A History Book for Our Times

I don’t read many books of history these days, but when I came upon this one at my public library recently, I was intrigued enough by the title to take it out.

I remembered that President Biden had frequently used “the soul of America” as a campaign theme in 2020. It turns out that Biden had read Meacham’s book when it came out in 2018. And interestingly enough, both Biden and Meacham were so appalled by President Trump’s exoneration of the fascist violence in Charlottesville in 2017 that they both had vowed to do something: Meacham to write this book, and Biden to run for president.

Like President Biden, I was raised as a Roman Catholic, and though I left the church many decades ago, I retain a catholic sense of the reality of “soul” as a primary source of meaning and value. We can think of “soul” as the animating principle of not just humans, but every sentient being. Religious people talk about “lost souls”, and this implies beings in whom the animating principle has been diminished, tainted, or grievously misguided.

But how to apply the concept of soul to a nation as a whole? When Biden began using the term “soul of America”, I had only a dim sense of what he was referring to. Reading Meacham’s book has given me a much fuller understanding of its peculiar aptness.

In Meacham’s book, the presence or absence of soul becomes the overarching theme in the highly uneven history of the United States. We can look to Jefferson’s rousing assertion of “all men created equal, endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” as a fundamental animating principle of our nation’s origin. Yet, even from the beginning, the implied universality of “men” was critically limited to white males of certain means. This created an inherent conflict in our identity as a nation that has persisted through our entire history.

Meacham’s book consists mainly of six extended historical essays about seminal events and themes in American history:

1. “The Confidence of the Whole People” — early ideas about the role of the President as the conscience of the nation, focusing on Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln;

2. “The Long Shadow of Appomattox” — how the South’s defeat in the Civil War actually led to its resurgence as a purveyor of institutionalized racism well into the 20th century;

3. “With Soul of Flame and Temper of Steel” — how Theodore Roosevelt used the “bully pulpit” of the presidency to coax the nation towards more progressive social, economic, and environmental policies;

4. “A New and Good Thing in the World” — how progressives and suffragettes pressured Woodrow Wilson towards further democratization, but were then met with a fierce backlash;

5) “The Crisis of the Old Order” — how Franklin Roosevelt ushered in a new political and economic order that saved the nation from falling into authoritarian rule during the Great Depression and World War 2;

6) “What the Hell Is the Presidency For?” — how Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King re-animated the American soul by working together to bring about a radical reorientation of race relations in the 1960’s.

These six chapters are sandwiched between more generalized meditations on American history in an Introduction titled “To Hope Rather Than to Fear” and a Conclusion titled “The First Duty of an American Citizen”.

In his Introduction, Meacham lays out his main thesis: “that periods of public dispiritedness are not new, but that they are survivable. In the best of moments, witness, protest, and resistance can intersect with the leadership of an American president to lift us to higher ground. In darker times, if a particular president fails to advance the national story – or worse, moves us backward – then those who witness, protest, and resist must stand fast, in hope, working toward a better day. Progress in American life, as we will see, has been slow, painful, bloody, and tragic. Across too many generations, women, African Americans, immigrants, and others have been denied the full promise of Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. Yet the journey has gone on, and proceeds even now.”

In his Conclusion, Meacham reminds us: “A tragic element of history is that every advance must contend with forces of reaction.” A key requirement for keeping the soul of America alive is citizen involvement. Meacham quotes from a speech by Republican
President Theodore Roosevelt in which he defines the primary duties of an American citizen. The main requirement is that we each find a way to enter the political arena, at a minimum, by staying informed and voting in every election. In addition, a citizen should look for opportunities to do something practical in the political arena, collaborating with other citizens of like mind. And good citizens should bring to the fore their highest moral and ethical values when engaging in political questions.

After the election of Donald Trump in 2016, many Americans heeded the call to citizen action. My spouse and I were among them, forming a small Indivisible group that has continued to meet every month for the past five years. Our commitment to help resuscitate the soul of America was part of a much larger citizen involvement in politics that helped keep the reactionary forces in check and helped lead to the election of more progressive and “soulful” leaders in 2020 and 2022.

John Bayerl. 1/7/2023