“What’s it like to be a historian living through this moment in history?” NPR’s Steven Inskeep posed to Jon Meacham this past Independence Day on an episode of the Morning Edition’s History of Our Time series. “It’s as though every day is Christmas. It really is,” Meacham replied. “And I'm not being overly facile about it,” he continued, “if you care about the underlying elements of our national story, the national order, then a moment in which all of those fundamental assumptions are being questioned is a time of intrinsic interest.” This response epitomizes Meacham’s commitment to historicizing the turbulent political time Americans are living in right now. As a presidential historian, award-winning author, and one of the nation’s most prominent political pundits, Meacham cannot help but compare his interest in the election of President Donald Trump and the subsequent watershed in American politics to an eager child on Christmas Day.
Meacham was born in Chattanooga in 1969 and educated at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. He graduated summa cum laude in 1991 with a degree in English Literature and began his career as a writer at the Chattanooga Times. In 1995, he joined Newsweek as a writer, later becoming the magazine’s Editor-In-Chief. Over the next two decades, Meacham forged a career in Washington, D.C. and New York’s most elite political and media circles, emerging as a presidential biographer and public intellectual. In 2009, Meacham published his groundbreaking work American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography. His other presidential biographies include Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship (2003), Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power (2012), and his latest work, Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush, which quickly rose to the top of the New York Times bestsellers list in 2015.
Through years of meticulous archival research, Meacham’s biographies unearth an impressive array of primary sources, many of which cannot easily be accessed as they are in privately held manuscript collections. Through lively and surprisingly accessible prose, Meacham’s works reveal the complexities of these Great Men, their families, and their presidencies. These political biographies represent the growth of public history and interest in historicizing the shifting role of the president. He skillfully provides a “roadmap” that helps explain the current sociopolitical climate. It is also worth noting that Meacham has edited numerous books as well as authored American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation in 2006, which examines discourses on religion and politics in early America.
Meacham’s reach is far and wide in universities and organizations across the nation and abroad. He is a Distinguished Visiting Professor of History at both Vanderbilt University and his alma mater, the University of the South, where he has also served on the Board of Regents. He chairs the National Advisory Board of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University, a fellow of the Society of American Historians, and a trustee of several schools and foundations.
In addition to his Pulitzer Prize, Meacham’s books have received numerous accolades, which include the Fraunces Tavern Museum Book Award, the Colby Award, and the Nashville Public Library Literary Award. Personally, he has been recognized for his life work, awarded the Anti-Defamation League’s Hubert H. Humphrey First Amendment Prize and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania’s Founder’s Award, as well as honorary doctorates from universities such as the Berkeley Divinity School at Yale University. Beyond the Ivory Tower, most Americans familiar with Meacham and his work have come to know him as a leading voice in public political discourse, as he regularly appears as a guest on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, PBS’s Charlie Rose, and other television and radio broadcasts. Named a “Global Leader for Tomorrow” by the World Economics Forum, Meacham’s broader global impact is felt through his work as a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Meacham is currently at work on a biography of James and Dolley Madison, while serving as an executive editor at Random House and a contributing editor to Time magazine. In these tumultuous times, Meacham’s work is more relevant than ever, shedding light on how several of the nation’s most prominent, effective presidents have employed a deep understanding of history to inform their presidencies as well as promoted character traits such as humility, empathy, and hope, which he calls “an essential element of presidential leadership.”