Jon Meacham’s “Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels” (973 Mea) gets right at the heart of the matter of what it means to keep our country focused on its best ideas and ideals by looking back at critical times in our history when hope overcame division and fear.
On the fourth Monday in January, community citizens gathered at the Crawfordsville District Public Library to discuss key questions raised by Pulitzer-Prize-winning historian in his 2018 book.
This gathering marked the second of four Well Read Citizen book discussions that are part of the League of Women Voters’ 100th anniversary celebration. Fourth Monday events are held in partnership with the CDPL.
Meacham’s book takes a look back to times of crisis in our nation’s history, from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Era, investigating how we as a nation handled dire crises by looking toward “our better angels,” as Abraham Lincoln called them.
Discussion and reflection ranged across topics from surprise about how our government was re-segregated during President Wilson’s time to how women’s suffrage changed the course of history. We pondered how a nation is challenged when its core values may be understood very differently among citizens. This history of the Ku Klux Klan which has marked and marred our country’s last hundred years demonstrates this. What questions must leaders engage to help the country feel unified? Presidential historian Meacham shows that looking back at various presidents who served at times when the nation was divided by partisan fury and racial strife can help shed light on the politics of the moment.
Historical context itself can take debilitating fear from a situation, and Meacham’s great knowledge of our country’s presidents and their actions help readers see how our nation has navigated rough waters in the past. This book is meant not only to inform readers in a non-partisan way but also offers readers suggestions to act.
In his final chapter, Meacham noted five areas critical for citizens and leaders alike to act for our mutual benefit: 1.) Enter the arena. Don’t sit at the sidelines. Become part of the action. 2.) Resist tribalism. Always be aware that there are other viewpoints and life experiences than your own. All voices communicating make a nation. 3.) Respect facts and deploy reason. This one has been taken for granted in the past, but in our Internet era where we are “fed” so much information that agrees with us and “riles us up” against opponents, this is especially vital. Our nation’s health and safety is dependent on reason leading the way. 4.) Find a critical balance. We all need to understand from the outset that we must “give in” to those who hold other views for the sake of the larger institution that is our government. And, to remember that government is really our largest community. 5.) Keep history in mind. Others before us have and others after us will also face hard times.
As Meacham notes in his conclusion, “Humankind seems to be forever coping with crisis. Strike the ‘seems’: humankind is forever coping with crisis, or believes it is …” By studying our history dispassionately, we can see this more clearly.
Most discussants found that despite some very dark moments in our nation’s past 150 years that the book — and the discussion — produced hope in us more than despair. Along with Lincoln, we hope to call forth “our better angels” going forward.
The next fourth Monday event will take place Feb. 24. Come join us for a showing of locally produced and highly acclaimed “Legend of the Legendary League.”
The League of Women Voters, open to men as well women, is a nonpartisan, multi-issue political organization which encourages informed at active participation in government. For information, visit the website www.lwvmontcoin.org or send a message to LWV, P.O. Box 101, Crawfordsville, IN 47933.