A little change can sometimes make a huge difference. Jon Meacham’s histories, by including even short examinations of the religious beliefs of their main characters, end up feeling completely different from most other histories on the same subjects. Recently he wrote a book called The Soul of America. Using the word soul in a title is an unusual choice, one that indicates an acknowledgement of a transcendent world of value and even perhaps a scale of righteousness. It’s not that Meacham wants to pronounce judgment on his subjects as good or bad servants of God, but that recognizing his subjects’ desire to be good servants of God allows him entry into new realms of evaluation.
Take Andrew Jackson, for instance. In American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House Meacham concludes by suggesting that the slave quarters still standing on the Hermitage grounds serve to remind us that “evil can appear perfectly normal to even the best men and women of a given time.” The point, while implicitly calling Jackson one of the best men of his time, recognizes that he did great evil. In an earlier chapter, he says, “There is nothing redemptive about Jackson's Indian policy.” Meacham doesn’t ultimately have to say that Jackson was either a good Christian or a bad Christian or, heaven forbid, not a Christian. He tells us the seventh President was a man who did great good for our country, imposed and perpetuated great evil on our country, and did many history-changing things the value of which we can debate about (letting the Bank die, for example).
One biography may try to convince the reader that its subject is worthy of emulation and eternal honor. Another biography may aim to debunk a commonly held favorable view of its subject. Yet another may attempt a dispassionate, nonjudgmental presentation of facts, telling the reader, “Your world is different because of the events outlined in these pages. You decide whether you like the changes.” But Meacham pronounces clear judgment on the deeds of Jackson while leaving the unitary judgment of the man to the Lord. You may think Jackson is a good guy, Meacham tells us, but he once shot a man in the street because he didn’t like his brother. You may think he was a bad guy, but he fought the Nullifiers and kept the Union together. Meacham undermines all simple judgments and leaves me fascinated by a man who is neither black nor white nor gray but a chessboard of deep black and bright white.
Speaking of shooting someone in the street, it’s amazing how Donald Trump has made every Presidential biography obliquely about himself. Of course, Trump himself has drawn this particular parallel, perhaps thinking that he is like Jackson in being a populist. (I don’t have to decide whether Trump really is a populist or even understands populism.) But does Trump know that Jackson did shoot a man in the street and got away with it? Does he know that Jackson had a young couple from his family working at the top levels of government (a nephew and his wife, in Jackson’s case)? When Jackson deals with nonwhite races, I have to think of Trump. When Jackson deals with fiscal policy, I have to think of Trump. When Jackson develops a party machine that congeals loyalty to himself, I have to think of Trump. When Jackson fights with South Carolina over a tariff, I have to think of Trump. Sometimes Old Hickory is surprisingly like our current President, but sometimes he is very different. The contrast that moved me the most in our time of polarized political thought was Jackson’s persistent view that America (OK, white America) was one and that the different factions would have to compromise in order to preserve the protection and open trade of a unified nation.