Review of: The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels, by Jon Meacham

Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

That is the closing passage of Abraham Lincoln’s First Inaugural.  When he delivered it, March 4, 1861, seven states had already seceded from the Union, and the first shots fired in the Civil War were scarcely more than a month away. The sesquicentennial of that bloody sectional conflict has come and gone, and yet these days it often feels as if we are on the threshold of yet another civil war, one that defies geography. In June 2018, as this review goes to press, approximately forty percent of Americans support President Donald Trump and his radical “America First” agenda that is refashioning the country. More than fifty percent disapprove, but a far more chilling reality is that a sizeable segment of this second group step beyond dissatisfaction to assert that this President represents an existential threat to the Republic, its democratic institutions, and its core values. Noted presidential historian Jon Meacham—his biography of Andrew Jackson won the Pulitzer Prize—speaks with sympathy to that latter sector but strikes a note of perhaps unexpected optimism, borrowing not only the words but the enduring spirit of Lincoln for the subtitle of his most recent work, The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels.

Some Americans recall the nation’s past as a glorious progression that expanded the boundaries of liberty at home, while spending blood and treasure abroad to make the world safe for democracy and to protect human rights. Others would instead point to the incongruity of a republic founded upon principles of freedom and equality that was constructed upon a brutal foundation of African human chattel slavery and the extermination of Native Americans, a country that while championing liberty wielded military might to trample on weaker nations in wars of expansion and foreign domination. Which of these visions of American history is correct?  A historian will tell you that the correct answer is neither and both. The fact is that the United States has been a centuries old work-in-progress that can claim glorious accomplishments and shameful blemishes, from a Constitution that counted black human beings as three-fifths of a person, to a war that cost hundreds of thousands of lives to free them, to an aftermath that terrorized and dehumanized them; from a national expansion that loudly asserted that the “only good Indian is a dead Indian,” to a modern mission to establish equality for all; from a nation that used gunships and artillery to take what it wanted wherever it roamed, to one that literally rescued the world from the forces of totalitarians on both ends of the globe and then helped rebuild a shattered planet upon notions of democracy, decency and human rights; from a nation that used hapless populations in the third world to fight proxy wars with little concern for what commonly was dismissed as “collateral damage,” to one that helped bring a tense and dangerous Cold War to a close without a shot being fired. This is a nation that stood consistently and courageously against the forces of darkness, even as it often fell short of its own ideals, a nation that liberated African Americans slaves shackled to plantations in the 1860s and the skeletal husks of Jews barely clinging to life in Nazi concentration camps in 1940s—that in the spring of 2018 shamelessly presided over a policy of ripping the children of desperate refugees away from their parents and warehousing them in an abandoned Walmart. Neither and both. Both and neither. There is a truth to the dichotomy that can at once spark inspiration as well as revulsion.

Jon Meacham, who makes no secret of his horror and disdain of President Trump, nevertheless brings the nuance and complexity of a skilled historian to bear in The Soul of America, juxtaposing grand achievements with shameful episodes. The struggle for equality for African Americans is front and center in much of the narrative. It was, of course, the great failure of the Founders to resolve the contradiction of human chattel slavery with a republic based upon principles of equality. Americans have frequently been praised for their ability to compromise, but some issues cannot or should not succumb to compromise. The “Three-Fifths Rule” should have been a bellwether that the union was doomed to fracture one day.

The North did not at first fight to free the slaves—that cause came later—but the South certainly went to war to perpetuate slavery, as is made manifest in the founding documents of the Confederacy. The Civil War that led to abolition at Appomattox was a terrible tragedy, but—as Meacham reminds us—perhaps even greater tragedy loomed ahead, when in the wake of Lincoln’s murder, the new President, Andrew Johnson, proved far less friendly to the cause of millions of newly freed slaves, and far more favorable to the interests of defeated ex-Confederates. Reconstruction was stymied and hopes for civil rights advanced by Radical Republicans in Congress were dashed as black codes were enacted, the Ku Klux Klan and other militant white supremacists murdered and terrorized African Americans across the defeated south, and former Confederate military and political elites came to dominate elected offices in states readmitted to the Union. Constitutional amendments guaranteeing voting rights and equality ended up as grand words on paper with little meaning on the ground. Once in the White House, Ulysses S. Grant sought to right emerging wrongs, but he proved a much poorer President than general. His successor, Rutherford B. Hayes, cut a deal to win election that ended Reconstruction and left African American rights dangling. A national reconciliation ensued that came to ignore millions of freed slaves—the human element of the central cause for the war. In a great irony, the South lost the war, but won the peace.

Decades later, in a baby step forward, Theodore Roosevelt had Booker T. Washington to lunch at the White House—which provoked such loud condemnation that he never dared to repeat it. In a larger step backwards, in that same White House, Woodrow Wilson screened the virulently racist film Birth of a Nation, and in the same era the Klan was reborn anew. T.R.’s favorite niece Eleanor defied “polite society” when, as First Lady, she brought black opera singer Marian Anderson to perform at the Lincoln Memorial, although her husband Franklin Roosevelt was too preoccupied with economic depression and war to further advance the rights of African Americans. His successor Harry Truman desegregated the United States military, but the next Chief Executive, Dwight Eisenhower, largely ignored the plight of blacks in postwar America. John F. Kennedy demonstrated far more sympathy, but put international crises first in his brief tenure, postponing real progress. After his assassination, it was Lyndon Johnson who served as unlikely agent to figuratively drive the bus on comprehensive civil rights legislation so that blacks would not ever again be forced to the backs of actual buses. JFK’s brother Robert Kennedy predicted that a black man could become President within forty years—which turned out to be only slightly off the mark when Barack Obama was inaugurated in 2009. This seemed to be a promise fulfilled, but it was his successor, Donald Trump, who famously declared in Charlottesville in 2017 that there were “very fine people on both sides,” when one of the sides—defending monuments erected to celebrate white supremacy—was represented by a legion of Nazis and Klan members waving Confederate flags. All roads lead to Charlottesville; all roads also lead back to Appomattox.

Other chapters in The Soul of America look beyond the African American struggle to triumphs in the growth of progressivism, the right to vote for women, the social and economic miracle of postwar America—as well as the ignominies of the Red Scare, the original 1930s racist and xenophobic “America First” movement, and the cancer of McCarthyism.  Often evident in this is a familiar refrain of “one step forward, two steps back.” Neither and both. Both and neither. Appomattox and Charlottesville. There is much to cheer about, and much to make you flinch. A cynic could find a good deal to dwell upon, but Meacham is an eternal optimist.  His thesis is that the United States remains that active work-in-progress; that despite the sometimes-disgraceful swerves to extremism, the American center always holds, that justice eventually prevails. Meacham rightly condemns that which “Trumpism” represents, but reassures us that it is not likely to persist, that “our better angels” always reassert themselves. I truly want to believe this, while I yet cannot overlook the fact that only weeks after Lincoln first bespoke that phrase, a shooting war erupted.


Author: stanprager

Book nerd, computer geek, rock music fan, dogmatic skeptic.

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