I just got around to reading Jon Meacham’s best-selling book ‘The Soul of America.’ Like most non-fiction books, the title is intended to get your attention and the subtitle tells you what it’s about: ‘The Battle for Our Better Angels.’
Meacham is a left-leaning editor and presidential historian. So, I expected to get some moralizing about the current resident of the White House. But I didn’t get it. There were a few swipes at him in the introduction and the first chapter. That was just to set the tone for what followed.
Meacham lays out a history of the United States as we have made progress on racial justice by consistently overcoming a tribal fear of “the other.” The story he tells - mostly through presidential history - reveals the complexity of presidents who had the political courage and the moral leadership to enact laws, enforce court orders and espouse a moral philosophy consistent with that of our founders.
He does so while pointing out the moral failures of those same presidents. Harry Truman used racial slurs in private but wrote to Congress in 1948 about our belief that “all men are created equal and that they have the right to equal just under the law.” He faced down the inevitable backlash from Southern Democrats saying, “I’m everybody’s president.”
Teddy Roosevelt (TR) was the first president to invite a person of color – Booker T. Washington – to dinner at the White House. He later recalled, “the very fact that I felt a moment’s qualm on inviting him because of his color made me ashamed of myself…” And, yet, he worried that low birth rates among the “best people” (the English-speaking, white population) might lead to “race suicide.”
The two-steps-forward-one-step-back struggle for racial equality and acceptance of immigrants has always been a study in contrasts. Initial reforms under TR and Woodrow Wilson were “plagued by theories of racial superiority and fears of the ‘other.’” FDR rescued capitalism and “redefined the role of the state to lift up the weakest among us” but interned “innocent Americans of Japanese descent.”
Meacham spends more time discussing the courage and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. and President Lyndon Johnson than other chapter of our history. Paying scant attention to the failure of the Vietnam War and the five decade long failure of his Great Society, he paints LBJ as a hero of the same stature as Lincoln. And, indeed he was. Despite my distaste for LBJ who lied us into a war we should never have fought, I gained a new appreciation for his moral and political courage. Like Truman, LBJ was a Southern Democrat whose moral sense overcame his background. He relentlessly advocated that we as a nation rise above racism, saying, “whatever your views are, we have a Constitution and we have a Bill of Rights, and we have the law of the land, and two-thirds of the Democrats in the Senate voted for [The Civil Rights Bill of 1964] and three-fourths of the Republicans… I signed it, and I am going to enforce it…”
Meacham closes his book thusly:
“For all of our darker impulses, for all of our shortcomings, and for all of the dreams denied and deferred, the [American] experiment begun so long ago, carried out so imperfectly, is worth the fight. There is, in fact, no struggle more important, and none nobler, than the one we wage in the service of those better angels who, however besieged, are always ready for battle.”
WHO WILL LEAD?