as one of unprecedented circumstances.

The unusual political journey of US President Donald J. Trump and his populist, often divisive, rhetoric inspired historian Jon Meacham to write The Soul of America, a book that will – depending on the reader – serve as either a corrective to erroneous assumptions about American racial, religious, and gender precedents or as a primer on our national history. But for everyone, Meacham’s book – which traces the bumpy, long road of trying to live up to the ideals of the Declaration of Independence – serves as a sobering reminder that protest, divisive politics, and partisan rancor have been near-constants in the United States.

Meacham begins the book, quite intentionally, with a speech by South Carolina segregationist Gov. Strom Thurmond in 1948 in Charlottesville, Va.

At the time, Thurmond, who would go on to become the longest-tenured US senator in American history by the time of his death in 2003 at age 100, was running for president as a Dixiecrat, the party formed by Southern politicians fighting against civil rights. In case there was any doubt about the party’s platform, Thurmond told his audience, who interrupted him with ovations that night at the University of Virginia, that President Harry Truman’s call for outlawing lynching and discrimination in hiring “would undermine the American way of life and outrage the Bill of Rights.”

Thurmond went on to win four states, all in the Deep South, in the election. Twenty-four years later, another segregationist Southern governor, George Wallace of Alabama, won five states as a presidential candidate – all of them below the Mason-Dixon Line. In Charlottesville in 2017, when white nationalists arrived to protest the planned removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, the former KKK grand wizard David Duke said, “We are determined to take our country back.”

Meacham explores the duality of pledging freedom of religion and the rights of man with government-sanctioned slavery and the Manifest Destiny that ravaged Native American tribes. Starting with the First Charter of Virginia at Jamestown and moving through the Revolutionary Era and on to the Civil War, “The Soul of America” delves into the depths of oppression faced by women, immigrants, African Americans, and others — and how those struggles shape the present political environment. Of particular importance are Meacham’s attention to the rarity and difficulty of advancing past status quo complacency and inequality as well as simultaneously cautionary and encouraging examples of how leaders can’t improve the nation without both courage and the willingness of the masses to be led.

Though clearly no fan of Trump, Meacham otherwise hews to a determinedly centrist viewpoint. Which is not to say he avoids the difficult realities of the country’s eternal struggle to overcome prejudice and undo laws and policies that create and exacerbate a lack of equal opportunity.

“After [Martin Luther] King, after Rosa Parks, after John Lewis, after the watershed legislative work of Lyndon B. Johnson in passing the civil rights bills of the mid-1960s, many Americans are less than eager to acknowledge that our national greatness was built on explicit and implicit apartheid,” he writes.

Given the current furor over Confederate monuments and what to do with them – and, incredibly, disputes over why the war was fought – it is valuable and necessary for a popular historian such as Meacham to put matters in proper, factual context.

A prime example: A month before firing at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, started the four-year war, Confederate States vice president Alexander Stephens delivered what came to be known as his “Cornerstone Speech” in Savannah, Ga. The Confederacy’s cornerstones, Stephens said then, rested “upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man: that slavery – subordination to the superior race – is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”

That’s a long way from “states’ rights,” the preferred explanation of the South’s Lost Cause revisionist history of what caused the Civil War.

John Adams’s ill-conceived Alien and Sedition Acts, anti-Catholic Know Nothings, the many years of denying women’s suffrage, McCarthyism, Jim Crow and the KKK are all explored and dissected in Meacham’s brisk, fast-moving look at how the American people and their presidents confronted and eventually overcame their darker impulses and behavior.

The inclusion of King, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, among others, shows how presidents almost always need allies and activists beyond the political world. Elsewhere, the author spotlights unsung allies within the system, such as Margaret Chase Smith, a Republican senator from Maine who, in 1950, took to the Senate floor to denounce her GOP colleague, Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin.

Addressing McCarthy’s red-baiting without referring to him by name, Smith, as Meacham writes, “was about four years ahead of most of her colleagues.” In her speech, she said, “I think that it is high time that we remembered that we have sworn to uphold and defend the Constitution. I think that it is high time that we remembered that the Constitution, as amended, speaks not only of the freedom of speech but also of trial by jury instead of trial by accusation.”

Meacham’s assessment includes more contemporary examples of political courage and reconciliation. In 1995, George H.W. Bush ended his lifetime membership in the National Rifle Association after the gun-rights lobby started a fund-raising campaign that, among other things, referred to federal law enforcement agents as “jack-booted thugs.”

Other examples cited by Meacham include George W. Bush’s oft-repeated assertion in 2001 that the war on terrorism wasn’t a war on the Islamic faith and, 14 years later, Barack Obama’s tactful but firm endorsement of the Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of same-sex marriage.

The author points out that Obama, later the same day, went to South Carolina, where he delivered a stirring eulogy at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney. A white man, motivated by racial hatred, shot and murdered Pinckney in a massacre of nine African Americans at a Bible study.

Obama hedged for years before publicly supporting gay marriage, a shift that echoes Meacham’s nuanced portrait of Truman and civil rights. Truman was known to use racist language, came from a family that loathed Lincoln and celebrated Lee, and, even in post-presidential retirement, badly missed the importance and significance of the March on Washington in 1963.

Yet, as president, Truman often struck the right note on race, demanding equality in the military and beyond in the face of stiff political opposition. In doing so, he helped set the stage for Lyndon Johnson to embrace the tireless, courageous prodding of King and the civil rights movement to advance the cause of race relations more than any president since Lincoln.

The book’s subtitle, “The Battle for Our Better Angels,” pays homage to Lincoln’s first inaugural address, itself an example of a nation struggling with the chasm between its ideals and its realities. FDR, Meacham reminds us, once said the presidency is “pre-eminently a place of moral leadership” while Truman noted, “The people have often made mistakes, but given time and the facts, they will make the corrections.”

Of equal note, Meacham quotes the early 20th-century civil rights activist W.E.B. DuBois, who diagnosed the passivity often surrounding discriminatory waves of populist fervor as largely the sum of existential fears. (Perhaps, for example, when technology displaces numerous jobs, when wages remain stagnant for the better part of 40 years, and when faith, both justified and not, lapses in government to improve education and infrastructure.) Or, as DuBois put it, when people fear “losing their jobs, being declassed, degraded, or actually disgraced; of losing their hopes, their savings, their plans for their children; of the actual pangs of hunger, of dirt, of crime.”

No matter who occupies the White House, this history – and these ideas, from presidents, demagogues, and activists alike – are worthy of our attention and reflection. Here, Meacham does us the service of providing a civil, and learned, starting point for such conversations.

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