Richard Nisley

book review: "The Soul of America, The Battle for our Better Angels" by Jon Meacham
History - American Released - Dec 15, 2020
Historian Jon Meacham was concerned for our democracy, when in 2016 populist candidate Donald Trump was elected president, particularly after the contentious events in Charlottesville, Virginia in the summer of 2017. To better understand what it meant, Meacham's book looks back at critical times in our nation's history when presidents and citizens came together to overcome forces of anger, intolerance, and extremism. "History," writes Meacham, "shows us that we are frequently vulnerable to fear, bitterness and strife. The good news is that we have come through such darkness before." Meacham's book is essentially a review of the dark-side of American history, from 1776 down to our day, with emphasis on how–despite occasional lapses–our nation always managed to right itself. At 272 pages the book is not overly long, and reads exceedingly well.

From the very beginning slavery was the fault-line that divided our nation. Indeed, a number of compromises were made down through the years to appease the slave-holding South, in order to keep the nation intact. Meanwhile, in the North, slavery gradually disappeared, thanks to an active manumission effort spear-headed by political and religious leaders. Three prominent founders of the new nation–George Washington, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson–were themselves slaveholders, who believed that in time slavery would disappear in the South as it had in the North. However, nothing even remotely resembling a manumission society managed to take root in the South. One of the more famous compromises was the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which prompted Jefferson to confess in a letter to a friend: "This momentous question, like a firebell in the night awakened and filled me with terror. I consider it the knell of the Union."

Despite another compromise (in 1850), "the knell of the Union" that had kept Jefferson up at night, manifested itself in 1860 with the outbreak of the American Civil War.

The goal of the North, which had elected Abraham Lincoln as president, was to end slavery once and for all. Ironically, Lincoln drew on Jefferson's words from the Declaration of Independence that "all men are created equal" in issuing the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. Because it was a wartime measure, more was needed if slaves were to be truly and lastingly free. After the war ended, it came in the form of three amendments to the U.S. Constitution: the 13th Amendment, in 1865, which irrevocably ended slavery; the 14th Amendment, in 1868, which gave full citizenship to former slaves, including all the rights and privileges enjoyed by white Americans; and the 15th Amendment, in 1870, which granted former slaves the right to vote.

Yes, the evil of slavery had ended, but who could have foreseen that it would be replaced by an even greater evil–white supremacy?

The three amendments promised a bright and shiny future for African Americans, but the federal government could not deliver on the promise. During the period of Reconstruction, the federal government sent the U.S. Army to the Southern States to enforce the new laws: elections were held and a few blacks were elected to office. Once Reconstruction ended, the troops were withdrawn, and in the very next election those few elected black office holders were swept from office.

Thus began the Jim Crow era, a period in the Deep South when African Americans were more or less deprived of their basic rights as citizens, particularly the right to vote. If that weren't enough, hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan (formed of white citizens who wore white sheets to hide their identity) gathered under the cover of night to terrorize African American communities as a means of enforcing segregation.

Remarkably, the appeal of the Klan extended outside the Deep South, resulting in a march in the nation's capital in the 1920s. This was the high-water mark for the Klan; after Washington, their reach and influence faded from the national scene.

With the election of reformed-minded presidents in the first half of the 20th century (Theodore Roosevelt, and later Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry Truman) various federal government efforts were made to ensure African American civil rights, particularly voting rights, against stiff opposition from a host of Southern political demagogues, including Huey Long of Louisiana, and Strom Thurmond of South Carolina. Thurmond, in the 1948 presidential election, was so outraged with Truman, that he broke with Truman's Democratic Party to form his own party, the Dixiecrats. Speaking before a large crowd in Charlottesville, Thurmond attacked Truman's civil rights programs, one of which included anti-lynching legislation and protection against racial discrimination in hiring. Such measures, Thurmond thundered, "would undermine the American way of life and outrage the Bill of Rights . . . I want to tell you, ladies and gentlemen, that there's not enough troops in the army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit 'Nigras' into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, into our churches." Thurmond's racist appeal, however, did not extend above the Mason-Dixon line, and Truman was re-elected president.

The fight for civil rights would continue into the 1960s, under the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis, would bear fruit at last, with the civil rights act of 1964, and the voting rights act of 1965. However, as the author points out, voter suppression continues to be a fact of life for African Americans in the Deep South.

Yet another dark side of American history manifested itself in what Meacham calls "the fear of the other"–particularly of Jews, and of immigrants, and of a perceived communist threat within the federal government. Among the demagogues to stir up fear and hatred were Charles Lindberg, in the 1930s (against Jews), and Senator Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin, in the 1950s (making a variety of allegations of Communist infiltration within the State Department–none of which he could prove).

Writes Meaham: "Extremism, racism, and isolationism, driven by fear of the unknown, tends to spike in periods of economic and social stress–a period like our own. Americans today have little trust in government; household incomes lag behind our usual middle-class expectations. The fires of fear in America have found oxygen when broad, seemingly threatening change is afoot. Now, in the second decade of the new century, in the presidency of Donald Trump, the alienated are being mobilized afresh by changing demography, by broadening conceptions of identity, and by an economy that prizes Information Age brains over manufacturing brawn."

Sounding a bit like Strom Thurmond before him, David Duke, a former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, said in Charlottesville in 2017: "We are determined to take our country back . . . We are going to fulfill the promise of Donald Trump. That's what we believe in, that's why we voted for Donald Trump. Because he said he's going to take our country back. And that's what we gotta do."

Take our country back? Back to what? As Meacham points out, there's always been a tendency in American political life to think that things were somehow better in the past. "The passions of the previous years fade, to be inevitably replaced by the passions of the present," says Meacham. "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."

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