In divisive times, historian says lessons from history can help us come together

About a decade ago, when New York Times Bestseller and Pulitzer Prize winner Jon Meacham was on the National Mall for the National Book Festival, a woman ran up to him.

"I just admire you so much," she said. "I love your books. You've meant a lot to me and really to my family."

She went to grab what Meacham thought was his new book for him to sign. But when she came back, she was holding crime writer John Grisham's latest novel.

Meacham sheepishly recounted the encounter April 21 while delivering one of the eulogies at former first lady Barbara Bush's funeral. He said he went to visit the Bushes shortly after the interaction and thought Barbara Bush might offer some sympathy.

"Well how do you think poor John Grisham would feel?" she told him. "He's a very handsome man."

The anecdote received laughter during the emotional service and illustrated the close relationship he had with the former president and his wife. That relationship culminated in his 2015 biography on George H.W. Bush, "Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush."

Jon Meacham Bush Funeral
Jon Meacham speaks during a funeral service for former first lady Barbara Bush at St. Martin's Episcopal Church, April 21, 2018, in Houston. He got to know the Bush family while researching his 2015 book, "Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush." David J. Phillip AP

For Meacham's next book, he has turned to the current administration for inspiration. In "The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels," published May 8, the historian, who considers himself as politically bipartisan, looks at past presidents and significant historical moments of political turmoil to offer context to the daily news coming from the Trump White House.

Meacham chronologically discusses the founding debates on Federalism, the Civil War era, the Wilson administration and other crucial periods in American history. Examining the character and ideas from leaders like Thomas Jefferson and Woodrow Wilson, Meacham evokes lessons that can offer guidance in these present political times.

Meacham will visit Raleigh's Quail Ridge Books May 16 to talk about the new book.

He spoke with The News & Observer about the book, and how the country can make progress.

Q: In the introduction you write, "This book is a portrait of hours in which the politics of fear were prevalent — a reminder that periods of public dispiritedness are not new and a reassurance that they are survivable." Can you say more about your inspiration for this book?

A: It's unquestionable that right now many Americans are unhappy with the state of the country. That's true for those who support the president, and it's particularly true for those who do not support the president. It felt to me that we could use a sense of proportion about how great is the danger to our broad national health at the moment.

Q: How is the American "soul" different from the American "creed"?

A: The American creed is a familiar trope in American life: the idea that we're devoted to the idea of equality, of fair play, that anyone who comes here from anywhere and who plays by the rules can rise and thrive. That's been the ideal for the country.

Soul of America cover
Jon Meacham is a Pulitzer Prize-winning presidential historian. He is the author of the new book, "The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels." Random House

The more I thought about this moment and past moments, the more I thought that the American ideal is one part of a broader national reality, which is that the American soul, the same word in Greek and Hebrew as life and breath, has room for both Martin Luther King and the Ku Klux Klan. We have the capacity to get things right and to get things woefully wrong.

And the fate of each era is determined by whether the better angels of our nature win the struggle. I think that's the struggle that unfolds all the time in our national soul.

Q: In the chapter "The Confidence of the Whole People" you quote Jefferson: "In a government like ours it is the duty of the Chief magistrate, in order to enable himself to do all the good which his station requires, to endeavor, by all honorable means, to unite in himself the confidence of the whole people." Do you agree with this statement and why? Do you think President Trump has been successful in doing this, and why or why not?

A: I believe Jefferson defined the presidency quite brilliantly in that way, and I do not believe that as of this hour, President Trump has successfully reached beyond his existing base. Our greatest presidents, history tells us, managed to bring more people to them as opposed to simply governing for those who voted for them or who already agree with them. Presidents have to build support and add to their support, not simply live off of existing support.

History tells us that presidents who focus on our hopes rather than our fears, who talk about growth not stasis, who open doors instead of building walls, are the ones whom we look back on most fondly and who have the most significant legacies.

Q: You frequently come back to the theme of federalism — of how to balance individual rights and local powers with a strong central government. What is so important about this conflict?

A: The tension between the central government and the states is a perennial American problem. What happened after the Civil War was many Southern states chose to carry on many of the struggles of the Civil War era under the guise of fighting for states' rights against federal power. They were quite explicit about this.

And so states' rights, in a way, became a code for, How much of the antebellum world can we preserve, even though we lost the war? And that's the tragedy in many ways for American history from 1865 until the civil rights legislation in the mid-1960s.

Q: In the conclusion, you mention some of the ways people can get through the contemporary political situation and say to keep history in mind. Amongst the historical crises you bring up, is there something particular you would advise people to pay attention to that you that you believe helped Americans get through crises in the past?

A: History tells us that we move to higher ground the more all of us are engaged and the more in tune a president is with our better angels. As just one example, we survived the terrors of the 1930s by lending a hand to each other in the Depression and by following (Franklin D. Roosevelt's) lead in favoring hope over fear. The power of the past, I believe, lies in its capacity to remind us that we can come together even after the most divisive of moments.


Jon Meacham will be at Quail Ridge Books, 4209-100 Lassiter Road, Raleigh, at 7 p.m. May 16. Admission is free, but there is reserved seating through advance purchase. General unreserved seating will be available. Receive a signing line ticket with purchase of book at Quail Ridge.

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