The Soul of America comes at a time when political fury is ablaze, and Americans feel an overwhelming sense of division. Notable historian Jon Meacham carries with him a hopeful disposition in the face of all this, finding evidence for it in the many deeds of courageous Americans. Weaving seamlessly a pragmatic and intellectual tone with applicable facts, quotes, and examples, The Soul of America illustrates the country’s many spells of political polarization, providing insight as to how Americans can and will manage to overcome divisive times by relating past to present, meanwhile encapsulating the powerful and timeless dynamic between president and people.
Throughout this work, Meacham walks us through the Civil War, the establishment of the Ku Klux Klan, the McCarthy hearings, the Civil Rights Act, and the Voting Rights Act, among others; all being significant points of disunity in American history. He establishes clear links between these points, the leaders and citizen activists involved in untangling them, and the resolutions, signaling that we as a nation always eventually right ourselves no matter how dire and disheartening the contention.
The fear of Communism throughout the 1940s and 50s, for example, was an unnerving and alarming time for many American citizens. Joseph McCarthy, known for McCarthyism and the McCarthy hearings, used the media to exploit fears about Communism, “keeping himself at center stage” by employing “false charges… conspiracy- tinged rhetoric,” and “calculated disrespect for conventional figures.” (185) Meacham argues that political fear is “destabilizing,” “more emotional rather than rational,” and that people fall into it because they feel their “security, happiness, prosperity, or sense of self” is being threatened.
(15-16) Eventually, McCarthy’s immediate influence came to an end when Senate censured McCarthy, despite some residual loyalty from his supporters. This outcome is likely due in part to his “erratic performance” during the hearings, but Meacham argues further that McCarthy’s “urge to overstate, to dramatize” and “to dominate the news” costed him. (202-203)
As a reader, this reminds us that the current moment is not all that unique in terms of sensationalism, pandering to the media, and playing on trepidation. This example is one of many throughout The Soul of America that illustrates the deviation from solidarity but our eventual correction of it. Jon Meachcostam conveys the relationship between the presidency and fellow Americans, arguing that the president plays a large role in our unity as a country. Early on, Meacham states that the “president sets a tone for the nation and helps tailor habits of heart and mind,” and that building a “freer, stronger nation” requires a one who possesses a “temperamental disposition to speak to the country’s hopes rather than its fears.” (11-13) Theodore Roosevelt’s time in office was pivotal in terms of reform, workplace conditions, anxiety about immigrants, and racial superiority. (83) While it is true, Meacham argues, that TR cannot be summarized as a hero of diversity in America due to some semblance of Anglo-Saxon superiority in his mind, he was a symbol of progressiveness, due to his actions and early “revulsion of capitalist excesses of an industrializing America.” (78) It can gleam that Theodore Roosevelt paid attention to the demands and concerns of Americans who performed “innumerable acts of citizenship and private grace,” as Meacham believes is required for building a “better, fairer way of life.” (11) The author henceforth illustrates TR’s relationship to Jacob Riis, having been moved by his book detailing horrid workplace conditions; having read it, the president was motivated to enact policies that would combat said conditions, business monopolies, and corruption. The president also invited Booker T. Washington to a formal dinner at the White House to “talk over his work,” according to Roosevelt himself. Lastly, Meacham points out Roosevelt’s relationship and correspondence with Jane Addams and his fondness for her work, particularly that of women’s suffrage. (79-92) These points are made by the author to showcase how the attitude and approach of a president can effect change across the board, with Americans doing their part to control the strings.
Initially, having read the introduction to The Soul of America, I felt that perhaps Meacham was too optimistic in his conviction to prove a substantial point that the current political climate would come and pass – that this is something Americans can overcome. Meacham’s inundation of quotes from private conversations as well as speeches from figures whom I had little to no previous knowledge of, provided a great amount of evidence for a hopeful disposition on Meacham’s part. This, henceforth, is a reflection on his ability to truly connect past to present, as I, myself, was not able to effectively do before having read the work.
The Soul of America is structured in a way that reads like separate essays, each unpacking a new yet familiar way of perceiving American political history. Meacham is moreover extremely well-researched, as his large Notes compendium provides for a sense of reliability throughout the reading.
Establishing the parallel between America’s past and the nation’s current discord, as well as between the work of citizens and the temperament and openness of the president, Jon Meacham substantiates a future that Americans can look forward to. The battle for our better angels is a long and wavering one, but Meacham illuminates that the soul of America will continue.