Ask historian Jon Meacham why he wrote a book on politics at this time in American history and he’ll tell you the republic’s in danger.
But then, he might also tell you the republic’s always been in danger.
“We have the most unconventional American president in our history, which is saying something given some of the folks who’ve had the job,” Meacham told Morning Shift host Jenn White. “And I really wanted to remind people that strife has been more often the rule than the exception.”
Meacham won a Pulitzer Prize for his 2009 biography of former President Andrew Jackson. His new book, The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels, looks back at critical, divisive, and hyper-partisan moments in American history “in order to give us some hope, some tools in which to survive and prevail in our own crisis of the moment,” Meacham said.
Below are highlights from the conversation.
It’s not as bad as you think, historically speaking
Jon Meacham: My hope here is that our history can show us that we are not at the absolute worst moment in the life of the republic. And I think a lot of folks — I suspect you talk to them everyday — want to believe that or do believe that. And it’s understandable. The problems of our own time are our problems, so they tend to take on an outsize sense of scope in our imaginations.
But 50 years ago in my native region in the American South, African-Americans lived under functional apartheid. Women have not yet voted 100 years; it’s been 98 years since women’s suffrage. We’ll mark the three-year anniversary pretty soon of the marriage equality decision.
So the story of the country is of a journey toward a more perfect union. It’s not about a perfect union that has somehow been hijacked by this particular president and this particular moment.
‘I think our resilience will win out’
Meacham: I think President Trump wants to be Andrew Jackson to some extent. I think he’s more like Andrew Johnson, another Tennessean.
Jenn White: Explain that.
Meacham: I’m a Tennessean. We’ve had a rough presidential history. But Andrew Johnson was a man without really a natural political base within the traditional parties. He was a Democrat who’d been put on the ticket in 1864 with Lincoln to broaden the appeal of the Republican ticket in a wartime election.
Remarkable, by the way, that we had an election in 1864 when you think about it. For people who worry about the resilience of the Constitution, I submit that Abraham Lincoln, in the middle of an armed struggle, decided to have a full, free, and fair election, and who’s result he was perfectly willing to accept. Almost unimaginable that any other country facing that clash of arms would’ve done it.
But anyway, Johnson was put on the ticket. Of course, President Lincoln is assassinated on Good Friday, 1865, and Johnson comes in as someone whom briefly the radical Republicans thought they might be able to deal with. They quickly realized they could not. Johnson opposed the significant civil rights legislation. He opposed the 14th and 15th amendments, all of which became law despite him. A good bit of legislation was passed over his veto. It was a case where the other elements of the Constitutional order — the Congress, the people, the press, the courts — did the right thing by and large.
And that’s where I am on where we are now. There are five or six elements in the life of the republic that shape who we are. And it’s the president, it’s the Congress, it’s the courts, it’s the press, and it’s all of us. And as long as a couple of those elements are moving in the right direction, I think our resilience will win out.
The complicated ‘soul’ of America
Meacham: I think in the nation’s soul, we have to be honest and say this is a soul that has had room for Martin Luther King and it’s also a soul that has been host to the Ku Klux Klan. And the fate of a given era is determined by the battle between those forces of light and dark.
I think it’s a mistake, and I think it’s pernicious in some ways, to argue that somehow or another this particular president and his supporters have taken over the country — and if only the soul of America could prevail then all would be well. The problem with that is it lets us off the hook. It puts the weight of anything that is not morally or philosophically good on someone else, and casts the person who wants to have a restoration as a kind of blameless hero.
We’re all flawed. We’re all fallen. Some of the most important things that have happened in this country have happened under both parties. It’s not as though there is a perfect political movement that has somehow been kept from power. And the story of the country, I believe, is one in which we have steadily, if slowly, managed to open our arms more widely, and the wider we’ve opened our arms, the stronger we’ve become.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. Click on the “play” button above to listen to the entire segment, which was adapted for the web by producer Justin Bull.