KENOSHA — Jon Meacham believes that the essence of America is neither all good, nor all bad.
Meacham, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, has written biographies of United States presidents including George H. W. Bush, Andrew Jackson and Thomas Jefferson. Earlier this month, Meacham’s latest book, “The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels“ was published by Random House. The book — sparked by the violent 2017 conflict in Charlottesville, Va. — explores times in American history when hope won over discord. This weekend, Meacham is set to visit southeast Wisconsin for a live interview about his work and to deliver the commencement address at Carthage College on Sunday.
Meacham earned a degree in English literature from The University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn., where Carthage College’s newly installed president, John Swallow, was previously a senior administrator.
“As a fellow student and, later, as a colleague at The University of the South, I got to know Jon on a personal level,” Swallow said in a statement. “He is uniquely perceptive of leaders as people — not just office-holders, but individual human beings whose strengths and weaknesses can help or hinder their pursuits based on historical circumstances. It’s a fitting topic for the future leaders we are preparing to celebrate this weekend.”
In addition to writing books, Meacham also is a contributing editor at Time magazine and a contributing writer to The New York Times Book Review.
‘Struggle within the soul’
He said the aim of his most recent book is to look at what produced periods of hate and fear, and how presidents over time have responded. The title is a nod to President Abraham Lincoln’s idea of “the better angels of our nature.”
The past may not be the perfect guide for navigating the future, Meacham said, but it can help people develop a sense of proportion about current events and issues. He wants people to avoid thinking that the struggles people face today are “uniquely challenging.” Pointing to America’s history of slavery, Jim Crow laws and women’s fight for suffrage, he said every era has been shaped by whether the nation’s better or worse instincts won.
“My view is that we’ve always grown stronger the more generously we’ve interpreted the Jeffersonian assertion of human equality,” he said. “As long as we focus on that as a guiding force, then that struggle within the soul will turn out alright.”
Meacham is scheduled to give a live interview on Saturday afternoon at Carthage College with Professor Greg Berg about the ideas he covers in his book. The interview, set for 2 p.m. at A. F. Siebert Chapel, 2001 Alford Park Drive, is free and open to the public.
Meacham said he plans to encourage the students to “think historically (and) act rationally.” He wants students to overcome the tribal nature of today’s political environment. People are loyal to their political affiliation and oppose the other “at all costs,” he said.
“If you just make up your mind on the front end that everything a Democrat says or everything a Republican says is wrong, then you’re foreclosing the ability of reason to help guide us,” Meacham said. “The American revolution is nothing if not the assertion that we can think for ourselves.”
“The American revolution is nothing if not the assertion that we can think for ourselves.” Jon Meacham, author and historian