Perspective: The moral utility of history

By believing in progress during our country’s gloomiest times, we can sustain the American story

Like many of his countrymen, Harry Truman was no saint on matters of race. He used racial slurs in private, and in 1911 while courting his future wife, Bess, he wrote to her that he was “strongly of the opinion that negroes ought to be in Africa, yellow men in Asia and white men in Europe and America.” 

A child of border state Missouri, he was the descendant of enslavers who loved Robert E. Lee and hated Abraham Lincoln. And after his White House years, Truman at times sounded reactionary, dismissing the March on Washington as “silly” and speculating that demonstrations against Jim Crow were inspired by Communists.

But as president of the United States, he saw his duty whole. Truman’s work on civil rights, including his focus on ending lynching and his decision to integrate the American military, was in part driven by his horror over brutal attacks like one in South Carolina, where a severe police beating to the face of a newly discharged Black soldier had blinded the man. 

“My God!” Truman said. “I had no idea it was as terrible as that! We’ve got to do something!” 

In his public capacity, he transcended the limitations of his personal background. “My forebears were Confederates. … But my very stomach turned over when I learned that Negro soldiers, just back from overseas, were being dumped out of Army trucks in Mississippi and being beaten,” he told Democratic leaders. “Whatever my inclinations as a native of Missouri might have been, as President I know this is bad. I shall fight to end evils like this.” 

Hence the need for federal action to fulfill the nation’s promise on voting, employment, housing, criminal justice and public accommodations. Southerners, in particular, were aghast; the speaker of the Mississippi House of Representatives, Walter Sillers Jr., said Truman was proposing “damnable, communistic, unconstitutional, anti-American, anti-Southern legislation.” 

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At a White House luncheon for the executive committee of the Democratic National Committee, a committee woman from Alabama, Mrs. Leonard Thomas, confronted the president. “I want to take a message back to the South,” Mrs. Thomas said to Truman. “Can I tell them you’re not ramming miscegenation down our throats? That you’re for all the people, not just the North?” 

The president thought the moment was right for a history lesson. 

Then and there, in front of the leaders of his party in a contentious time just ahead of a closely fought presidential election, Truman reached for American scripture — the Bill of Rights. Taking a copy of the Constitution from his pocket, the president, in his flat Missouri accent, began to read. 

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances,” Truman said, then moved on from amendment to amendment, enumerating the liberties of the people — all of the people.

When he finished, he declared himself immovable on civil rights. “I’m everybody’s president,” Truman told Mrs. Thomas. “I take back nothing of what I propose and make no excuses for it.” 

A White House waiter, an African American, was said to have become so animated by the tense exchange that he inadvertently knocked a cup of coffee out of Truman’s hands. “Those — the Bill of Rights — applies to everybody in this country,” Truman said, still addressing his visitor from Alabama, and “don’t you ever forget it.” 

Recalling the moment years later, Truman laughed. “I was just thinking of that old woman’s face when I started reading her the Bill of Rights,” he said. “It was quite a sight. … But you know something? It’s not a bad idea to read those 10 amendments every once in a while. Not enough people do, and that’s one of the reasons we’re in the trouble we’re in.” 

In his long retirement in Independence — he lived for nearly 20 years after leaving the White House — Truman often mused about history and the presidency. Dictating to his secretary or to his wife or daughter and in scribbled notes to himself, the 33rd president was characteristically plainspoken.

“You never can tell what’s going to happen to a man until he gets to a place of responsibility,” Truman observed. “You just can’t tell in advance, whether you’re talking about a general in the field in a military situation or the manager of a large farm or a bank officer or a president. … You’ve just got to pick the man you think is best on the basis of his past history and the views he expresses on present events and situations, and then you sit around and do a lot of hoping and if you’re inclined that way, a certain amount of praying.” 

You just can’t tell. Sobering words, but we still have to try, or else the whole democratic enterprise becomes even less intelligible than it already is.

History — which is all we have to go on — suggests that a president’s vices and his virtues matter enormously, for politics is a human, not a clinical, undertaking. So, too, do the vices and virtues of the people at large, for leadership is the art of the possible, and possibility is determined by whether generosity can triumph over selfishness in the American soul. It’s easy to be cynical about, and dismissive of, such a view. 

Time and again, Lincoln’s better angels have found a way to prevail. | Illustration by Craig Frazier

But if natives and newcomers alike can live up to the American idea of inclusion, then our best instincts will carry the day against our worst. To think this angle of vision hokey fails to take the common sense of our history into account. As a matter of observable fact, the United States, through its sporadic adherence to its finest aspirations, is the most durable experiment in pluralistic republicanism the world has known. Other national revolutions have descended into dictatorship and persecution; ours has produced enviable, if fragile, democratic institutions. 

In the main, the America of the 21st century is, for all its shortcomings, freer and more accepting than it has ever been. If that weren’t the case, right-wing populist attacks on immigrants and the widening mainstream wouldn’t be so ferocious. 

A tragic element of history is that every advance must contend with forces of reaction. 

In the years after Lincoln, the America that emancipated its enslaved population endured an uneven Reconstruction and a century of regional revanchism.

Under Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, the America that was rapidly industrializing and embracing many progressive reforms was plagued by theories of racial superiority and fears of the “other” that kept us from acting on the implications of the promise of the country.

In the age of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and of Harry Truman, the America that rescued capitalism, redefined the role of the state to lift up the weakest among us and defeated fascism fell victim to racial hysteria and interned innocent Americans of Japanese descent.

Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower played critical roles in building an America of broadening wealth, and there was the beginning of progress on civil rights, in roughly the same years the country was roiled by McCarthyism and right-wing conspiracy theories. 

The only way to make sense of this eternal struggle is to understand that it is just that: an eternal struggle. And the only way to come to that understanding is by knowing the history that’s shaped us. “The next generation never learns anything from the previous one until it’s brought home with a hammer,” Truman once said. “I’ve wondered why the next generation can’t profit from the generation before but they never do until they get knocked in the head by experience.” 

So what can we, in our time, learn from the past, even while we’re getting knocked in the head? That the perfect should not be the enemy of the good. That compromise is the oxygen of democracy. And that we learn the most from those who came before not by gazing up at them uncritically or down on them condescendingly but by looking them in the eye and taking their true measure as human beings, not as gods.

Which brings us to the moral utility of history. It is tempting to feel superior to the past. But as Arthur Schlesinger Jr. once said, “Righteousness is easy, also cheap, in retrospect.” When we condemn posterity for slavery, or for Native American removal or for denying women their full role in the life of the nation, we ought to pause and think: What injustices are we perpetuating even now that will one day face the harshest of verdicts by those who come after us? 

One of the points of reflecting on the past is to prepare us for action in the present. As Truman knew — and the visiting Southerner, to her discomfort, learned at that White House luncheon — the presidency offers possibilities for such action that are both dazzling and daunting. “The President,” Woodrow Wilson wrote, “is at liberty, both in law and conscience, to be as big a man as he can.” In an echo of that point, in his speech at American University in June 1963 proposing a ban on nuclear testing, John F. Kennedy said, “Man can be as big as he wants.” 

In his post-presidential notes, Harry Truman was candid about the tricky nature of democracy. Yes, much of the nation’s fate lies in the hands of the president, but the voters have the ultimate authority.

“The country has to awaken every now and then to the fact that the people are responsible for the government they get,” Truman wrote. “And when they elect a man to the presidency who doesn’t take care of the job, they’ve got nobody to blame but themselves.”

As usual, the old man was on to something. Truman had immense regard for FDR’s longtime adviser Harry Hopkins, who also believed the followers mattered as much as the leader. Hopkins told Robert Sherwood on the day of FDR’s White House funeral, “now we’ve got to get to work on our own.”

“We learn the most from those who came before not by gazing up at them uncritically or down on them condescendingly but by looking them in the eye and taking their true measure as human beings, not as gods.”

Hopkins and Sherwood, though, were working in a national context of hope; FDR and Truman came out of the best of the American tradition of leadership. To those presidents, the nation was rising, not falling. It was already great, and could be made greater. In our own moment, fears of American decline are pervasive. 

Every generation tends to think of itself as uniquely challenged and under siege. The questions of the present assume outsize and urgent importance, for they are, after all, the questions that shape and suffuse the lives of those living in the moment. Humankind seems to be forever coping with crisis. Strike the “seems”: Humankind is forever coping with crisis, or believes it is, and will until what William Faulkner described as “the last red and dying evening.” 

We have managed, however, to survive the crises and vicissitudes of history. Our brightest hours are almost never as bright as we like to think; our glummest moments are rarely as irredeemable as they feel at the time.

How, then, in an hour of anxiety about the future of the country can those with deep concerns about the nation’s future enlist on the side of the angels?

The battle begins with political engagement itself. It involves resisting tribalism, respecting facts and reason, while also finding a critical balance and keeping history in mind. 

Theodore Roosevelt put it best: “The first duty of an American citizen, then, is that he shall work in politics; his second duty is that he shall do that work in a practical manner; and his third is that it shall be done in accord with the highest principles of honor and justice.” Those who disdain the arena are unilaterally disarming themselves in the great contests of the soul, for they are cutting themselves off, childishly, from what Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. called the “passion and action” of the age. 

One need not become a candidate (though that’s certainly an option worth considering) or a political addict hooked on every twist and every turn and every tweet. But the paying of attention, the expressing of opinion and the casting of ballots are foundational to living up to the obligations of citizenship in a republic. To believe something creates an obligation to make that belief known and to act upon it within the arena. Politicians are far more often mirrors of public sentiment than they are molders; that is the nature of things in a popular government and should be a source of hope for those who long for a change of presidents or of policy. 

Politicians are more often mirrors of public sentiment than they are molders. | Illustration by Craig Frazier

In “The English Constitution,” Walter Bagehot defined public opinion as “the secret pervading disposition of society” that reveals itself in elections. But of course how we participate in those elections and disposition shaping is of equal importance. 

Resist tribalism 

Engagement, especially at a time of heightened conflict, has its perils: Those motivated by what they see as extremism on the other side are likely to view politics not as a mediation of difference but as total warfare where no quarter can be given. The country works best, however, when we resist such tribal inclinations.

“We know instinctively,” Jane Addams wrote, “that if we grow contemptuous of our fellows and consciously limit our intercourse to certain kinds of people whom we have previously decided to respect, we not only tremendously circumscribe our range of life, but limit the scope of our ethics.” 

Ever practical, Eleanor Roosevelt offered a prescription to guard against tribal self-certitude. “It is not only important but mentally invigorating to discuss political matters with people whose opinions differ radically from one’s own,” she wrote. “For the same reason, I believe it is a sound idea to attend not only the meetings of one’s own party but of the opposition. Find out what people are saying, what they are thinking, what they believe. This is an invaluable check on one’s own ideas. … If we are to cope intelligently with a changing world, we must be flexible and willing to relinquish opinions that no longer have any bearing on existing conditions.” If Mrs. Roosevelt were writing today, she might put it this way: Don’t let any single cable network or Twitter feed tell you what to think. 

“I have been fiercely partisan in politics and always militantly liberal,” Harry Truman recalled. “I will be that way as long as I live. Yet I think we would lose something important to our political life if the conservatives were all in one party and the liberals all in the other. This would make us a nation divided either into two opposing and irreconcilable camps or into even smaller and more contentious groups.”

Respect facts and deploy reason 

There is such a thing as discernible reality. Facts, as John Adams once said, are stubborn things, and yet too many Americans are locked into their particular vision of the world, choosing this view or that perspective based not on its grounding in fact but on whether it’s a view or perspective endorsed by the leaders one follows. “The dictators of the world say that if you tell a lie often enough, why, people will believe it,” Truman wrote. “Well, if you tell the truth often enough, they’ll believe it and go along with you.” 

To reflexively resist one side or the other without weighing the merits of a given issue is all too common — and all too regrettable. By closing our minds to the even remote possibility that a political leader with whom we nearly always disagree might have a point about a particular matter is to preemptively surrender the capacity of the mind to shape our public lives. Of course, it may be that you believe, after consideration, that the other side is wrong — but at least take a minute to make sure. 

Find a critical balance 

Being informed is more than knowing details and arguments. It also entails being humble enough to recognize that only on the rarest of occasions does any single camp have a monopoly on virtue or on wisdom. American presidents are not mythic figures. They are human beings with good days and bad days, flashes of genius and the occasional dumb idea, alternately articulate and tongue-tied. If we are sympathetic rather than blindly condemnatory or celebratory, we will, I believe, help create a more rational political climate. 

“Those motivated by what they see as extremism on the other side are likely to view politics not as a mediation of difference but as total warfare where no quarter can be given. The country works best, however, when we resist such tribal inclinations.”

One evening in 1962, as part of a series of what the Kennedys called “Hickory Hill seminars” (they had started at Robert F. Kennedy’s house in McLean, Virginia) in which a small group of high-ranking officials would have dinner and listen to an informal lecture by a visiting scholar, the historian David Herbert Donald was chatting with President Kennedy and other guests in the Yellow Oval Room. The conversation turned to presidential rankings, and Kennedy burst out: “No one has a right to grade a president — even poor James Buchanan — who has not sat in his chair, examined the mail and information that came across his desk and learned why he made his decisions.” 

Fair enough, but this injunction of Theodore Roosevelt’s remains resonant: “To announce that there must be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public.”

Even with their manifold failings, journalists who seek to report and to illuminate rather than to opine and to divide are critical to a democracy. “Publicity is the very soul of justice,” the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham wrote. “It is the keenest spur to exertion, and the surest of all guards against impropriety. … Without publicity, all other checks are fruitless: in comparison with publicity, all other checks are of small account.” 

Keep history in mind 

A grasp of the past can be orienting. “When the mariner has been tossed for many days in thick weather, and on an unknown sea, he naturally avails himself of the first pause in the storm, the earliest glance of the sun, to take his latitude, and ascertain how far the elements have driven him from his true course,” Sen. Daniel Webster said in 1830. “Let us imitate this prudence, and before we float farther on the waves of this debate, refer to the point from which we departed, that we may at least be able to conjecture where we now are.” 

To remember Joe McCarthy, for instance, gives us a way to gauge demagoguery. Writing in 1959, five years after the senator’s fall, Richard Rovere reflected on the meaning of McCarthy. “I cannot easily conceive of circumstances in which McCarthy, either faulted as he was or freed of his disabling weaknesses, could have become President of the United States or could have seized the reins of power on any terms,” Rovere wrote. “To visualize him in the White House, one has, I think, to imagine a radical change in the national character and will and taste.” There was, though, no guarantee against such a radical change. “But if I am right in thinking we have been, by and large, lucky,” Rovere wrote, “there is no assurance that our luck will hold.” And it didn’t.

“It may be that you believe, after consideration, that the other side is wrong — but at least take a minute to make sure.”

The past and the present tell us, too, that demagogues can only thrive when a substantial portion of the demos — the people — want him to. In “The American Commonwealth,” James Bryce warned of the dangers of a renegade president. Bryce’s view was not that the individual himself, from the White House, could overthrow the Constitution. Disaster would come, Bryce believed, at the hands of a demagogic president with an enthusiastic public base. “A bold president who knew himself to be supported by a majority in the country, might be tempted to override the law, and deprive the minority of the protection which the law affords it,” Bryce wrote. “He might be a tyrant, not against the masses, but with the masses.” 

The cheering news is that hope is not lost. “The people have often made mistakes,” Harry Truman said, “but given time and the facts, they will make the corrections.” Lincoln, who gave us the image of our better angels, should have the last word. “He was a president who understood people, and when it came time to make decisions, he was willing to take the responsibility and make those decisions no matter how difficult they were,” Truman wrote. “He had a good head and a great brain and a kind heart. … He was the best kind of ordinary man, and when I say that he was an ordinary man, I mean that as high praise, not deprecation. That’s the highest praise you can give a man, that he’s one of the people and becomes distinguished in the service that he gives other people. I don’t know of any higher compliment you can pay a man than that.” 

In the summer of 1864, the 166th Ohio Regiment called at the White House. The volunteer infantry had seen action some weeks before when Confederate general Jubal Early — the Jubal Early who would, after Appomattox, become one of the most influential defenders of the Lost Cause — had moved against Washington. 

Headquartered at Silver Spring, Maryland, Early was, he recalled, “in sight of the dome of the Capitol.” The Federal troops mounted a stand and held their ground. Lincoln, who observed the battle firsthand, came under enemy fire; “a man,” his secretary John Hay wrote, “was shot by his side.” Lincoln never flinched. “He stood there with a long frock coat and plug hat on, making a very conspicuous figure,” one observer recalled of the commander in chief. 

“Get down, you damn fool!” a young officer, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., of the 20th Massachusetts, was reputed to have snapped at the president. To the veterans returning to Ohio after the battle, Lincoln made some brief remarks as they prepared to go west. No one knew when the war would end; no one knew if Lincoln, who was facing reelection in November, would even be president in a matter of months. 

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He spoke not with the poetry of Gettysburg, but his words on that August day said much about why the salvation of the Union would repay any price in blood and toil and treasure. The tall, tired president, his face heavily lined, his burdens unimaginable, was straightforward. “It is,” he said, “in order that each one of you may have, through this free government which we have enjoyed, an open field, and a fair chance for your industry, enterprise and intelligence; that you may all have equal privileges in the race of life with all its desirable human aspirations — it is for this that the struggle should be maintained, that we may not lose our birthrights — not only for one, but for two or three years, if necessary.” And, finally: “The nation is worth fighting for, to secure such an inestimable jewel.”

For all of our darker impulses, for all of our shortcomings and for all of the dreams denied and deferred, the experiment begun so long ago, carried out so imperfectly, is worth the fight. There is, in fact, no struggle more important, and none nobler, than the one we wage in the service of those better angels who, however besieged, are always ready for battle.

Jon Meacham is a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian. This essay is an adapted excerpt from his book, “The Soul of America.”

This story appears in the July/August issue of Deseret MagazineLearn more about how to subscribe.

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