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The Soul of America

John Peeler: The historian Jon Meacham proposes to help us deal with the dark times confronting the national polity by showing us prior instances when dark forces seemed to prevail.
soul of america

The Battle for Our Better Angels by John Meacham

This is a book for our season.

The historian Jon Meacham proposes to help us deal with the dark times confronting the national polity by showing us prior instances when dark forces seemed to prevail. In each case, from the founding years to the McCarthy era, to the struggle over segregation in the 1950s and 1960s, our “better angels” have prevailed: “History, however, shows us that we are frequently vulnerable to fear, bitterness and strife. The good news is that we have come through such darkness before.” (p. 5) But the forces of darkness are never completely vanquished, and return in hard times to vex our lives once more. We live in such a time now.

To know what has come before is to be armed against despair. If the men and women of the past, with all their flaws and limitations and ambitions and appetites, could press on through ignorance and superstition, racism and sexism, selfishness and greed, to create a freer, stronger nation, then perhaps we, too, can right wrongs and take another step toward that most enchanting and elusive of destinations: a more perfect union. (p. 11)

The historian Jon Meacham proposes to help us deal with the dark times confronting the national polity by showing us prior instances when dark forces seemed to prevail.

Meacham focuses on the leadership of presidents who rose above the darker forces of their times, acknowledging the flaws of each but showing how Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, the two Roosevelts, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and yes, Ronald Reagan, could move the country forward from times of darkness. Because each of them was flawed, one might come up with much less optimistic interpretations of their administrations, but wants to make a point. He argues that the presidency is a uniquely powerful institution, not only legally and politically, but also morally and culturally. He glides lightly over whole decades when presidents failed to exert such leadership.

Lest his meaning be misconstrued, he says, “I am writing now not because past American presidents have always risen to the occasion but because the incumbent American president so rarely does.” (p. 13)

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He doesn’t think that only presidents matter: “Much of the vibrancy of the American story lies in the courage of the powerless to make the powerful take notice.” (p. 14) Indeed, after all the studies of great presidents, the book concludes with a challenge to all Americans:

How, then, in an hour of anxiety about the future of the country, at a time when a president of the United States appears determined to undermine the rule of law, a free press, and the sense of hope essential to American life, can those with deep concerns about the nation’s future enlist on the side of the angels? (p. 266)

These are his answers:

  • Enter the arena (be politically active)
  • Resist tribalism (work to avoid fragmentation and polarization)
  • Respect facts and deploy reason
  • Find a critical balance (respectful criticism of those in authority)
  • Keep history in mind (the whole point of this book)

For all of our darker impulses, for all of our shortcomings, and for all of the dreams denied and deferred, the experiment begun so long ago, carried out so imperfectly, is worth the fight. There is, in fact, no struggle more important, and none nobler, than the one we wage in the service of those better angels who, however besieged, are always ready for battle. (p. 272)

Meacham gives us an elegantly patriotic book. Reading it in these times is like sweet water to the parched. He would have us be patriots, not because ours is the greatest country on earth, not because we are without flaws, but precisely because we so often fall short of what we aspire to become, but we never surrender the aspiration for “liberty and justice for all.”

impeachment unavoidable

John Peeler