The Soul of America by Jon Meacham: Book Review

The Soul of America by Jon Meacham Book Cover

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4 Stars

Title: The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels
Author: Jon Meacham
Genre: History, Politics
Audience: Adult
Format: E-book

Synopsis from GoodReads:

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jon Meacham helps us understand the present moment in American politics and life by looking back at critical times in our history when hope overcame division and fear.

Our current climate of partisan fury is not new, and in The Soul of America Meacham shows us how what Abraham Lincoln called the “better angels of our nature” have repeatedly won the day. Painting surprising portraits of Lincoln and other presidents, including Ulysses S. Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, and Lyndon B. Johnson, and illuminating the courage of such influential citizen activists as Martin Luther King Jr., early suffragettes Alice Paul and Carrie Chapman Catt, civil rights pioneers Rosa Parks and John Lewis, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and Army-McCarthy hearings lawyer Joseph N. Welch, Meacham brings vividly to life turning points in American history. He writes about the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the birth of the Lost Cause; the backlash against immigrants in the First World War and the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s; the fight for women’s rights; the demagoguery of Huey Long and Father Coughlin and the isolationist work of America First in the years before World War II; the anti-Communist witch hunts led by Senator Joseph McCarthy; and Lyndon Johnson’s crusade against Jim Crow. Each of these dramatic hours in our national life have been shaped by the contest to lead the country to look forward rather than back, to assert hope over fear — a struggle that continues even now.

While the American story has not always — or even often — been heroic, we have been sustained by a belief in progress even in the gloomiest of times. In this inspiring book, Meacham reassures us, “The good news is that we have come through such darkness before” — as, time and again, Lincoln’s better angels have found a way to prevail.

My Review:

Posted on GoodReads on November 15, 2019

I almost always have one nonfiction book on the go that I read exclusively before bed. I’m primarily a fiction reader so I don’t usually fall into the “one more chapter” trap that keeps me awake way past my bedtime if I follow this plan. This was not a great book for that. It’s intelligently written, presented, and argued, but the brain power I had left at the end of the day wasn’t quite up to absorbing everything Mr. Meacham had to say. Under those circumstances, the book had almost the exact opposite effect that it intended: I was depressed that we’re still fighting so many of the same battles that we’ve been fighting for so long. Equality of all kinds–why is that still so difficult for us?

After struggling through about 25% of the book, I finally put down my fiction books and focused on this one exclusively, no matter the time of day. Reading it while I was actually awake and functioning put me in a much better frame of mind to both follow the argument presented and to see it as the hope the author intended it to be. Yes, we do keep addressing many issues over and over again, but if you step back and look at the big picture, we’re tacking in the right direction. It’s a wobbly course, but we’re getting there.

I enjoyed the last half of the book so much (I think the actual text stopped at 43% and the rest was the bibliography, etc.), that I’m tempted to go back and start over. I recommend this for thoughtful readers who need some hope in today’s political climate.


Buy The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels from Malaprop’s Bookstore in Asheville, NC.

I have an affiliate relationship with Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe in beautiful Asheville, NC. I will earn a small commission at no additional cost to you if you purchase merchandise through links on my site.

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  1. I had this on my list after the 2016 election but I never got around to it. I can understand it not being a good book for the time before bed, I have that problem at times too. I would still like to read it but need to make sure to give it enough attention so it can sink in.

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