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The Soul of America

The Battle for Our Better Angels

By Jon Meacham
16-minute read
Audio available
The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels by Jon Meacham

The Soul of America (2018) takes readers on an enlightening tour of America’s tumultuous past. From the final moments of the Civil War to the long overdue civil rights and voting legislation of the 1960s, the book reveals the United States for what it has always been: a nation of deep and lasting conflict. By looking to America’s past, we can see both where today’s political divides stem from and why the nation will likely be able to persevere.

  • Readers eager for perspective on current events
  • Students of history and politics
  • Fans of historical insight

Jon Meacham is a writer of multiple New York Times best sellers, including Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power and Destiny (2012) and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush (2015). His 2008 book, American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House, won him the Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography.

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The Soul of America

The Battle for Our Better Angels

By Jon Meacham
  • Read in 16 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 10 key ideas
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The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels by Jon Meacham
Synopsis

The Soul of America (2018) takes readers on an enlightening tour of America’s tumultuous past. From the final moments of the Civil War to the long overdue civil rights and voting legislation of the 1960s, the book reveals the United States for what it has always been: a nation of deep and lasting conflict. By looking to America’s past, we can see both where today’s political divides stem from and why the nation will likely be able to persevere.

Key idea 1 of 10

The United States has always been torn between feelings of hope and fear.

In the United States, many concerned citizens are still trying to understand how the country elected a president who they think is at odds with fundamental American principles such as a free press and the rule of law. To them, it seems like a very dark time. However, if we look back at the nation’s history, we’ll see that America has weathered far, far worse.

Not only that, we can even see how current fear-driven and paranoid attitudes toward immigrants are a continuation of similar feelings from previous generations. Throughout America’s history, fear has been at odds with the feelings of hope on which the nation was founded.

Fear and hope are two very natural human instincts, and, in a way, they’re representative of people at their worst and at their best. In other words, when we’re acting under the influence of fear, we can make some of our worst decisions, and when we’re acting under the influence of hope, we can do some of our best work.

Abraham Lincoln referred to this battle between our good and bad impulses in his first inaugural address.

At the time, the nation was already deeply divided on issues of race and state’s rights, and he knew that people were afraid that the nation might fall apart or descend into the violence of war. But Lincoln remained hopeful, which is what made him a truly great president. On March 4, 1861, he asked America’s citizens not to give in to hostile instincts, but rather to act upon “the better angels of our nature.”

A similar sentiment has animated all of America’s best presidents. Of course, no president has been perfect, including Harry Truman, who made strides in civil rights while continuing to use common racial slurs in private. But Truman showed wisdom when he remarked that it was important for a president to appeal to the nation’s best instincts, not its worst.

Fear has many sources – economic, religious, racial – and politicians have always known how to use that fear to motivate people in irrational ways. Fear, however, will always divide people. Only hope can unite them in the name of the common good.

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