Civil rights demonstrators march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in...

Civil rights demonstrators march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965.      Credit: ©Bruce Davidson / Magnum Photos

THE SOUL OF AMERICA: The Battle for Our Better Angels, by Jon Meacham. Random House, 416 pp., $30. 

Historian and journalist Jon Meacham has written biographies of, among others, George H.W. Bush, Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson; that last book won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009. With “The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels,” Meacham addresses a decidedly loftier subject: the very essence of the nation. He does so by documenting the words and actions of presidents and other historical figures who helped shape the nation’s culture and politics to make the United States into the country it is today.

Meacham’s book arrives at a time when much about the American political system seems broken. People are angry, ambivalent, anxious. But Meacham, by chronicling the nation’s struggles from revolutionary times to current day, makes the resonant argument that America has faced division before — and not only survived it but thrived. “This book,” Meacham writes, “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.”

A significant source of the current “public dispiritedness,” Meacham argues, is Donald Trump. “I am writing now not because past American presidents have always risen to the occasion but because the incumbent American president so rarely does. A president sets a tone for the nation and helps tailor habits of heart and of mind.” Finally, though, for Meacham, it is not Trump but instead the battle for heart and mind — America’s soul — that is the focus of his book.

“The message,” Meacham writes, “of Martin Luther King, Jr. — that we should be judged on the content of our character, not on the color of our skin — dwells in the American soul; so does the menace of the Ku Klux Klan. History hangs precariously in the balance between such extremes.” America’s greatness, Meacham believes, lies in the fact that “what Lincoln called ‘the better angels of our nature’ have prevailed just often enough to keep the national enterprise alive.”

The subject of race is often at the core of Meacham’s treatise. He documents the start of America’s original moral dilemma by noting that in 1619, during the Colonial period long before the nation was formed, “a Dutch ‘man of warre’ brought about twenty captive Africans — ‘negars’ — to Virginia, the first chapter in the saga of American slavery.” That saga would produce the Civil War, the transcendent presidency of Abraham Lincoln (“If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong”), the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln’s stirring 272-word speech that prompted Frederick Douglass to describe it as a “sacred effort.”

A Union victory did not resolve racial matters. Dissenters such as Edward Alfred Pollard argued the South should continue its resistance. Meacham writes, “Pollard declared that a ‘war of ideas’ . . . was under way. . . . It was a bold call to fight on in the face of loss . . . [M]any Southerners, following Pollard, were determined to win the peace — and victory in the long shadow of Appomattox would be defined by the extent to which the old Confederacy could subjugate blacks.” This led to the creation of the KKK, which enjoyed two periods of popularity: one after the Civil War, a second during the 1920s, when Woodrow Wilson sometimes embraced “segregationist policies” and the Klan boasted a national membership of as many as 4 million.

It was not until the civil rights movement that some semblance of racial justice would be forged. Meacham quotes Lyndon B. Johnson from a special address he made to Congress on the national ordeal: “There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem.” To solve that “problem,” Johnson employed his considerable legislative prowess to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Meacham chronicles other momentous developments: women’s suffrage, ignited at Seneca Falls and fueled by Susan B. Anthony (“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal”); Teddy Roosevelt’s “melting pot” view of immigration; the rise and fall of populists Huey Long and Eugene McCarthy; Franklin D. Roosevelt’s contribution to the nation — “a spirit of optimism forged in his own experience.” Time and again, Meacham mentions Trump as a counterpoint — a figure, because his presidency “has more in common with reality television or professional wrestling,” who stands in stark contrast to “past presidents [who] have unified and inspired with conscious dignity and conscientious efficiency.”

Ultimately, Meacham believes the nation will move beyond Trump because, in the end, as they have shown on vital issues before, Americans embrace their better angels. This book stands as a testament to that choice — a reminder that the country has a history of returning to its core values of freedom and equality after enduring periods of distraction and turmoil. To Meacham, King’s statement resonates: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Gripping and inspiring, “The Soul of America” is Jon Meacham’s declaration of his faith in America. He concludes with a quote from Lincoln meant to bolster the discouraged in a time of concern: “The nation is worth fighting for, to secure such an inestimable jewel.”

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