7 min read ⌚
The Battle for Our Better Angels
“The Soul of America” is a battlefield.
And currently Fear is winning.
Read with us Jon Meacham’s history of the United States.
Because Hope really needs some help.
Who Should Read “The Soul of America”? And Why?
There’s no better way to understand the present than to learn all about the past.
That’s the basic premise of Jon Meacham’s book and the main reason why you should read it: it concerns you directly.
No, this is not just one more book about those interested in politics or the history of the United States.
This is a book about all those interested in what it means to be an American.
About Jon Meacham
Jon Ellis Meacham is an American presidential biographer and a Pulitzer Prize-winning author.
A former Executive Editor at Random House and Editor-in-Chief of “Newsweek,” Meacham is also a contributing writer to “The New York Times” Book Review and a contributing editor to “Time” magazine.
He has authored several best-selling books, the most famous of which is “American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House” which won him the “Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography” in 2009.
“The Soul of America PDF Summary”
The story of America has been told and retold numerous times.
The only valid reason for recounting it once again may be to find some meaning in it, and, through that, to make some sense of the present.
After all, unless we find a satisfying answer to the question “how the hell did that happen?” we may not be able to go on existing as a united country.
And “United” is part of our name!
Burdened with feelings similar to the above, Jon Meacham decided to try and find the meaning of America’s past in the ongoing battle of two primal human feelings: hope and fear.
In order to shatter the latter, and further the former.
Because “no passion” – to quote Edmund Burke – “so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear.”
Or to put that in more recent pop-culture terms, once fear descends upon a neighborhood, the monsters are due on Maple Street!
On the other side of that same spectrum is hope, “the expectation of good fortune not only for ourselves but for the group to which we belong.”
Meacham further compares the two:
Fear feeds anxiety and produces anger; hope, particularly in a political sense, breeds optimism and feelings of well-being. Fear is about limits; hope is about growth. Fear casts its eyes warily, even shiftily, across the landscape; hope looks forward, toward the horizon. Fear points at others, assigning blame; hope points ahead, working for a common good. Fear pushes away; hope pulls others closer. Fear divides; hope unifies.
In a nutshell, fear communicates with our worst impulses, and hope brings out the best of us.
Unfortunately, since both are deeply rooted within the human soul, you can win elections by appealing to either.
If you want to be a good President – Harry Truman once said – it is important to appeal to America’s best instincts, not its worst.
That is why, on March 4, 1861, in his first inaugural address given just a month before the commencement of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln asked the American people to act upon “the better angels of [their] nature.”
He knew what will happen.
And he could have used it to his own benefit: “divide and conquer” is a common political principle ever since Philip II of Macedon.
Instead, he chose to speak of unification.
The Civil War had barely ended when Virginian journalist Edward Alfred Pollard published “The Lost Cause,” calling for Southerners to refuse to yield to the demands of Washington and transfer the war for white supremacy from the battlefields to the political arenas.
When Andrew Johnson withdrew the federal troops from the South, this urge turned into a nightmarish reality for the black population of the Southern States.
Ulysses S. Grant brought some order afterward, but Rutherford B. Hayes, though a staunch abolitionist, seems to have cared much more for the Southern voters than for the Southern African Americans and things were, once again, as they had been before.
Theodore Roosevelt, an admirer of Israel Zangwill’s play “The Melting Pot,” influenced by its comparison between America and an alchemist’s pot, changed that once again – and for the better!
However, the hope he instilled in the American people would soon shatter into smithereens – and all because of a book and a movie.
Namely, in 1905, Southern Baptist minister Thomas Frederick Dixon, Jr. published his novel “The Clansmen” which America’s greatest movie director, D. W. Griffith decided to adapt for the screen a decade later in “The Birth of a Nation.”
Both of these works glorified the deeds of, by then, the largely non-existent Ku Klux Klan, which reformed as a much more powerful and vicious organization in 1915.
Two years later America went into war, and when the Great Depression hit the United States, hope was all but a forgotten thought and fear reigned supreme.
Huey Long, a Trump-like populist of the 1930s, tried to use this to advance his career, and Franklin Roosevelt’s hopeful New Deal was probably the only thing which prevented him from becoming the President and leading America into a far more uncertain future.
Not that the one which followed was great:
Even though the Second World War ended with a famous victory which roused not only the American nation but also the world, the specter haunting Europe ever since 1848 will soon come to haunt the United States as well.
And the atmosphere of communist paranoia – exacerbated by the revealing of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg as Soviet spies – will be infamously utilized by one of the most brutal fearmongering politicians in the history of the country, Joseph McCarthy.
The Wisconsin State Senator tried to convince everybody that there is “all-out war between communist atheism and Christianity” and that the better side is losing.
And, until he was finally censored, his smear tactics gained him a lot of points; but they lost the country at least twice as many.
Doesn’t he remind you of anyone?
Key Lessons from “The Soul of America”
1. History Hangs in the Balance of Two Extremes: Fear and Hope
2. We Already Did This: There Were Trumps Before Trump
3. The Audacity of Hope: Five Ways to Fight Fear
History Hangs in the Balance of Two Extremes: Fear and Hope
The message of Martin Luther King, Jr. — writes Jon Meacham – “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. Our fate is contingent upon which element—that of hope or that of fear—emerges triumphant.”
We Already Did This: There Were Trumps Before Trump
If history hangs in the balance between hope and fear, then it’s all but obvious that it is cyclical: periods of hope bring great leaders to power (Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson, the Roosevelts, Truman), but periods of fear are benefitted (and even generated to be benefitted) by fearmongers (KKK, the McCarthys, Trump).
Fear robs you of the power of your rationality – but, as Aristotle says, it doesn’t strike those who are in the midst of great prosperity.
So, be wary of people who speak of fear: they only want to get something out of it.
The Audacity of Hope: Five Ways to Fight Fear
If you want to fight fear, follow these five simple steps:
#1. Participate. Democracy is not perfect, but it’s better when you join in.
#2. Resist. Tribalism is a primal instinct. But it’s a thing of the past. So, stay away from the crowds.
#3. Reason. Facts are facts – and there is no such thing as alternative facts. Respect them.
#4. Balance. The truth is usually in the middle; so hear out both sides of the story.
#5. Read. History tends to repeat itself. In fact, that’s exactly what’s happening at the moment.
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“The Soul of America Quotes”
The story of America is... one of slow, often unsteady steps forward. If we expect the trumpets of a given era to sound unwavering notes, we will be disappointed, for the past tells us that politics is an uneven symphony. Click To Tweet
The war between the ideal and the real, between what’s right and what’s convenient, between the larger good and personal interest is the contest that unfolds in the soul of every American. Click To Tweet
Our Critical Review
One of the foremost biographers of our times, Walter Isaacson, has described “The Soul of America” as “a brilliant, fascinating, timely, and above all profoundly important book.”
And, indeed, it is all of those – and maybe even some more.