An esteemed historian and author chronicles America’s never-ending fight to live up to her ideals.
In his first inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln spoke to a divided nation about the “the better angels of our nature.” Lincoln’s words failed to prevent civil war, but they serve as a template for the latest book from Pulitzer Prize winner Meacham (Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush, 2015, etc.). The author contends that throughout American history, presidential leadership and citizen activism have overcome “hours in which the politics of fear were prevalent” to “lift us to higher ground,” particularly in relation to civil rights. Meacham provides a sturdy history of this steady but halting progress, primarily through the prism of presidential leadership. Thus, while Ulysses S. Grant effectively cracked down on the Ku Klux Klan, the post-1877 years featured the rise of Jim Crow and a renewed disenfranchisement of black voters. Theodore Roosevelt invited Booker T. Washington to dine at the White House and resisted pressure to remove a black female postmaster in Mississippi, yet he “shared the dream of Anglo-Saxon imperialism” and held “ideas of racial superiority.” Indeed, it was not until the 1960s that President Lyndon Johnson’s relentless advocacy and Martin Luther King Jr.’s courage combined to help secure the civil and voting rights of all Americans. Clearly, Meacham hopes that the struggles of the past will inspire readers to contend for America’s soul by resisting the modern-day forces of fear and bigotry in the personae of Donald Trump and his supporters. Yet whether he is criticizing Trump’s post-Charlottesville comments or fretting over the influence of the largely irrelevant contemporary Klan, the author is not fully convincing in his argument that Trump poses a dire threat to our hard-won rights and liberty.
Meacham ably depicts our nation’s struggles to live up to Lincoln’s words, but he oversells the notion that the fruits of past efforts are at risk in today’s America.