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In “The Soul of America,” Jon Meacham encourages readers to be “the better angels”

Steve Yount, a senior fellow with the Denison Forum, is a former newspaper editor and public-relations executive working with Christian ministries.

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The US Capitol building with luminous blue skies and white clouds
© jovannig/stock.adobe.com

For everyone, Republican or Democrat, concerned about America’s future, historian Jon Meacham has words of encouragement. 

His book The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels is as timely as it was when it was published in 2018. After the disputed presidential election and the riot at the Capitol, it may be even more timely. 

“There’s a natural tendency in American political life to think that things were always better in the past,” Meacham writes in the introduction. “The passions of previous years fade, to be inevitably replaced by the passions of the present. Nostalgia is a powerful force, and in the maelstrom of the moment many of us seek comfort in imagining that once there was a Camelot – without quite remembering that the Arthurian legend itself was about a court riven by ambition and infidelity. One point of this book is to remind us that imperfection is the rule, not the exception.” 

If the disputed election seemed unprecedented, Meacham reminds us that the presidential election of 1876 was also disputed, with Rutherford B. Hayes ultimately declared the winner in the electoral vote, 185–184, over Samuel J. Tilden. 

And if the domestic insurrection at the Capitol also seemed unprecedented—it was—Meacham informs us that a group of Wall Street businessmen plotted to overthrow President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s government in 1933. The conspiracy fell apart when FBI director J. Edgar Hoover got wind of it. 

The battle for the soul of America 

Meacham looks at six different eras, beginning with the period after the Civil War and ending with the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson, to measure the reality of American life against the ideal espoused in the Declaration of Independence, that all men are created equal. Meacham views this as the essence of the American soul. 

The hope in every era has been that our better angels will win out, a reference to Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address, when he appealed to “the better angels of our nature” in a vain hope to avoid a civil war. 

Meacham, an Episcopalian and the canon historian at the National Cathedral, makes clear his understanding of the fallen nature of humanity. He said in a recent TV interview that he disagrees with President Joe Biden when he says, “This is not who we are” when something he considers outrageous happens. History is on Meacham’s side. 

The prosperity of the 1950s was marred by the smear tactics of Sen. Joe McCarthy, the civil rights advances of the 1960s by segregationists like presidential candidate George Wallace, to give just two examples. 

“The story of America is thus one of slow, often unsteady steps forward,” Meacham writes. “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.” 

Meacham recommends that “those with deep concerns about the nation’s future” do the following: 

  • Enter the arena.
  • Resist tribalism.
  • Respect facts and deploy reason.
  • Find a critical balance (recognizing that one side rarely has a monopoly on righteousness).
  • Keep history in mind.

If you do those things, you’ll be on the side of “the better angels.”