The Presidency is not merely an administrative office. That’s the least of it. It is more than an engineering job, efficient or inefficient. It is pre-eminently a place of moral leadership. All our great Presidents were leaders of thought at times when certain historic ideas in the life of the nation had to be clarified.
Franklin D. Roosevelt (1)
History – which is all we have to go on – suggests that a president’s vices and his virtues matter enormously, for politics is a human, not a clinical, undertaking. So, too, do the vices and virtues of the people at large, for leadership is the art of the possible, and possibility is determined by whether generosity can triumph over selfishness in the American soul.
Jon Meacham (2)
How does a historian speak about the moral, political, and constitutional crises brought on by the Trump administration without discussing Trump until the last chapter? Jon Meacham does it by examining the battle of fear and hate versus hope and generosity from Lincoln until Lyndon Johnson. Presenting a struggle within and for the American soul, Meacham has written both a political and spiritual classic intended to calm nerves by showing that previous eras dealt successfully with challenges like our own.
The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels is a selective look at battles over human equality in general, but especially racism and immigration. Meacham did not write a detailed history of America from Lincoln to Lyndon Johnson. Rather, he identified moral and spiritual battles that keep recurring. He also did not seed the account with personal interpretation as he relied on statements of historical figures. Meacham’s views are seen in his judicious choice of quotations. The force of these statements in clarifying current issues is always stirring and often inspiring.
Americans worried about damage to our system and values should read Jon Meacham’s gift to our sanity. His restraint in interpretation helps calm present anxieties with an underlying message of hope arising from previous success in dealing with recurring issues.
Meacham’s religious views are not visible, yet there is a prominent spiritual theme unifying a history focused on political issues as challenges to deepest American values. Using Lincoln’s term, he seeks to identify examples of “our better angels” along with counterexamples. Clearly, he favors human equality and sees that as the best of the American soul, yet a dark side has continued to emerge throughout our history.
Although not without blemish, Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Calvin Coolidge, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, and Lyndon Johnson appear on the positive side of the ledger. Generous servings of W.E.B. DuBois and Martin Luther King, Jr., make clear their importance in expressing human equality as a spiritual principle. The flip side is seen in the prevalence of fear in “regional revanchism” of Southern resistance to Reconstruction, the “Red Scare,” rise of the KKK in the 1920s, and Robert Welsh’s John Birch Society along with Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s.
The statements from representatives of the forces of light and darkness are astonishing in their directness in laying out motivations of each side. For example, the Statue of Liberty inspired rival visions of America’s openness to desperate peoples of the world. In 1883, Emma Lazarus wrote a sonnet that can be seen today at the Statue of Liberty. Most of us know the ending, but here is part of the beginning:
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightening, and her name
Mother of Exiles. (3)
A counter message was expressed by Thomas Bailey Aldrich’s 1892 “The Unguarded Gates:”
Wide open and unguarded stand our gates,
And through them presses a wild motley throng –…
O Liberty, white Goddess! Is it well
To leave the gates unguarded? (4)
Immigration issues from the 1880s into the 1920s targeted Southern Europeans on the east coast and Chinese in the west. It was the less white Southern Europeans that were attacked by the KKK, along with Catholics and Negroes, during its resurgence in the 1920s. Speaking to a KKK convention in Kansas City in 1924, Clifford Walker, Governor of Georgia, warned of “a darkened and a poisoned and a decadent nation” for future generations because of immigrants. “I would build a wall of steel… a wall as high as Heaven, against the admission of a single one of those Southern Europeans who never thought the thoughts or spoke the language of a democracy in their lives.” The tone and symbolism of those words are very contemporary. (5)
The rise and fall of Senator Joseph McCarthy is especially meaningful for the age of Trump. The book’s only reference to Trump by name is in connection with Roy Cohn, the lawyer for McCarthy and mentor of Trump; yet contemporary readers can’t avoid thinking of Trump as the personality, motives, and failings of McCarthy are detailed. The reason for the downfall of McCarthy, according to Cohn, was loss of public interest in the acting and salesmanship that fueled his use of media to stoke public fear. (6)
Meacham’s personal views become more direct in his conclusion yet remain non-partisan and restrained. He mentions five positive guidelines for voter involvement to alter an undesirable course of events. As a teacher of college freshmen, I try to emphasize a similar message to students prone to rely on social media for news. It is a hard message to sell, along with the importance of voting in local and federal elections. Meacham’s advice is important for young and old citizens today.
Theology and religion become involved in the struggle for the American soul because so many religious figures are involved in the issues. Although Meacham doesn’t impose his religious views, his choice of passages to quote and discuss communicates a deeply spiritual message.
Those of us who agree with Meacham’s idea of the “better angels” will find comfort and encouragement in the spiritual message of this book. Behind Jesus’s encouragement in Matthew 7:7 to ask, seek, and knock lies a message of hope in persistent and positive action. Such is the underlying purpose of Meacham’s examination of the soul of America.
(1) Quoted in Jon Meacham, The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels (New York: Random House, 2018), 12.
(2) Ibid., 258.
(3) Ibid., 118.
(4) Ibid., 117.
(5) Ibid., 120.
(6) Ibid., 202-203.