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The Soul of America
Cover of The Soul of America
The Soul of America
The Battle for Our Better Angels
#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
  • Pulitzer Prize–winning author Jon Meacham helps us understand the present moment in American politics and life by looking back at critical times in our history when hope overcame division and fear.
    NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY NPR
    Our current climate of partisan fury is not new, and in The Soul of America Meacham shows us how what Abraham Lincoln called the "better angels of our nature" have repeatedly won the day. Painting surprising portraits of Lincoln and other presidents, including Ulysses S. Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, and Lyndon B. Johnson, and illuminating the courage of such influential citizen activists as Martin Luther King, Jr., early suffragettes Alice Paul and Carrie Chapman Catt, civil rights pioneers Rosa Parks and John Lewis, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and Army-McCarthy hearings lawyer Joseph N. Welch, Meacham brings vividly to life turning points in American history. He writes about the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the birth of the Lost Cause; the backlash against immigrants in the First World War and the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s; the fight for women's rights; the demagoguery of Huey Long and Father Coughlin and the isolationist work of America First in the years before World War II; the anti-Communist witch-hunts led by Senator Joseph McCarthy; and Lyndon Johnson's crusade against Jim Crow. Each of these dramatic hours in our national life have been shaped by the contest to lead the country to look forward rather than back, to assert hope over fear—a struggle that continues even now.
    While the American story has not always—or even often—been heroic, we have been sustained by a belief in progress even in the gloomiest of times. In this inspiring book, Meacham reassures us, "The good news is that we have come through such darkness before"—as, time and again, Lincoln's better angels have found a way to prevail.

    Praise for The Soul of America

    "Appalled by the ascendancy of Donald J. Trump, and shaken by the deadly white nationalist rallies in Charlottesville in 2017, Meacham returns to other moments in our history when fear and division seemed rampant. He wants to remind us that the current political turmoil is not unprecedented, that as a nation we have survived times worse than this. . . . Meacham tries to summon the better angels by looking back at when America truly has been great. He is effective as ever at writing history for a broad readership."The New York Times Book Review
    "This is a brilliant, fascinating, timely, and above all profoundly important book."—Walter Isaacson
  • #1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
  • Pulitzer Prize–winning author Jon Meacham helps us understand the present moment in American politics and life by looking back at critical times in our history when hope overcame division and fear.
    NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY NPR
    Our current climate of partisan fury is not new, and in The Soul of America Meacham shows us how what Abraham Lincoln called the "better angels of our nature" have repeatedly won the day. Painting surprising portraits of Lincoln and other presidents, including Ulysses S. Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, and Lyndon B. Johnson, and illuminating the courage of such influential citizen activists as Martin Luther King, Jr., early suffragettes Alice Paul and Carrie Chapman Catt, civil rights pioneers Rosa Parks and John Lewis, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and Army-McCarthy hearings lawyer Joseph N. Welch, Meacham brings vividly to life turning points in American history. He writes about the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the birth of the Lost Cause; the backlash against immigrants in the First World War and the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s; the fight for women's rights; the demagoguery of Huey Long and Father Coughlin and the isolationist work of America First in the years before World War II; the anti-Communist witch-hunts led by Senator Joseph McCarthy; and Lyndon Johnson's crusade against Jim Crow. Each of these dramatic hours in our national life have been shaped by the contest to lead the country to look forward rather than back, to assert hope over fear—a struggle that continues even now.
    While the American story has not always—or even often—been heroic, we have been sustained by a belief in progress even in the gloomiest of times. In this inspiring book, Meacham reassures us, "The good news is that we have come through such darkness before"—as, time and again, Lincoln's better angels have found a way to prevail.

    Praise for The Soul of America

    "Appalled by the ascendancy of Donald J. Trump, and shaken by the deadly white nationalist rallies in Charlottesville in 2017, Meacham returns to other moments in our history when fear and division seemed rampant. He wants to remind us that the current political turmoil is not unprecedented, that as a nation we have survived times worse than this. . . . Meacham tries to summon the better angels by looking back at when America truly has been great. He is effective as ever at writing history for a broad readership."The New York Times Book Review
    "This is a brilliant, fascinating, timely, and above all profoundly important book."—Walter Isaacson
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    Excerpts-
    • From the book one

      The Confidence of the Whole People

      Visions of the Presidency, the Ideas of Progress and Prosperity, and "We, the People"

      Energy in the Executive is a leading character in the definition of good government. —Alexander Hamilton, The New-York Packet, Tuesday, March 18, 1788

      I think that 'twixt the negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon. —Words popularly attributed to Sojourner Truth, the Woman's Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, 1851

      Dreams of God and of gold (not necessarily in that order) made America possible. The First Charter of Virginia—the 1606 document that authorized the founding of Jamestown—is 3,805 words long. Ninety-eight of them are about carrying religion to "such People, as yet live in Darkness and miserable Ignorance of the true Knowledge and Worship of God"; the other 3,707 words in the charter concern the taking of "all the Lands, Woods, Soil, Grounds, Havens, Ports, Rivers, Mines, Minerals, Marshes, Waters, Fishings, Commodities," as well as orders to "dig, mine, and search for all Manner of Mines of Gold, Silver, and Copper."

      Explorers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries sought riches; religious dissenters came seeking freedom of worship. In 1630, the Puritan John Winthrop, who crossed a stormy Atlantic aboard the Arbella, wrote a sermon, "A Model of Christian Charity," that explicitly linked the New World to a religious vision of a New Jerusalem. "For we must consider that we shall be as a City upon a hill," Winthrop said, drawing on Jesus's Sermon on the Mount. (Forever shrewd about visuals, Ronald Reagan added the adjective shining to the image several centuries later.)

      We've always lived with—and perpetuated—fundamental contradiction. In 1619, a Dutch "man of warre" brought about twenty captive Africans—"negars"—to Virginia, the first chapter in the saga of American slavery. European settlers, meanwhile, set about removing Native American populations, setting in motion a tragic chain of events that culminated in the Trail of Tears. And so while whites built and dreamed, people of color were subjugated and exploited by a rising nation that prided itself on the expansion of liberty. Those twin tragedies shaped us then and ever after.

      As did basic facts of geography. There was a breathtaking amount of room to run in the New World. The vastness of the continent, the wondrous frontier, the staggering natural resources: These, combined with a formidable American work ethic, made the pursuit of wealth and happiness more than a full-time proposition. It was a consuming, all-enveloping one.

      For many, birth mattered less than it ever had before. Entitled aristocracies crumbled before natural ones. If you were a white man and willing to work, you stood a chance of transcending the circumstances of your father and his father's father and of joining the great company of "enterprising and self-made men," as Henry Clay put it in 1832.

      The next year, President Andrew Jackson appointed one such man to be postmaster of Salem, Illinois. Though a Whig at the time—Jackson was a Democrat—Abraham Lincoln was happy to accept. His rise from frontier origins became both fable and staple in the American narrative. Lincoln understood the power of his story, for he knew that he embodied broad American hopes. "I happen, temporarily, to occupy this big White House," Lincoln told the 166th Ohio Regiment in the summer of 1864. "I am a living witness that any one of your children may look to come here as my father's child has."

      No understanding of American life and...
    About the Author-
    • Jon Meacham is a Pulitzer Prize–winning biographer. The author of the New York Times bestsellers Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House, Franklin and Winston, Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush, and The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels, he is a distinguished visiting professor at Vanderbilt University, a contributing writer for The New York Times Book Review, and a fellow of the Society of American Historians. Meacham lives in Nashville and in Sewanee with his wife and children.
    Reviews-
    • Publisher's Weekly

      May 7, 2018
      America’s centuries-long struggles about race, gender, and immigration are viewed through the lens of presidential calculation and convictions in this sonorous but shallow study. Vanderbilt historian Meacham (Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power) examines presidential leadership on issues of civil rights and equality, from Ulysses S. Grant’s vigorous action to protect freedmen from Ku Klux Klan attacks during Reconstruction to Lyndon Johnson’s moral and political dynamism in enacting civil rights legislation in the 1960s. In between, he surveys presidential vacillations that mirrored the nation’s contradictory moods: Theodore Roosevelt awkwardly married white supremacism with progressive stances on race and women’s suffrage; Franklin Roosevelt defended democratic values against fascism but allowed the racist internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II; Eisenhower was largely missing in action in the fight against Joe McCarthy’s inflaming of anti-foreign sentiment. Meacham’s gracefully written historical vignettes don’t break new scholarly ground, but they do highlight patterns that resonate with today’s controversies over immigration and white nationalism. (In the 1920s, he notes, Klan membership numbered in the millions, and one nativist demagogue called for a “wall of steel” against immigration from southern Europe.) Unfortunately, Meacham’s focus on presidents as moral exemplars and embodiments of America’s political soul feels more like mysticism—and anti-Trump panic—than cogent analysis. Photos.

    • Kirkus

      May 15, 2018
      An esteemed historian and author chronicles America's never-ending fight to live up to her ideals.In his first inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln spoke to a divided nation about the "the better angels of our nature." Lincoln's words failed to prevent civil war, but they serve as a template for the latest book from Pulitzer Prize winner Meacham (Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush, 2015, etc.). The author contends that throughout American history, presidential leadership and citizen activism have overcome "hours in which the politics of fear were prevalent" to "lift us to higher ground," particularly in relation to civil rights. Meacham provides a sturdy history of this steady but halting progress, primarily through the prism of presidential leadership. Thus, while Ulysses S. Grant effectively cracked down on the Ku Klux Klan, the post-1877 years featured the rise of Jim Crow and a renewed disenfranchisement of black voters. Theodore Roosevelt invited Booker T. Washington to dine at the White House and resisted pressure to remove a black female postmaster in Mississippi, yet he "shared the dream of Anglo-Saxon imperialism" and held "ideas of racial superiority." Indeed, it was not until the 1960s that President Lyndon Johnson's relentless advocacy and Martin Luther King Jr.'s courage combined to help secure the civil and voting rights of all Americans. Clearly, Meacham hopes that the struggles of the past will inspire readers to contend for America's soul by resisting the modern-day forces of fear and bigotry in the personae of Donald Trump and his supporters. Yet whether he is criticizing Trump's post-Charlottesville comments or fretting over the influence of the largely irrelevant contemporary Klan, the author is not fully convincing in his argument that Trump poses a dire threat to our hard-won rights and liberty.Meacham ably depicts our nation's struggles to live up to Lincoln's words, but he oversells the notion that the fruits of past efforts are at risk in today's America.

      COPYRIGHT(2018) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

    • Library Journal

      June 1, 2018

      History does not actually repeat itself, but studying how countries have worked through trying times can be reassuring. This is the message that Pulitzer Prize-winning Meacham (political science, Vanderbilt Univ.; American Lion) provides in his exceptional new book. Here, Meacham recalls the struggles the United States has faced, including issues of racism, sexism, war, and pestilence. The author describes how, through what Lincoln famously called "the better angels of our nature," the country has prevailed and tried to move forward in the fervent belief that all Americans deserve guarantees of equality and justice. Using examples of challenging periods in U.S. history, such as Reconstruction, the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, and the anti-Communist witch hunts led by Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s, Meacham helps readers understand that the country has experienced difficulties before and will endure them again. VERDICT An excellent work by a skilled historian and worthy of all library collections.--Ed Goedeken, Iowa State Univ. Lib., Ames

      Copyright 2018 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

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