I recently read the book of Pulitzer Prize winner John Meacham, The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels. The author refers to the first inaugural address of Abraham Lincoln. He spoke to a divided nation about the “the better angels of our nature.” The author contends that throughout American history, presidential leadership and citizen activism have overcome “hours in which the politics of fear were prevalent” to “lift us to higher ground,” particularly in relation to civil rights. Meacham provides a sturdy history of this steady but halting progress, primarily through the prism of presidential leadership. Thus, while Ulysses S. Grant effectively cracked down on the Ku Klux Klan, the post-1877 years featured the rise of Jim Crow and a renewed disenfranchisement of black voters. Theodore Roosevelt invited Booker T. Washington to dine at the White House and resisted pressure to remove a black female postmaster in Mississippi, yet he “shared the dream of Anglo-Saxon imperialism” and held “ideas of racial superiority.” Indeed, it was not until the 1960s that President Lyndon Johnson’s relentless advocacy and Martin Luther King Jr.’s courage combined to help secure the civil and voting rights of all Americans. Clearly, Meacham hopes that the struggles of the past will inspire readers to contend for America’s soul by resisting the modern-day forces of fear and bigotry in the persona of Donald Trump and his supporters.
The author’s historical analysis reviews how situations like Charlottesville have been going on intermittently since the country’s formation, though as long as Trump is president, Meacham believes we should expect fear-driven demons to attempt to increase their influence upon our society.
Who has the power to prevail over such demons? Better angels, of course, guided by their hopes of inclusion, social justice, and the flourishing of the masses.
As summarized by Meacham, American history is the story of slow, painful progress — two steps forward (when better angels drive the train) and one step back (when demons have their day). In bad times, it’s vice versa.
The road to reform is often treacherous, and Meacham accurately describes American politics as „an uneven symphony,“ because people’s consciousness almost never elevates simultaneously, which results in serious disharmony.
The author’s focus on the historical struggle between good guys and bad guys naturally centers around the presidency. That’s where the power is, and it’s also the federal government’s only elected position where the officeholder’s constituency is not his district or state, but the whole country.
Over time, the leaders of fear-driven forces during their eras — people like John C. Calhoun, Jefferson Davis, Andrew Johnson, Huey Long, Joseph McCarthy, Strom Thurmond, and George Wallace — all had their days of influence for a while but were ultimately pushed out of power by presidents Andrew Jackson, Lincoln, Ulysses Grant, Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, and Lyndon Johnson, respectively, who each had his own sustained angelic period.
Rising above all presidents in stature, of course, is standard-bearer Lincoln, the man who restored the Union, abolished slavery, and demonstrated such clear vision and execution as commander-in-chief that his performance prompted Theodore Roosevelt to realize that the best strategy for doing a good job in the Oval Office was to keep asking and answering the question: „What would Abraham Lincoln do?“
Until Trump’s entry into the Oval Office in 2017, better-angel presidents have usually defeated their antagonists and kept the country moving forward in spite of obstacles, some of which they brought on themselves. Jackson’s blind spot was his racism; Grant’s was choosing corrupt lieutenants for important positions in his administration; FDR’s, his internment of Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor; and LBJ’s, his dishonest mishandling of Vietnam.
After reviewing history’s low and high points, Meacham ends the book by bringing the reader back to the present, hoping the lessons he’s provided from the past can clean our windshield, allow us to see the road that lies ahead, and hopefully produce a better, safer drive going forward.
Civic engagement is asked now, it`s as the author says „The First Duty of an American Citizen.“ Even though the demon seems strong at the moment, the better angels will prevail.