The Sweep of History Summons Our Better Angels

Historian Jon Meacham

The historian Jon Meacham has a new book out entitled the “Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels”.

Fresh off his highly regarded eulogy at Barbara Bush’s funeral, Meacham has released a book that counsels us to take a deep breath—we will get through these turbulent times. We’ve been there before—many times—and we will emerge intact, a stronger and better nation.

It’s a comforting and timely message.

We had the privilege of seeing Meacham two years ago at the annual meeting of Leadership Florida where he charmed us with his humor, facility with history and anecdotes about American presidents. If you have a chance to see him, don’t miss the opportunity.

Meacham’s new book presents a hopeful view and offers examples of how America has overcome divisiveness and hatred in the past.

He says today’s America is freer and more accepting than it has ever been, while acknowledging shortcomings and ongoing struggles over race, gender, equality and political philosophy.

“A tragic element of history,” he writes, “is that every advance must contend with the forces of reaction.”


That’s a sobering thought and a reminder that we must be vigilant and guard the progress that’s been made.

Recalling Lincoln, Meacham implores us to summon our “better angels” believing that the soul of America is kind and caring, not mean and callous. His advice: enter the arena, resist tribalism, respect facts, deploy reason, find balance and be mindful of history.

So while Meacham’s book is aimed at our nation, his advice can also be deployed at the local level, where I believe the action really happens.

When communities are divided, good people often avoid the arena because it feels unsafe. After all, who wants to swim in a toxic pool?

As a result, when communities are at odds, we often see tribes or factions arise. Of course, each faction has their own set of “facts” which often doesn’t allow for reason or compromise to take hold.

In those instances, it is hard to find balance and often there is an attempt to redraw history and bend the narrative to fit a particular viewpoint.

At we observe two very different communities, with different styles and sensibilities.

But there are commonalities as well.

Both cities have divisions, political and social. Both are wrestling with change and what they aspire to be. Both are attractive to people with ideas for the future, which is a good thing. You should worry when nobody has ideas or aspirations.

But like a nation, a community’s health and sustainability improves when there is a sense of common purpose; a unity of vision and identity.

These are the times when we need our better angels to win out over our other more aggressive instincts.

The civic square (arena) should be made safer for productive debate and conversation, tribes should strive to find common ground and agree that facts matter.

Is that possible?

Yes, it is.

But it takes a concerted effort. Someone—a leader—has to say that the current state is unacceptable and remind us that we can do better.

As Lincoln reminds us…“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”



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