The soul of America : the battle for our better angels

by Jon Meacham

Paper Book, 2018




New York : Random House, 2018.


"Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jon Meacham helps us understand the present moment in American politics and life by looking back at critical times in our history when hope overcame division and fear. Our current climate of partisan fury is not new, and in The Soul of America Meacham shows us how what Abraham Lincoln called the "better angels of our nature" have repeatedly won the day. Painting surprising portraits of presidents including, besides Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, and Lyndon B. Johnson, and illuminating the courage of such influential citizen activists as Martin Luther King, Jr., early suffragettes Alice Paul and Carrie Chapman Catt, civil rights pioneers Rosa Parks and John Lewis, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and Army-McCarthy hearings lawyer Joseph N. Welch, Meacham brings vividly to life turning points in American history. He writes about the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the birth of the Lost Cause; the backlash against immigrants in the First World War and the resurgence of the Klu Klux Klan in the 1920s; the fight for women's rights; the demagoguery of Huey Long and Father Coughlin and the isolationist work of America First in the years before World War II; the anti-Communist witch-hunts led by Senator Joseph McCarthy; and Lyndon Johnson's crusade to finish the fight against Jim Crow. In each of these dramatic, crucial turning points, the battle to lead the country to look forward rather than back, to assert hope over fear, was joined, even as it is today. While the American story has not always been heroic, and the outcome of our battles never certain, in this inspiring book Meacham reassures us,"the good news is that we have come through darkness before"--as, time and again, Lincoln's better angels have found a way to prevail. Advance praise for The Soul of America "This is a brilliant, fascinating, timely, and above all profoundly important book. Jon Meacham explores the extremism and racism that have infected our politics, and he draws enlightening lessons from the knowledge that we've faced such trials before."--Walter Isaacson "Jon Meacham has done it again, this time with a historically rich and gracefully written account of America's long struggle with division in our immigrant nation and the heroic efforts to heal the wounds. It should be in every home and on every student's desk."--Tom Brokaw"-- "The current climate of partisan fury is not new, and in The Soul of America, Meacham shows us how what Lincoln called the "better angels of our nature" have won the day. Painting surprising portraits of Presidents, including Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Ulysses S. Grant, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon B. Johnson, and others, and illuminating the courage of such influential citizen activists as Martin Luther King, Jr., early suffragettes Alice Paul and Carrie Chapman Catt, civil rights pioneers Rosa Parks and John Lewis, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and Army-McCarthy hearings lawyer Joseph N. Welch, Meacham brings vividly to life turning points in American history. He writes about the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the birth of the "Lost Cause"; the backlash against immigrants in the First World War and the resurgence of the Klu Klux Klan in the 1920s; the fight for women's rights; the demagoguery of Huey Long and Father Coughlin and the isolationist work of "America First" in the years before World War II; the Communist witch hunts led by Senator Joseph McCarthy; and Lyndon Johnson's crusade to finish the fight against Jim Crow. In each of these dramatic, crucial turning points, the battle to lead the country to look forward rather than back, to assert hope over fear, was joined, even as it is today. While the American story has not always or even often been heroic, and the outcome of that battle has never been certain, in this inspiring book, Meacham writes, "The good news is that we have come through darkness before," as time and again, Lincoln's better angels have found a way to prevail"--… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member nmele
Since this book is a best-seller and was praised by several people whose opinions I respect, I borrowed it and read it. Frankly, I was not satisfied; Meacham engagingly reviews the history of times of crisis and conflict in the United States, like the re-establishment of white dominance in the South after Reconstruction ended or the civil rights movement, but his focus is almost exclusively on presidents and other powerful politicians. He asserts the importance of popular movements and resistance, but only briefly mentions most of them. The book ends with some "lessons" meant to give us hope and a way forward through the current insanity and corruption, but I found several of Meacham's suggestions very nearly contradicting the lessons I drew from his narrative.… (more)
LibraryThing member 1Randal
This book should be required reading for everyone. Today we think that America is a horrible mess, and cannot possibly find a way forward. And that the divisions among us are insurmountable. Meacham reveals that this is not the end, that we have found ourselves in similar predicaments many times in the past. And we persevered and came out the other side stronger. Today's problems are just a bump in the road, and we will survive. Many thanks to the author for making me feel better and confident than I did before reading the book!… (more)
LibraryThing member Sandydog1
Initially, subjective, fuzzy essay style takes some getting used to, but it turns out this is a readable, fascinating history of the USA in a long string of quotations of all the key players. Initial thesis appears to be that we go through crazy times and always come out of it. It seems though that we Americans are weak and quick to go to extreme racism and proto-Fascism, in the name of patriotism. It's happened again and again. I get the vibe that other countries suffer a heck of a lot more, before they choose extremism, fear and hate. There sure is a long string of ass-hats: Andrew Johnson, Woodrow Wilson, Joe Mccarthy... Uphold the Constitution, be nice, choose sane leaders. And try to read and think occasionally, will ya please? A great, sweeping political history of the USA.… (more)
LibraryThing member nbmars
Jon Meacham is a respected historian and author. He wrote American Lion (about Andrew Jackson); Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power; Destiny and Power (about George H. W. Bush); and many historical monographs. He appears regularly on CNN television to instruct Americans about the ways in which Donald J. Trump is a really bad president. His latest book, The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels, tells the story of other historical moments in which vicious, hateful forces (like the Ku Klux Klan) have contended with inclusive, liberal movements (such as for civil rights) and leaders (FDR, Truman, and Lyndon Johnson) for defining what America is and should be.

The “Better Angels” of the title were first identified by Abraham Lincoln in his first inaugural address, when he pleaded with southern whites to listen to those angels. They didn’t. After the ensuing Civil War, a decade of “Reconstruction” featured a backlash in the South that involved horrifying incidents of beatings, rape and murder both of blacks and of the whites who sympathized with them. This period was followed by a century of “Jim Crow” laws and practices that took rights away from blacks.

Meacham sees American history as moving in cycles from the truly awful to the more uplifting. He retells some of the worst parts of American history, showing how attitudes toward race allowed unscrupulous politicians to incite fear and prejudice - a practice that sadly continues to this day. He tempers the tales of domestic violence with accounts of better men like W. E. B. DuBois and Harry Truman. The passages about the civil rights movement of the 1960s, with Lyndon B. Johnson and Martin Luther King as its heroes, are quite moving.

The book jumps from the 1960s to the present day. Although the author is appalled by Trumpism, he does not try to explain how we got here, nor offer an analysis of whether this dark period is any different than those preceding it. Thus it is hard to understand Meacham's optimism that a kindler, gentler America will prevail. In some ways, it could be argued that the anger and divisions over race that have characterized our country from the beginning have always been roiling around just under the surface, waiting for opportunistic politicians to provide an imprimatur for their expression. But in the current era, the ability of both social and visual media to promulgate as the truth a "menacing, overarching narrative" that identifies not only fellow citizens as enemies but parts of the government itself, is unparalleled in American history. Moreover, these efforts are egged on by two important loci of power: a foreign country as well as by the President of the United States himself. These are indeed scary times, with the advice of "better angels" being drowned out by the broadcasts of hate-mongers.

Evaluation: This book is best regarded as a historical narrative of the period between the time of Lincoln and the Civil War, and the apotheosis of the Civil Rights Movement in the mid-1960s. As such, it is not necessarily “timely,” but I feel history is always good to know. If only the current leadership felt the same….

(JAB)… (more)
LibraryThing member berthirsch
historical events and how it informs our current presidential situation.
LibraryThing member maneekuhi
I am very familiar with Pulitzer-winning author Jon Meacham. I have read his bios on Bush Sr. and Andrew Jackson and rated them both 5 stars. I watch “Morning Joe” regularly; Meacham is a frequent contributor and I enjoy his viewpoints on whatever the topic of the day is. I must confess though to having been a tad skeptical about 275 page “The Soul of America” (Soul). I was concerned that it might be too early for such a book and that readers might be better served by something more comprehensive post-Trump. But the angel on my other shoulder reminded me that I needed something like Soul right now. As you may have guessed, I am not a Trump fan, far from it. But Soul is not a Trump-bashing book, though it will certainly resonate more with readers who share my political views than it will with the base.

Meacham’s 19 page Introduction is an excellent set-up for what is to come. Meacham argues that he has chosen American soul rather than creed because soul goes to the next level – it is about acting on our beliefs. Meacham argues that it is “incumbent on us, from generation to generation, to create a sphere in which we can live, live freely, and pursue happiness to the best of our abilities. We cannot guarantee equal outcomes, but we must do all we can to ensure equal opportunity.” He believes that our fate is contingent on hope winning over fear. Meacham makes reference to dark moments in America’s history and he concludes the intro with “What follows is the story of how we have endured moments of madness and of injustice…..and how we can again.”

Following the intro are seven lengthy chapters about some of America’s dark moments, with a heavy emphasis of what the President did (and didn’t do) in these moments of crisis. The chapters included: Jackson, Lincoln, Appomattox, the KKK, Reconstruction, Teddy Roosevelt, women’s suffrage, the Depression, Huey Long, the New Deal, Lindbergh, America First, McCarthyism, modern media, George Wallace, MLK, LBJ. The concluding chapter is titled “The First Duty of an American Citizen”. Soul offered many anecdotes and historical facts new to me. I have read many bios, particularly on some of the characters here, and I was amazed at how many stories I heard for the first time. I will share a few “aha” moments to give a feel for what you might expect……

Frederick Douglass on Lincoln: “He knew the American people better then they knew themselves.” The author writes that Adam Smith’s (Wealth of Nations) view was that the “human capacity for sympathy and fellow feeling…was essential to the life of a republic”.
Following the Civil War, Southerners shifted from military to political approaches to battle for white supremacy and their way of life.
Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter said he always wanted to be ”the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral”.
Washington and Hamilton had very different views on immigration.
In 1924, every one of the 48 states had a Klan presence. Klan members were governors of 11 states, held up to 75 House seats, 16 in the Senate. Meacham writes that hostility from eastern journalists directed at the Klan convinced a number of middle Americans that perhaps such an organization under press attack must have something to recommend it.
(Silent Cal) Coolidge said at the time: “No matter by what various crafts we came here, we are all now in the same boat.
A small group of Wall Streeters plotted to raise an army, march on D.C. and remove FDR from office. In 1936, a Gallup poll indicated that 95% believed America should stay out of any European war.
Earl Warren, then AG of California supported internment camps.
Edward R Murrow: “We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty”. Meacham writes about McCarthy that he needed the press, and the press needed McCarthy, because he was fantastic copy, a real-life serial. McCarthy was in the spotlight for three and a half years. His attorney Roy Cohn: “ ….any outstanding actor on the stage of public affairs……cannot remain indefinitely at the center of controversy. The public must eventually lose interest in him and his cause.” Meacham again: “He (McCarthy) oversold, and the customers-the public-tired of the pitch, and the pitchman.”
A journalist speaking of attending a George C. Wallace rally: “You saw those people in that auditorium when he was speaking-you saw their eyes. He made those people feel something real for once in their lives.”

Well, the Good News is that we have been here before and the country has survived. As the author points out, we have been a country that people struggle mightily to come to, not to leave. Our democratic system has been tested and stressed and has withstood attacks on our core beliefs and values. In the introduction the author states that he is writing Soul not because past American presidents have always risen to the occasion but because the incumbent American president “so rarely does”. I’ll close on a positive note, a quote that Meacham cites from Eleanor Roosevelt: “The course of history is directed by the choices we make and our choices grow out of the ideas, the beliefs, the values, the dreams of the people. It is not so much the powerful leaders that determine our destiny as the mush more powerful influence of the combined voice of the people themselves.”
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LibraryThing member Salsabrarian
Anyone concerned about the so-called Trump presidency and the state of our country today can take heart from this book that this era too will pass. Historian Meacham describes several key eras in American history and how those presidents led (sometimes with a stumble or four). Times were pretty dark in the past, far worse that what's happening today. Unfortunately not enough Americans will have the fortitude to tackle reading this work and benefit from its value. For those who do, the reading can be occasionally dense but not academic. Take heart, America!… (more)
LibraryThing member JosephKing6602
Nice 'refresher' of US history; relevant for today, especially in light of the things happening in 2018 with Trump and friends :(
LibraryThing member TooBusyReading
I am hoping Lincoln's “the better angels of our nature” wins our battles soon. The Soul of America, written by Jon Meacham, an author I admire, writes about the challenges this country has faced and the people who have fought to keep or put the nation on the path of better angels.

Our presidents and leaders have always had shortcomings, but many chose to do what was right for the country despite their personal biases and prejudices. The history is fascinating to me, especially the details for the ongoing fight for civil rights for all. The author urges to stand for what we believe, and to work for it. This book was enlightening and encouraging, but not resorting to rose-colored glasses. It's an excellent read for anyone who cares about this country. I listened to this book and the narration was very good, but I especially liked the introduction and ending, where the author read his own book.… (more)
LibraryThing member Waltersgn
Using the leadership qualities of several presidents, Meacham presents a history of the advancement of America's efforts to breach the divisions that exist between our citizens. Meacham presents these leaders with their virtues as well as their faults. As such, these leaders become a mirror of their times.
LibraryThing member Doondeck
Outstanding glimpse of "we've been here before" which gives us comfort in times of Trump.
LibraryThing member MrDickie
Author Jon Meachem often appears on MSNBC. This is the first book by him that I've read. I enjoyed it a great deal. I found Chapter Six about the era of Senator Joseph McCarthy of particular interest. Chief Counsel to McCarthy was lawyer, Roy M. Cohn. Cohn later worked for the father of Donald J. Trump and later for DJT himself. There are marked similarities between the tactics of McCarthy and the younger Trump.… (more)
LibraryThing member ZachMontana
A book every American should read! Thoroughly researched and sage wisdom on the US Presidency and Leadership, American Culture and Ideals and how History teaches us.
LibraryThing member terriks
I find Meacham a calming voice during this time in our history. Which, of course, is the point he's trying to make - through the lens of the historic references he presents, our republic has been challenged and stressed, and has come through. I love history, so I'm an instant fan, but this book is a treasure of collected events that will be enjoyable even on the other side of current events.… (more)
LibraryThing member DanDiercks
Meacham takes his reader though U.S. history pointing out and explaining the “soul” of each era primarily through the people who made our country what it was at the time. Not surprisingly, Abe Lincoln once again comes out as the nation’s moral hero, a hero missing from our midst in the 21st century. Although Meacham doesn’t dwell on the obvious comparison between our most recent one term president and these heroes of the past, his deficiencies were never more obvious. It makes the reader more appreciative than ever that the four year nightmare is finally over.… (more)
LibraryThing member mldavis2
Unlike many recent books written around and about the 2020 Presidential election, this one is not aimed specifically at one candidate. It is an historical look at the tough times and decisions made during the U.S. history and the presidents who made them. Reading between the lines, it is evident that the values of the past have been largely ignored in this polarized society and the American ideal is being tested as never before. This is an excellent book, written by a highly regarded historical author and highly recommended for any citizen interested in presidential history.… (more)
LibraryThing member Jthierer
This was a pleasant enough walk through U.S. history, but it felt a bit thin to me. The premise of the book, presumably, was that America has been through rough times in the past and came out the other side and will do so again as illustrated by the McCarthy Era, Civil Rights and the Civil War. And that's a fine thesis...but I'm not sure what this particular book added to either my understanding of current or past events. Ultimately, I think this one could have been a great long form article in the The Atlantic or somewhere similar but feels thin to carry a whole book.… (more)
LibraryThing member thewanderingjew
The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels, John Meacham, author; Fred Sanders, narrator*
This author chose to read, in his own voice, the first hour and last half hour, or so, of his book. He narrates what seems to be an effort to smear the right side of politics and buoy up the left. In an innocent, almost pained tone of voice, he presents his opinion about the state of politics and government in the current White House. He is obviously disappointed and unhappy about who won the election.
He presents the platform of the left, civil rights, women’s rights, immigrant rights, etc., as if those on the right are all white supremacists that are against those very same policies. The most egregious of that effort for me, was this: Although he spends a great deal of time on Martin Luther King and President Johnson, he leaves out those on the left who opposed the passing of the Civil Rights Act. He doesn’t mention the fact that Democrat Robert Byrd filibustered to try and prevent it from passing or that he rode with the KKK. He doesn’t mention that it was largely Republicans who passed the Act while Democrats opposed no only it, but also the 15th Amendment to the Constitution. Facts like that would contradict his attempt to present Progressives and Democrats as the “better angels”.
There has been, of late, a proliferation of books that denigrate President Trump. This one tries to masquerade as more cerebral, and possibly more fair-minded, as it is supposed to be searching for the “soul” of America, but that soul seems to exist only on the left side of the political divide. I was surprised that Meacham would present so one-sided a narrative in order to promote the views of the Democrats and Progressives. He deliberatively uses selective sources to elevate them, He almost entirely ignores the faults of the left while presenting the foibles of the right and pretty much ignores the destructive behavior of those on the left as if they were anomalies not worthy of much attention.
The very fact that the universities, largely influenced by Progressive thought, limit speech that does not represent their political view or those of their students, that publishers are rushing to put out books to influence the voting population in only one direction, the left, that the entertainment media and news media are consistently presenting negative images of the President and his accomplishments, should frighten the general public. Instead, the manipulation of information, which is nothing more than bullying, seems to have caused the general population to morph into a kind of mob rule, a behavior that disregards facts and logic. The fact that these same industries that educate and inform our youth are so biased is the reason that this current President criticizes them. He is not against the press, he is against a press that is completely unfair, completely biased against him, a press that does not present any positive news about his administration’s accomplishments, but rather runs with any story that trashes him and his policies, regardless of whether or not they are even true.
It is disheartening to see what is happening in this country. We are undergoing a cataclysmic change; we are witnessing a moment of hate and anger that is coming from a group of people who scream at the moon, shout down those they disagree with, who require safe spaces to maintain their sanity, and who blame the side that is not violent or making unusual demands for their pain. They are dividing us in ways that may become dangerous because they are unable to accept their failure to elect Hillary Clinton, a woman who conducted a campaign for President which was fraught with dishonesty and manipulation in an attempt to gain an unfair advantage.
If the respected author, whom I used to enjoy reading, wanted to present an honest book, he would have exposed information on both sides with impartiality. Instead, even when he says something positive about the GOP, he manages to, in the next sentence, subtly cast aspersions upon them. I found it a bit disingenuous that Meacham concentrated on using the word “fear” often, which is the title of a negative book on the President that was just published by Bob Woodward, and which the reader, therefore, can’t help but think of, and at the same time, he also uses the word ‘hope”, which everyone knows is associated with former President Obama’s campaign for President. Although he seems to be searching for our better angels, he seems to be looking for them only on one side of the political spectrum, the “left”. Although it may not be an obvious effort to smear the GOP and the President, the insinuation is loud and clear that they are not taking the country in a direction he wants it to go, nor are those who support Trump, “the better angels” he is seeking. It is his belief that they are taking the country in the wrong direction, and furthermore, they are wrongheaded, as well.
In another book I am reading, which is not quite as partisan, “The Splintering of the American Mind” by William Eggington, a belief of T. S. Eliot’s, regarding the way we currently assess literature is quoted. The quote could just as easily be applied to the way we teach and make decisions today.
According to Egginton: Eliot did not think that the “criterion in selecting authors was gender or the color of their skin”. He believed what should be considered was what made a great work great. He believed it was the ability to encourage “communities to embrace new identities”, to explore “differences with as many of his fellows as possible, in the common pursuit of true judgment.”
Unfortunately, today, conversation and opposing views are discouraged. Meacham has deliberately cherry-picked an abundance of quotes (too many, because they almost negate the idea that he wrote the book; rather, it seems like the sources did since almost every sentence requires a footnote), to support his particular point of view. I did not expect this highly respected author to present so one-sided and unfair a view of our history and our “better angels”. Almost entirely, he ignored the warts of the left and went on to explode those of the right into tumors, tumors depicted as if they were just waiting to swallow America up in hate. It is as if Meacham decided on the premise of the book and then set out to find the quotes that would prove his point. He does not present the obstruction that is coming from his “better angels” in the past and the present day. Perhaps he believes that he and his ilk are the “better angels”, but to me, he did not present an accurate version of the truth.
*I have both print and audio version
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