“The only way to make sense of this eternal struggle is to understand that it is just that: an eternal struggle.” That’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning author John Meacham’s perspective on the constant struggle between progress and retrograde in our national life. With great detail and penetrating insight, Meacham catalogs in his recent book, The Soul of America, those struggles as they have played out over our existence as a nation and that even now, two and a half centuries later, are not fully resolved.
Eminent historian and emeritus Mt. Holyoke Professor Joseph Ellis focuses on the same issue specifically from the standpoint of the founders’ vision that produced a nation, but only by compromise. In his latest book, American Dialogue: The Founders and Us, Ellis notes that this compromise included especially kicking down the road issues central to our future as a nation in which everyone is treated as equally entitled to the same inalienable rights. He also describes our founders’ grave concerns about the role of the Presidency and the compromises they made in crafting that office to avoid the extremes of tyranny on the one hand and ineffectualness on the other. The fact that the office was created at all — in light of the widespread fear at the time of chief-executive excesses with the only extant model being that of monarchical rulers — was a product chiefly of the universal understanding that its first incumbent would be the revered George Washington.
Ellis brings us a founding picture of a nation so conflicted on slavery that the word itself could not even be included in the Constitution though its shadow definitely loomed over the document and found embodiment in certain artfully worded provisions that actually served to confer additional political power on white Southerners. Had slavery been definitively addressed at that time, there would have been no union. So it was left for future resolution, with no plan in mind for accomplishing that resolution except the hope that slavery might eventually die of its own weight. But the advent of the cotton gin enabled cotton production on a massive scale, and the opportunity presented by the Louisiana Purchase in the form of sale of that newly acquired land to settlers as a funding source for buying slaves’ liberty passed by unseized.
For Native-American relations, Ellis paints a noble picture of Washington, under Henry Knox’s strong urging, taking over from the states relations with the tribes by treating them as foreign nations. The idea was to create fair arrangements under federal treaties for the acquisition of portions of Native-American lands while reserving other portions for exclusive Native-American use. This enlightened concept was actually carried out successfully at first, only to fall victim to an enormous on-rush of settlers too vast for containment by our nation’s small army.
On race relations, the picture Meacham paints of our national soul is a bleak one indeed: in the years leading up to the Civil War when slavery’s expansion into new states and territories was a constant national struggle, through the Civil War itself, followed by Southern-states Reconstruction with U.S. troops protecting now-free former slaves from the terrorism of the newly formed Ku Klux Klan, followed by those troops’ withdrawal after President Grant left office in 1877 leading to Jim Crow laws throughout the South and de facto discrimination in the North, augmented by growth of the Klan to millions of members (including by the mid-1920s 11 governors, 16 U.S. Senators, and scores of congressmen) with its focus on hatred of African Americans expanded to include Catholics, Jews and recent immigrants. Yet there was also movement forward on multiple fronts, sometimes from very unlikely directions, as with President Lyndon Johnson’s pushing through of the transformational Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts after President Kennedy’s assassination. In short, despite frustrating slowness and multiple steps backward, progress has been made.
In another comforting reflection at the end of his age-by-age cataloging of our nation’s forward and backward steps, Meacham argues that “the imminence of chaos, of a nation torn asunder, of a country irretrievably lost, is a long-standing [American] political trope.” He urges that our “country works best…when we resist [the temptation] to view politics not as a mediation of differences but as total warfare where no quarter can be given.” Both Meacham and Ellis document how that mediation has happened repeatedly, from the creation of our nation, through its evolution, to the present day and through times even more depressing and fraught than the present hour. Their perspective offers real hope in our own very troubling times.