What did the founders intend to be the heart and soul of our country? In his carefully crafted, sweeping and beautifully written The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels, Pulitzer Prize-winning presidential biographer and historian Jon Meacham finds the answer in the Declaration of Independence: All are created equal, and it is “incumbent on us, from generation to generation, to create a sphere in which we can live, live freely, and pursue happiness to the best of our abilities.” The struggle to be “the better angels of our nature,” in Lincoln’s words, must contend with contrary forces such as the Ku Klux Klan and the Red Scare, which divide rather than unite us in the effort to achieve that vision. Issues of extremism, racism, nativism, isolationism, gender equality and others that we face today are not new. How Americans have addressed such issues in the past gives Meacham reason to be optimistic about our future.
Eleanor Roosevelt wrote shortly before her death, “One thing I believe profoundly: We make our own history.” But it is important that we know and understand what has happened in our collective past, and Meacham explains that past brilliantly. He writes, “Many Americans are less than eager to acknowledge that our national greatness was built on explicit and implicit apartheid.” Even Americans with historical amnesia cannot refute Meacham’s rigorously documented text.
Reformers and citizen activists can wield great influence, but the leadership of the president is crucial. As Franklin Delano Roosevelt noted during the 1932 campaign, “The presidency is not merely an administrative office. That’s the least of it . . . it is pre-eminently a place of moral leadership.” Meacham says he wrote this book “not because the past American presidents have always been right, but because the incumbent American president is so often wrong.”
The better presidents and many others, such as Martin Luther King Jr., do not give in to the mentality that would use hate and fear and sometimes violence to achieve their ends. Instead, “they conquer them with a breadth of vision that speaks to the best parts of our soul.” The compelling narratives presented here show that, despite tremendous pressure to surrender to the forces of division, we can all work to achieve the founders’ vision. This insightful and reader-friendly book should be widely read and discussed.