“American history is defined by the phrase ‘and yet …,’” author and historian Jon Meacham told St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh May 25, before an audience of 900 people at the St. Louis County Library.
“We promised equality to all, and yet, we didn’t extend it to all,” Meacham said, citing other examples of former presidential actions that they later contradicted. His latest book, “The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels,” compares and contrasts today’s political climate to historical events.
He argues the conceived notion that Americans have never been so polarized just isn’t true.
“When people say, ‘has it ever been so bad?’ Yeah it has been,” he said, recalling oppressive times for minorities, women and LGBTQ and ideologies of racism and nativism. “We’ve been through this before, so let’s figure out how we [solved it] and apply that now.”
In researching and writing “The Soul of America,” Meacham said he found fascinating insights about the “complicated” human dimensions of political figures, such as Harry Truman.
“The American soul has impulses that belong to Dr. King [and] impulses that belong to the KKK. And you can’t say that America has been hijacked somehow when the side you don’t like is in charge, because both are there.”
Truman, who used racial slurs, disliked Martin Luther King Jr. and grew up with confederate relatives in Missouri, created and upheld policies that the Democratic Party was against at the time.
“[Truman] understood that he was now not a sectional figure … he owed a duty to the Constitution, to the nation. [He] integrates the military, commissions the first civil rights report in presidential history and becomes the first president to address the annual meeting of the NAACP,” Meacham said.
Political “tribalism,” or divisiveness, is rooted in fear – an emotion that defies reason Meacham explained.
“Whenever we let fear prevent us from being able to think through what the next collective step should be, I think we’re failing to take advantage of the [Founding Father’s] central insight,” he said.
Meacham urges citizens to be patient with others of political differences and realize that “these things take time.” He said he believes engaging with people of different political views is “the oldest of solutions” to help create a greater understanding among citizens.
St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Lara Hamdan give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.