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What is the Soul of America?

May 2021
7min read

How do we define the soul of the American nation, the principles that bind us together?

Editor's Note: Jon Meacham is a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and a former Executive Editor and Executive Vice President at Random House. The following is an excerpt from his best-selling book, The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels.

constitution signed
When drafting their constitution, the founders spoke of the animating American conviction that tomorrow can be better than today.

The last year in American politics and life has been difficult. But we have been there before. At critical times in our history, hope overcame division and fear and we have came together to defeat the forces of anger, intolerance, and extremism. Even when all seemed lost, the times gave way to light. And that is in large measure because, in the battle between the impulses of good and of evil in the American soul, what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature” have prevailed just often enough to keep the national enterprise alive. 

The war between the ideal and the real, between what’s right and what’s convenient, between the larger good and personal interest is the contest that unfolds in the soul of every American.

To speak of a soul at all — either of a person or of country — can seem speculative and gauzy. Yet belief in the existence of an immanent collection of convictions, dispositions, and sensitivities that shape character and inform conduct is ancient and perennial. There is a rich history of discussion of what the Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal, writing in 1944, called the American Creed: devotion to principles of liberty, of self-government, and of equal opportunity for all regardless of race, gender, religion, or nation of origin. 

Echoing Myrdal, the historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., wrote, “The genius of America lies in its capacity to forge a single nation from peoples of remarkably diverse racial, religious, and ethnic origins. . . . The American Creed envisages a nation composed of individuals making their own choices and accountable to themselves, not a nation based on inviolable ethnic communities.... It is what all Americans should learn, because it is what binds all Americans together.”

I consider the American soul to be more than the American Creed because there is a significant difference between professing adherence to a set of beliefs and acting upon them. The war between the ideal and the real, between what’s right and what’s convenient, between the larger good and personal interest is the contest that unfolds in the soul of every American. The creed of which Myrdal and Schlesinger and others have long spoken can find concrete expression only once individuals in the arena choose to side with the angels. 

That is a decision that must come from the soul — and sometimes the soul’s darker forces win out over its nobler ones. The message of Martin Luther King, Jr. — that we should be judged on the content of our character, not on the color of our skin—dwells in the American soul. So does the menace of the Ku Klux Klan. History hangs precariously in the balance between such extremes. Our fate is contingent upon which element — that of hope or that of fear — emerges triumphant.

lincoln
In the battle between the impulses of good and of evil in the American soul, what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature” have prevailed just often enough to keep the national enterprise alive. 

Philosophically speaking, the soul is the vital center, the core, the heart, the essence of life. Heroes and martyrs have such a vital center. So do killers and haters. Socrates believed the soul was nothing less than the animating force of reality “What is it that, present in a body, makes it living?” he asked in the Ahab. The answer was brief, and epochal: “A soul.”

In the second chapter of the book of Genesis in the Hebrew Bible, the soul was life itself: “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life: and man became a living soul.” In the Greek New Testament, when Jesus says “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends,” the word for “life” could also be translated as “soul.”

In terms of Western thought, then, the soul is generally accepted as a central and self-evident truth. It is what makes us, us, whether we are speaking of a person or of a people, which Saint Augustine of Hippo, writing in The City of God, defined as “an assemblage of reasonable beings bound together by a common agreement as to the objects of their love."

Common agreement as to the objects of their love: It’s a marvelous test of a nation. What have Americans loved in common down the centuries? The answer sheds light on that most essential of questions: What is the American soul? The dominant feature of that soul — the air we breathe, or, to shift the metaphor, the controlling vision — is a belief in the proposition, as Jefferson put in the Declaration, that all men are created equal. It is therefore incumbent on us, from generation to generation, to create a sphere in which we can live, live freely, and pursue happiness to the best of our abilities. We cannot guarantee equal outcomes, but we must do all we can to ensure equal opportunity.

Hence a love of fair play, of generosity of spirit, of reaping the rewards of hard work, and of faith in the future. For all our failings — and they are legion — there is an abiding idea of an America in which anyone coming from anywhere, of any color or creed, has free access to what Lincoln called the “just and generous and prosperous system which opens the way for all.” Too often, people view their own opportunity as dependent on domination over others, which helps explain why such people see the expansion of opportunity for all as a loss of opportunity for themselves. 

For all our failings — and they are legion — there is an abiding idea of an America in which anyone coming from anywhere, of any color or creed, has free access to what Lincoln called the “just and generous and prosperous system which opens the way for all.”

In such moments the forces of reaction thrive. In our finest hours, though, the soul of the country manifests itself in an inclination to open our arms rather than to clench our fists: to look out rather than to turn inward; to accept rather than to reject. In so doing, America has grown ever stronger, confident that the choice of light over dark is the means by which we pursue progress.

For reasons ranging from geography to market capitalism to Jeffersonian ideas of liberty, Americans have tended to believe, without irony, that Thomas Paine was right when he declared that “we have it in our power to begin the world over again.” In the twilight of his life, Franklin D. Roosevelt recalled the words of his old Groton School rector, Endicott Peabody, who had told him, “Things in life will not always run smoothly. Sometimes we will be rising toward the heights — then all will seem to reverse itself and start downward. The great fact to remember is that the trend of civilization itself is forever upward; that a line drawn through the middle of the peaks and the valleys of the centuries always has an upward trend.”

mlk
The message of Martin Luther King. Jr. — that we should be judged on the content of our character, not on the color of our skin — dwells in the American soul.

Roosevelt quoted that observation in his final inaugural address in the winter of 1945, and American power and prosperity soon reached epic heights. The Peabody-Roosevelt gospel seemed true enough: The world was not perfect, nor was it perfectible, but on we went, in the face of inequities and inequalities, seeking to expand freedom at home, to defend liberty abroad, to conquer disease and go to the stars. For notably among nations, the United States has long been shaped by the promise, if nor always by the reality, of forward motion, of rising greatness. and of the expansion of knowledge. of wealth. and of happiness.

So it has been from the beginning — even before the beginning, really, if we think of 1776 as the birth of the nation. “I always consider the settlement of America with Reverence and Wonder,” John Adams wrote in 1765, “as the Opening of a grand scene and Design in Providence, for the Illumination of the Ignorant and the Emancipation of the slavish Part of Mankind all over the Earth.” Jefferson, too, spoke of the animating American conviction that tomorrow can be better than today. In his eighty-second year, Jefferson wrote of a “march of civilization” that had, in his long lifetime, passed “over us like a cloud of light, increasing our knowledge and improving our condition.... And where this progress will stop no one can say.”

In the middle of the nineteenth century the minister and abolitionist Theodore Parker defined “the American idea” as the love of freedom versus the law of slavery. Frederick Douglass, the former slave who became a leading voice for equality, believed deeply in America’s capacity for justice. “I know of no soil better adapted to the growth of reform than American soil,” Douglass said after the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision in1857. “I know of no country where the conditions for affecting great changes in the settled order of things, for the development of right ideas of liberty and humanity, are more favorable than here in these United States.”

Eleanor Roosevelt, niece of TR, wife of FDR, and global human rights pioneer, wrote, “It is essential that we remind ourselves frequently of our past history, that we recall the shining promise that it offered to all men everywhere who would be free. the promise that it is still our destiny to fulfill.”

“Intellectually I know America is no better than any other country; emotionally I know she is better than ever other country." —Sinclair Lewis

Self-congratulatory, even self-delusional? At times and in part, yes. It’s an inescapable fact of experience, though, that from John Winthrop to Jefferson to Lincoln. America has been defined by a sense of its own exceptionalism — an understanding of destiny that has also been tempered by an appreciation of the tragic nature of life. “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible,” the theologian and thinker Reinhold Niebuhr wrote in 1944, “but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.” We try; we fail; but we must try again, and again, and again, for only in trial is progress possible.

Deep in our national soul we believe ourselves to be entitled by the free gifts of nature and of nature’s God — and, in a theological frame, of our Creator — to pursue happiness. That ambient reality has been so strong that even the most clear-eyed among us have admitted the distinctive nature of the nation. “Intellectually I know America is no better than any other country; emotionally I know she is better than ever other country,” the novelist Sinclair Lewis remarked in 1930. He was not alone then, nor would he be alone now.


Excerpt from THE SOUL OF AMERICA: THE BATTLE FOR OUR BETTER ANGELS by Jon Meacham, copyright © 2018 by Merewether LLC. Used by permission of Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

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