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The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels

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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.

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.

372 pages, Kindle Edition

First published May 8, 2018

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About the author

Jon Meacham

20 books2,443 followers
Jon Meacham is the editor of Newsweek, a Pulitzer Prize winning bestselling author and a commentator on politics, history, and religious faith in America.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 2,208 reviews
Profile Image for Bill Kerwin.
Author 1 book81.1k followers
July 13, 2020

”The past is never dead; it is not even past.”—William Faulkner

In August of 2017, after the deadly alt-right march in Charlottesville, Virginia, Time’s editor Nancy Gibbs called up Jon Meacham and asked him if he had any thoughts on the subject. The Pulitzer prize-winning historian—and a son of the South who literally grew up on the Missionary Ridge battlefield—began to reflect on the words of Faulkner quoted above, and how the “American battles over power and race and history” have, “with astonishing regularity,” proven the truth of those words. The initial result of his reflection was “American Hate, a History” (Time, August 17 2017), an exploration of “several different eras” of American history “in which a politics of fear seemed to triumph, at least temporarily, over hope.” Meacham continued to reflect, and “American Hate, a History” became the seed that gave birth to his book The Soul of America.

It has also been said of the past (in a quote attributed to Twain) that history does not repeat itself but it rhymes, and I have never read a book which summons the echos of those rhymes more expertly—and more ominously—than The Soul of America. Meacham is a master of his subject, and if the ground he covers seems familiar (it is), if some chapters seem like reworked essays on individual episodes (they are), and if the extensive use of quotations at times almost overwhelms the author’s clear and elegant prose, then such factors should be seen as only minor faults—if seen as faults at all—for they too contribute to the design of the whole. For Meacham discovers the marvelous rhymes of our history in the familiar stories we (only think we) know, often in apparently unrelated episodes, their connections hidden in the testimony of the people who lived them.

Here are two examples which demonstrate how adept Meacham can be at choosing instances which reveal the rhyming of history.

Joe McCarthy and the press:
When he read coverage he disliked, McCarthy did not keep quiet—he went on the offenseive, singling out specific publications and particular journalists, sometimes at rallies. He particularly hated “The Milwaukee Journal.” . . . To a “Journal” reporter, McCarthy confided: “Off the record, I don’t know that I can cut [the “Journal”’s] profits at all . . . . But if you show a newspaper as unfriendly and having a reason for being antagonistic, you can take the sting out of what it says about you. I think I can convince a lot of people that they can’t believe what they read in the “Journal.”
George Wallace and his crowds:
Wallace brought something intriguing to the modern politics of fear in America: a visceral connection to his crowds, an appeal that confounded elites but gave him a durable base. [He] was “simply more alive than all the others,” a female journalist told the writer Marshall Frady. . . . “You saw those people in that auditorium when he was speaking—you saw their eyes. He made those people feel something real for once in their lives. . . . I couldn’t take my eyes off him, there were all those people screaming. You almost love him, though you know what a little gremlin he actually is.”
Perhaps the best thing about The Soul of America is the way it communicates the character of the person who wrote it, for Jon Meacham himself is an inspiration. Although he is a scholar and a citizen dismayed by recent events, he is also a resilient man who chooses to hope and to act. And because he is a scholar, he finds ample evidence for his hope in the deeds of brave Americans, both in its leaders—Lincoln, the two Roosevelts, FDR, Truman, LBJ—and in the gadflies and agitators who kept those leaders honest: Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Dubois, Alice Paul, Eugene Debs, Eleanor Roosevelt, Margaret Chase Smith, John Lewis, Martin Luther King. Meacham sums it up best himself:
For all of our darker impulses, for all of our shortcomings, and for all of the dreams denied and deferred, the 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.
Profile Image for Elizabeth George.
Author 104 books4,736 followers
June 28, 2018
If there were a six star category, I would give this book six stars. It's a book that should be read by every thinking American who is worried, concerned, or devastated by what is going on and has gone on in our country since Donald Trump was elected President. Yet....this is a hopeful book. Meacham posits that we have been in desperate situations before as a country, and we have survived. He covers everything from the Civil War to the establishment of the Ku Klux Klan to the McCarthy hearings to the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. He explains the nature of the Presidents who were in office during the most trying times in the country's history. In the end, he is more optimistic than I would have thought possible. It's not a difficult book to read, but it is thoroughly researched and written with a compassionate spirit. Really and truly. Everyone should read this book.
Profile Image for Michael Ferro.
Author 2 books210 followers
June 4, 2018
The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels should be required reading for every American in these divisive times. Now more than ever we need to not only recognize just how deep our societal division is, but remember that we have been in times like this before (though it's hard to remember) and come out a stronger nation... well, most of the time.

Of particular interest to me was the study of the mythical "Lost Cause" and the pathos that resulted in the resulting one hundred years of racism and inequality (and very much survives today). Meacham takes a closer look at our internal struggles across the short life of our cherished democracy, from the birth of our nation through McCarthyism and civil rights. There was at least one truly wonderful and enlightening thing about each leader during these time periods (and at least one distressing thing) that can help us comprehend how we move forward.

Sure, America has never been this divided since the Civil War, but thanks to amazing leaders—both presidential and those extraordinary everyday citizens—we have persevered and the American Dream lives on. Sure, Meacham reminds us that we're never likely to have a "perfect" nation, but history is painfully alive—a living thing—and if we'd be remiss to ignore it, and foolish to have to repeat the same mistakes and injustices over and over again.

Sadly obvious throughout this great book is the importance of having an honest, determined, and good-natured leader in times of cultural crisis. And while we certainly do not have that in our current administration, perhaps the light is just around the corner. I admit, I'm not often a "glass half full" type, but Meacham truly does awaken some of the better angels of our nature...
Profile Image for Diane S ☔.
4,685 reviews14k followers
January 3, 2021
I read somewhere that Meacham was helping in writing speeches for Biden and after reading this I can see where the positive messages prevailed. The soul of America, our better Angels, our country under assault from nefarious politics forces, truer than ever even months after the election. Meachams book show the many different times in our history, from Revolutionary times to the present, that our democracy, our nation has been threatened. Yet, we've always prevailed. Interesting reading, loved the voice, but his vision that our better Angels will once again come to the forefront, is more hopeful than I, at present feel. It's a New Year though, and I am trying to be more positive, so I will try.

Good book, a good reminder that this, albeit in different forms, has happened before and our Nation will withstand this current onslaught to our very democracy.
Profile Image for David Eppenstein.
672 reviews160 followers
July 18, 2018
"I've got the the biggest brains, I'm going to be the biggest man in the United States." Sound familiar ? Think you recognize the speaker? I thought so too. I was wrong. The speaker was a man named David Stephenson who was a major leader of the Indiana Ku Klux Klan in the 1920's who was subsequently arrested for kidnapping, rape, and murder of a young woman but was convicted of second degree murder. This book is full of quotes like this from historic figures we will all recognize as well as many people whose deeds and words have been lost to history but resurrected by Mr. Meacham to serve a purpose greatly needed at present. That need is to demonstrate how knowing and understanding history helps us cope with the issues and crises of our present. No book in my memory has served a better or more needed function.

To achieve his goal Mr. Meacham has taken an assortment of divisive issues and events in our history and examined them and the people either associated with these issues or those charged with dealing and resolving these matters. He examines the history surrounding the event and what forces were exerted to make it so volatile and divisive and then how the issue was either treated or not treated and why. While reading this book I was put in mind of JFK's "Profiles in Courage" as the format is very similar but this book's treatment of its subject is far more detailed and of much greater depth. The issues covered and the personalities considered are hardly surprising but I admit I came away with different understandings of some of the historic figures I thought I knew. Meacham quotes liberally from a variety of sources to reveal much more than the public face of a given figure and the inclusion of numerous private conversations is immensely helpful in this regard. There is much to recommend this book and its need is sorely felt in our present political atmosphere. It is a relatively short book at only 272 pages of text but its message is clear and easily understood. If that wasn't sufficient, however, Mr. Meacham ends his book with a concluding chapter of what we, the voters, can do to find "Our Better Angels". The only sad conclusion one can reach after reading this book is that most, maybe all, of the issues examined still divide us. What that means is that neither the voters nor the people they vote for know enough about our history to keep us from constantly repeating our mistakes. In order to get passed our history we must first understand and deal with it and we must do that as one people.
Profile Image for Faith.
1,799 reviews479 followers
December 15, 2020
This author is considerably more hopeful and inspirational about the current state of our country than many of the books I have read recently. I hope that he is correct that leaders of character will emerge to appeal to our better natures, but they certainly aren't emerging in the White House or Congress at the moment. He examines many times in which we have been tested and actually managed to survive the test and make things better for people, rather than taking giant steps backwards.

The book covers a wide range of people and topics, including Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Joseph McCarthy, segregation, the KKK, both Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, George Wallace, Ronald Reagan and Martin Luther King, Jr. Many of these people took unpopular positions, sometimes contrary to their own prejudices, in order to do what they believed was right for all of the people of this country. I love it when a book both teaches me something that I didn't know and makes me want to learn more. For example, I had always assumed that Lyndon Johnson had promoted civil rights legislation reluctantly, but maybe he really did believe in what he was doing, so now I need to read more about him. I thought this book was informative, extensively researched and well written.
Profile Image for HBalikov.
1,691 reviews629 followers
January 25, 2019
It is time to put The Soul of America on the shelf for a while. I keep on coming back to sections such as his discussion of the iterations of the KKK. Meacham is a fine historian and this may be his finest ever. IT IS THE BEST BOOK THAT I READ IN 2018. He can acknowledge where we have fallen short but describes with precision and passion what brought us back from disaster as a democracy.

I have delved into Fire and Fury, Fear (by Woodward) and Comey’s book. I find no further need to plumb the depths of our Fearless Leader’s soul. But, having said that, doing the same for the USA’s soul holds some attraction.

Journalists almost always have to have a focus on the immediate, providing facts and context so we can understand the events of the day. Historians can cast their nets wider.

I greatly appreciated Meacham’s approach. He uses a substantial amount of original source material to provide insights into what people of each particular time were thinking whether we are discussing the “Founding Fathers” thoughts about foreign influence or those post-Civil War about “freed men” or those post-World War One about the “Red Scare” or during the 1930s about “foreign entanglements,” etc.

The combination of "high concept" and original sources makes this well worth reading.
Profile Image for J.L.   Sutton.
650 reviews825 followers
April 1, 2020
Blog | Professional Public Speakers | Motivational Business ...

In The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels, Jon Meachum explores dark partisan divides in the U.S. including the Civil War/Reconstruction (and birth of the 'Lost Cause'), iterations of the Ku Klux Klan, McCarthyism as well as the forces that gathered to fight the Civil Rights movement. Meachum's thesis is that courage and decency (Abraham Lincoln's 'better angels of our nature') will win the day. With great research and a well-crafted narrative, Meachum further argues that progress in the United States has consistently met with reactionary setbacks.

Besides a wealth of examples in which leaders have stepped up and moved beyond the demagoguery of the moment, the implicit takeaway is that the U.S. will come together, will survive the darkness that threatens the country. "The good news," writes Meachum "is that we have come through such darkness before." This optimistic tone is tempered somewhat by a conclusion in which Meachum pleas for a free press that holds the government accountable. I know Meachum wants to inspire here, but in a country where Americans increasingly seek news that fits their beliefs (rather than any truth), does this optimism really fit the current moment? 4.25 stars
Profile Image for Michael Austin.
Author 55 books231 followers
May 20, 2018
Jon Meacham's The Soul of America is this week's entry in what has become a major genre: a well-known academic or public intellectual writes a scholarly book for a popular audience that demonstrates just how much of an outlier--historically or politically--Donald Trump is. Among the books I have recently read in this genre are Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt's How Democracies Die, Robert Reich's The Common Good, Cass Sunstein's #Republic, Amy Chua's Political Tribes, Madeline Albright's Fascism, and Timothy Snyder's The Road to Unfreedom.

All in all, it's not a bad genre. Trump is a political and historical outlier, and it is good to understand exactly how. But these books are not uniformly good. One of the most infallible rules of the publishing industry is that, when a certain kind of book starts to sell well, everybody will publish one, and some of them will suck.

The Soul of America doesn't exactly suck. But neither does it exactly not suck. It's author, Jon Meacham, is certainly a very good historian who has written a lot of very good books. This one, though, feels more like assorted notes for a book rather than an actual book. It doesn't ever really come together as a thing. It contains some good insights and a few interesting bits of history, but it doesn't contain, well, a book.

Meacham's thesis, from what I can tell, is that there have been a lot of times in American history when people have been divided. But we have been able to do good things anyway because of some intangible quality in American presidents by which they take their offices seriously, rise to the occasion, and do important things, even though they are deeply flawed human beings whom one would never have expected capable of doing important things.

The events are all at least vaguely related to various Civil Rights issues: Lincoln and emancipation, Grant and the KKK, TR and Women's Suffrage, Wilson and the KKK 2.0, FDR and the Nazis, Eisenhower and McCarthy, an LBJ and the 1964 Civil Rights Act. But even these chapters don't really stick to their main point. They bounce all over the place and bring in side issues and tangents that detract from anything that could reasonably be considered a main point. While reading The Spirit of America, my main thought was, "this would be pretty good if somebody turned it into a book."

I have no idea how this book came to be, but I like to imagine that it went something like this: the editors at Random House look around and see that anti-Trump books by academics are flying off the shelves. They call up Jon Meacham, who has won two Pulitzer Prizes for biographies of Jackson and Jefferson and say, "Hey, Jon Baby, can you write us a "Dump Trump" book. Meacham clears off a bunch of stuff from his hard drive that didn't make it into any of his other books, writes a preface that talks about how divided the nation is these days because Donald Trump, and then groups the material into chapters that vaguely suggest that Americans can do hard things when they have a minimally decent president.

With a little more effort, a good editor, and another 9-12 months, it could have been a good book too.
Profile Image for Lorna.
628 reviews339 followers
June 6, 2018
The Soul of America: The Battle For Our Better Angels is a beautiful book written to give one hope in these troubled times by veteran historian Jon Meacham. Basically, it recounts the struggles that this country has had from its beginnings and how many American presidents have risen to the occasion, as well as this country's influential activists, striving to keep this democracy alive and in the "search for the better angels of our nature."

"We are not enemies but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when touched, as surely they will be by the better angels of our nature." - Abraham Lincoln, First Inaugural Address, 1861
738 reviews7 followers
May 12, 2018
My only complaint about this book, and it’s not minor, is it’s reactionary tone to Donald Trump. It’s as if only the rise of Trump gave rise to this book, and that weakens the message. The Soul of America and indeed the humanity that Meachum describes, is in all of us, American or not, no matter who is president. No matter the era.

Make no mistake: The message is a good one for the national freak out currently in progress. Things have been much much worse. And good people, and even bad people who had changes of heart, prevailed. If you’re looking for that reassurance, this is a book for you.

As a historic hodgepodge of imperfect people doing the right thing during darker days, Meachum does a fair job summarizing what was happening during reconstruction, McCartyism, and the Civil Rights Act. If you want deeper analysis, there are better books.
Profile Image for Malia.
Author 6 books542 followers
August 31, 2021
This is my first book by Jon Meacham, but it certainly won't be my last. He has a measured, thoughtful and thought-provoking way of presenting history and connecting past and present in an accessible manner. This is a great overview of the political history of the US, in the context of the presidency. It is especially timely in this deeply polarized age and surprisingly left me with a sense of hope for the future. Recommended!

Find my book reviews and more at http://www.princessandpen.com
Profile Image for Casey Wheeler.
860 reviews31 followers
May 6, 2018
I received a free Kindle copy of The Soul of America by Jon Meacham courtesy of Net Galley  and Random House, the publisher. It was with the understanding that I would post a review on Net Galley, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes and Noble and my fiction book review blog. I also posted it to my Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Google Plus pages.

I requested this book as I have read a number of books (all biographies) by the author and the description made it very interesting. 

Meacham describes accurately this book with the subtitle "The Battle for our Better Angels." The books is about how we as a country have endured and overcome extremeism and racism in the past. Whenever past political leaders have tried to gain ground through fear and blaming other groups (primarily ethic and immigrants) we as a nation have overcome these shortsighted grabs for power. 

He uses numerous examples and rather than trying to recreate what was said, uses many direct qoutes from speeches of those involved in providing leadership to overcome the attempts at spreading and feeding fear in the people (in particular specific groups).

I strongly recommend this book for anyone who thinks that we are doomed due the current political atmosphere in our country. We are not and we will surivive and rise above the political spin, social media garbage, sound bite news and real fake news.
Profile Image for Montzalee Wittmann.
4,447 reviews2,319 followers
November 5, 2021
The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels
by Jon Meacham
This is the book I have been needing to read but just didn't know it. It seems life in these times look so bleak. Democracy looks likely to be gone and taken over by authoritarian rule. So many lies, corruption, people believing the most craziest stuff! Our "leaders" are the worst! I felt that this is the worst time to live ever!
But fortunately this author specializes in history of this sort! He assured me through many examples that we have been through many such trials and tribulations before and made it through. Many mistakes were made. As there are now. But somehow, someway, America pulls through and progresses on.
This has been a big hump we are facing and I doubt we are even at the top yet, it's been such a struggle. But I have a bit of hope now that it might get easier and things will be slightly restored to a more normal situation. I am glad I read this book. I don't agree with some of his political views but he is a smart guy and knows his history and that's what I am counting on!
Profile Image for Aura.
740 reviews64 followers
July 4, 2018
I watched Jon Meacham on the Real Time by Bill Maher. He talked about how he is hopeful for the future and trump is nothing new in American history. I decided that I needed to read this book because I needed something uplifting to read. As I listened to this audiobook, I did not feel reassured nor hopeful. I still feel fearful of the future of America. Most of this book is a recounting of history from the civil war, reconstruction, the rise of the Klan, Jim Crow laws, McCarthism, the internment of the Japanese, civil rights movement to current day Charleston church shooting. American history is a history of race relation and an experiment in democracy. American History has lead us to this moment and our better angels will see us through. Meacham believes that our democratic experiment with the help of our better angels has produced a country that has continuously moved towards more freedom and inclusion. Meacham ends the book with Obama's words in his farewell address, "For every two steps forward, it often feels we take one step back." I guess we need to push forward and believe that this carnival barker trump is only but one step back and soon we will be back on course straight ahead away from politics of fear and hatred. Maybe every other generation has faced a McCarthy or a trump and has lived through their attacks on democracy but why do I feel like this, what we are living through today, is different?
Profile Image for Mehrsa.
2,234 reviews3,664 followers
May 23, 2018
This is a really hopeful book, but also a little boring. The end passage is the most vital. Things are not worse than they have been and we can get over it. The message may be more optimistic than is my usual leaning, but he does show how racism, xenophobia, corruption, etc have always been with us and so have the drives toward equality, acceptance, and reform.
Profile Image for Raymond.
325 reviews230 followers
June 4, 2019
"The message of Martin Luther King Jr.... dwells in the American soul, so does the menace of the Ku Klux Klan."

This book is a direct response to the Trump era and it was written in light of the events of Charlottesville, VA in 2017. Meacham makes the argument that our current moment may be dark but history shows we can rise above it.
Profile Image for Colleen Browne.
267 reviews59 followers
September 25, 2022
Meacham's purpose in writing this book is to remind us that as Americans we have been through difficult times in the past and come through them. He is optimistic about the future of the country and writes from the heart very lucidly. Admittedly, I have lost much of the optimism that that I have always held about the country but I am not so sure that Meacham is viewing the country realistically. He seems to be burying his head in the sand in many ways. It isn't that I have given up on the country- I have not. I have children and grandchildren therefore I appreciate the vital importance of preserving the democracy. But democracy is a very delicate thing and I believe that the mood of the country as well as the power of the wealthiest people makes our survival more tenuous than in the past. Add to that the environmental emergency that we face and the future looks like a very scary place.

Meacham's writing is very good and he makes some good arguments but I believe that he underestimates the urgency of the problems we face.
Profile Image for George.
10 reviews1 follower
July 14, 2018
A timely book by a man who speaks as eloquently as he writes. The book is inspired by events in Charlottesville, where I was fortunate enough to hear him speak in mid-June, 2018, shortly after I finished the book. Mr. Meacham revisits U.S. history reminding us that though the American soul has both bright/good parts and dark/bad parts, its "moral arc" bends, as MLK said, towards justice.
Profile Image for Lisa.
605 reviews226 followers
December 27, 2019
A gripping and informative analysis of the pivotal moments in American history and the courageous individuals who made a difference.

Author Jon Meacham helps us understand the present moment in American politics by looking back at critical times in our past when hope overcame division and fear. Meacham proclaims that our current climate of partisan fury is not new, and he shows us how what Abraham Lincoln called the “better angels of our nature” have repeatedly won the day.

America has generally been sustained by a belief in progress even in the gloomiest of times. In THE SOUL OF AMERICA, 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.

“In our finest hours, though, the soul of the country manifests itself in an inclination to open our arms rather than to clench our fists; to look out rather than to turn inward: to accept rather than to reject. In doing so, America has grown ever stronger, confident that the choice of light over dark is the means by which we pursue progress.”

THE SOUL OF AMERICA is a hopeful and compelling long term perspective on major events that shaped our history. From the Civil War, to the the Civil Right Act, Meacham reveals presidential positions and the influential activists who stepped forward and made a difference.

Meacham’s writing is informative, compassionate and well-researched. I was amazed at the amount of historical situational analysis included in the book. It was like drinking through a fire hose. It’s a book to be read slowly and absorbed thoughtfully. I was fascinated that many of the situations were far worse than what we are experiencing today, and we survived. This book gave me hope that our democracy is not yet lost. Our better angels will not let that happen.

Author Jon Meacham is a writer, reviewer, and presidential biographer. A former Executive Editor and Executive Vice President at Random House, he is a contributing writer to The New York Times Book Review, a contributing editor to Time magazine, and a former Editor-in-Chief of Newsweek.

“To know what has come before is to be armed against despair. If the men and women of the past, with all their flaws and limitations and ambitions and appetites, could press on through ignorance and superstition, racism and sexism, selfishness and greed, to create a freer, stronger nation, then perhaps we, too, can right wrongs and take another step toward the most enchanting and elusive of destinations: a more perfect Union.”

Publisher Random House
Published May 8, 2018
Narrated Fred Sanders and Jon Meacham
Review www.bluestockingreviews.com
Profile Image for Melodie.
588 reviews64 followers
October 25, 2019
There is nothing new under the sun. I believed this for years, until the 2016 election. I have watched with shock and despair the path our country has taken under the current leadership. Surely, nothing like this has happened in this country . And if it has, not to the precipice that we find ourselves teetering on.
Enter Jon Meacham, veteran historian. Page by page I was taken on a journey through our political/social past. Through the eyes and words of presidents from our distant and recent past, I saw that we have been down this road before. And we have pulled ourselves away from the abyss more than once.
The book is far from a feel good read . The dangers we have faced in our democracy past and present are capable of tearing our republic apart. And we have come close more than once. As pointed out by the author, the ultimate responsibility lies with us, the voters. As individuals, we are the better angels of our nation. And collectively, we can come through this yet again.
I found this book very well put together , the research impeccable and overall highly readable. I felt more than once that I was having a conversation rather than being lectured to. Questions that popped into my head, I found answered within a page or two. Regardless of individual political leanings, there is something for every reader. I believe this should be required reading in our high school history classes. With understanding comes meaningful change.
Profile Image for Ed.
Author 37 books2,691 followers
July 12, 2019
I've watched Jon Meacham on cable TV and liked his lectures, so I gave his history book a read and found it interesting and enlightening. He discusses U.S. presidents and their handling of major problems. He includes lots of quotes and footnotes. It made for a nice change of pace for my reading list.

Profile Image for Hayley.
191 reviews50 followers
December 10, 2018
I wish Jon Meachum would narrate all his audiobooks; his voice is wonderful to listen to. Excellent books, perfect for anyone who wants to learn more about history and our politicians foibles.
Profile Image for thewanderingjew.
1,492 reviews19 followers
October 3, 2018
The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels, John Meacham, author; Fred Sanders, narrator*
This author chose to read, in his own voice, the first hour and last half hour, or so, of his book. He narrates what seems to be an effort to smear the right side of politics and buoy up the left. In an innocent, almost pained tone of voice, he presents his opinion about the state of politics and government in the current White House. He is obviously disappointed and unhappy about who won the election.
He presents the platform of the left, civil rights, women’s rights, immigrant rights, etc., as if those on the right are all white supremacists that are against those very same policies. The most egregious of that effort for me, was this: Although he spends a great deal of time on Martin Luther King and President Johnson, he leaves out those on the left who opposed the passing of the Civil Rights Act. He doesn’t mention the fact that Democrat Robert Byrd filibustered to try and prevent it from passing or that he rode with the KKK. He doesn’t mention that it was largely Republicans who passed the Act while Democrats opposed no only it, but also the 15th Amendment to the Constitution. Facts like that would contradict his attempt to present Progressives and Democrats as the “better angels”.
There has been, of late, a proliferation of books that denigrate President Trump. This one tries to masquerade as more cerebral, and possibly more fair-minded, as it is supposed to be searching for the “soul” of America, but that soul seems to exist only on the left side of the political divide. I was surprised that Meacham would present so one-sided a narrative in order to promote the views of the Democrats and Progressives. He deliberatively uses selective sources to elevate them, He almost entirely ignores the faults of the left while presenting the foibles of the right and pretty much ignores the destructive behavior of those on the left as if they were anomalies not worthy of much attention.
The very fact that the universities, largely influenced by Progressive thought, limit speech that does not represent their political view or those of their students, that publishers are rushing to put out books to influence the voting population in only one direction, the left, that the entertainment media and news media are consistently presenting negative images of the President and his accomplishments, should frighten the general public. Instead, the manipulation of information, which is nothing more than bullying, seems to have caused the general population to morph into a kind of mob rule, a behavior that disregards facts and logic. The fact that these same industries that educate and inform our youth are so biased is the reason that this current President criticizes them. He is not against the press, he is against a press that is completely unfair, completely biased against him, a press that does not present any positive news about his administration’s accomplishments, but rather runs with any story that trashes him and his policies, regardless of whether or not they are even true.
It is disheartening to see what is happening in this country. We are undergoing a cataclysmic change; we are witnessing a moment of hate and anger that is coming from a group of people who scream at the moon, shout down those they disagree with, who require safe spaces to maintain their sanity, and who blame the side that is not violent or making unusual demands for their pain. They are dividing us in ways that may become dangerous because they are unable to accept their failure to elect Hillary Clinton, a woman who conducted a campaign for President which was fraught with dishonesty and manipulation in an attempt to gain an unfair advantage.
If the respected author, whom I used to enjoy reading, wanted to present an honest book, he would have exposed information on both sides with impartiality. Instead, even when he says something positive about the GOP, he manages to, in the next sentence, subtly cast aspersions upon them. I found it a bit disingenuous that Meacham concentrated on using the word “fear” often, which is the title of a negative book on the President that was just published by Bob Woodward, and which the reader, therefore, can’t help but think of, and at the same time, he also uses the word ‘hope”, which everyone knows is associated with former President Obama’s campaign for President. Although he seems to be searching for our better angels, he seems to be looking for them only on one side of the political spectrum, the “left”. Although it may not be an obvious effort to smear the GOP and the President, the insinuation is loud and clear that they are not taking the country in a direction he wants it to go, nor are those who support Trump, “the better angels” he is seeking. It is his belief that they are taking the country in the wrong direction, and furthermore, they are wrongheaded, as well.
In another book I am reading, which is not quite as partisan, “The Splintering of the American Mind” by William Eggington, a belief of T. S. Eliot’s, regarding the way we currently assess literature is quoted. The quote could just as easily be applied to the way we teach and make decisions today.
According to Egginton: Eliot did not think that the “criterion in selecting authors was gender or the color of their skin”. He believed what should be considered was what made a great work great. He believed it was the ability to encourage “communities to embrace new identities”, to explore “differences with as many of his fellows as possible, in the common pursuit of true judgment.”
Unfortunately, today, conversation and opposing views are discouraged. Meacham has deliberately cherry-picked an abundance of quotes (too many, because they almost negate the idea that he wrote the book; rather, it seems like the sources did since almost every sentence requires a footnote), to support his particular point of view. I did not expect this highly respected author to present so one-sided and unfair a view of our history and our “better angels”. Almost entirely, he ignored the warts of the left and went on to explode those of the right into tumors, tumors depicted as if they were just waiting to swallow America up in hate. It is as if Meacham decided on the premise of the book and then set out to find the quotes that would prove his point. He does not present the obstruction that is coming from his “better angels” in the past and the present day. Perhaps he believes that he and his ilk are the “better angels”, but to me, he did not present an accurate version of the truth.
*I have both print and audio version
Profile Image for Scott.
1,674 reviews119 followers
July 7, 2018
"He . . . understood people, and when it came time to make decisions, he was willing to take the responsibility . . . He had a good head and a great brain and a kind heart . . . He was the best kind of ordinary man. I mean that as high praise, not deprecation . . . He's one of the people and becomes distinguished in the service that he gives other people." -- Harry S. Truman on Abraham Lincoln

Author Meacham details various moments in U.S. history when certain presidents (Lincoln, both of the Roosevelts, LBJ and others) or citizen activists (including Martin Luther King) 'stepped up to the plate' and made good - but, admittedly, sometimes bad - or even far-reaching decisions about laws and rights that helped shape this great country. In fact, I'd say the book is pretty effective in simply demonstrating that the nation - no matter which leader is at the helm - remains as durable as ever.
Profile Image for LemonLinda.
858 reviews87 followers
July 28, 2018
This is such an important book to read if you have concerns regarding what the implications may be resulting from positions taken and rhetoric spoken by our current administration. Meacham speaks to times such as this throughout American history when we have faced dark days, but we have triumphed and those darker impulses have been rebuked. He speaks to numerous divisions at various times in our history and how we have healed afterwards. This book helps me to continue my vigil as "dissent does not equate with disloyalty" and also to have faith that ultimately we will persevere and America can once again reclaim our position as a "shining city on a hill".

It was for me a slow and deliberate read not at all because I was disinterested, but because I stopped all along the way to do research of various times, people, issues, etc. which I encountered throughout the book. Very readable. Very educational. Very enlightening.
Profile Image for Chris Carson.
72 reviews7 followers
May 13, 2018
Meacham is a superb storyteller, historian and Presidential scholar. His book is timely as our country faces the most (disgusting) unusual ascendency of a candidate to the office of President since Andy Jackson.

The United States has survived and thrived because the majority of its citizens have followed the course of its “better angels.” Hopefully this abnormal interlude will end soon and the values that truly make our country great throughout the world will once again be the standard.
Profile Image for Kusaimamekirai.
640 reviews214 followers
May 18, 2018
It is easy perhaps in 2018 with the frequent vulgar twitter outbursts, invectives against enemies real and otherwise, and attempts to delegitimize the basic fabric of government coming from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (or Florida I suppose), that the American project is facing the greatest crisis it has ever faced.
The author acknowledges that things are bad but he sees in America’s history that this moment is far from unique. From wars, to crippling depressions, to internal strife, America is no stranger to dark days. It has had Presidents who have tried to build physical as well as metaphorical walls and have at times not always put our best foot forward (Woodrow Wilson segregating the federal government, Andrew Johnson trying to strangle reconstruction, Andrew Jackson…too many things for the scope of this short review). It has also however had Lincoln, FDR, and others who despite fierce partisanship, preached tolerance and reconciliation under the banner of us all being Americans. Even a polarizing figure like George W. Bush spoke eloquently about how Islamic extremism was just that, extremism and that Muslim-Americans are first and foremost Americans.
America’s history is one of drifting toward the darkness of fascism or communism but always in end finding a way to right itself. While the President is never the sole reason for these corrections, he has always been the figurehead of the nation and the man who sets its moral course. Reading Meacham’s outstanding and compulsively readable history of how we have survived as a nation makes for extremely inspirational reading for those who hope America can find that course again. I’ll stop my review here and instead I’d like to close with a few quotes from great Americans during times of crisis. They can say more and say it more articulately than I ever hope to.

“Now, the greater any of these apprehensions, the greater is the need that we look at them clearly, face to face, without fear, like honest, straightforward Americans, so we do not develop the jitters or any other kind of panic, that we do not fall prey to hysterical thinking. Sometimes you feel, almost, that we can be excused for getting a little bit hysterical, because these dangers come from so many angles, and they are of such different kinds, and no matter what we do they still seem to exist. It is the American belief in decency and justice and progress, and the value of individual liberty, because of the rights conferred upon each of us by our Creator, that will carry us through. There must be something in the heart as well as in the head. -Dwight Eisenhower”

“We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, and whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the way God’s universe is made; this is the way it is structured.”-Martin Luther King.

“We have our factions which seek to promote this or that interest, without regard to the relationship to others, and without regard for the common we. We have the factions of hatred and prejudice and violence. Hamilton warned us that however such combinations or associations may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely themselves to usurp the reins of government, destroying afterward the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion”

As an LBJ fan, I have to include this conversation he had with Alabama governor George Wallace at the White House when he hoped to convince him to not resist desegregation, simply because it is so quintessentially LBJ and it made me smile:

LBJ: “Why don’t you just desegregate all your schools? You and I go out there in front of those television cameras right now, and you announce you’ve decided to desegregate every school in Alabama.”

Wallace: “Oh, Mr. President, I can’t do that. You know, the schools have got school boards. They’re locally run. I haven’t got the political power to do that”

LBJ: “Don’t you shit me, George Wallace. Now, listen, George, don’t think about 1968, Think about 1988. You and me, we’ll be dead and gone then, George. What do you want left after you, when you die? Do you want a great big marble monument that reads, George Wallace-He Built. Or do you want a little piece of scrawny pine board lying across that harsh caliche soil that reads, George Wallace-He Hated.”

Profile Image for David Huff.
153 reviews46 followers
September 16, 2018
“Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible,” the theologian and thinker Reinhold Niebuhr wrote in 1944, “but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.” We try; we fail; but we must try again, and again, and again, for only in trial is progress possible. -- Jon Meacham

This was a fascinating and a timely read, filled with both historical insight and hope. There are in our current times any number of reasons for Americans to react when they read the news, and to feel not just anger, but resignation or even despair. The hope that Meacham's well-written and researched book provides is the reminder that, as a nation, "we've been here before": America has been through times just as bad, and sometimes much worse, and survived.

Beginning with the Civil War era, Meacham recounts various presidencies, from Lincoln to Lyndon Johnson, and the challenges they, and our nation, faced. The Civil War, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, the movement for womens' rights, the excesses of the McCarthy era, and the Civil Rights struggles, and resulting legislation championed in the sixties, to name a few. There are inspiring accounts of iconic personalities as well, including Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., and Eleanor Roosevelt.

This fine volume is a powerful reminder of the need to read, and learn from, history, and to summon our "better angels" and, as a nation, overcome strife, division and fear. Highly recommended.
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