Lincoln and the Fight for Peace
Author John Avlon, on his book, Lincoln and the Fight for Peace, examines the final weeks of Lincoln’s life when he articulated clear principles he hoped would guide the United States toward reconciliation. These principles would become his legacy, bringing peace to divided nations long after his death and inspiring future presidents and the world’s most famous peacemakers for generations to come.
A groundbreaking, revelatory history of Abraham Lincoln’s plan to secure a just and lasting peace after the Civil War — a vision that inspired future presidents as well as the world’s most famous peacemakers, including Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr. It is a story of war and peace, race and reconciliation.
As the tide of the Civil War turned in the spring of 1865, Abraham Lincoln took a dangerous two-week trip to visit the troops on the front lines accompanied by his young son, seeing combat up close, meeting liberated slaves in the ruins of Richmond, and comforting wounded Union and Confederate soldiers.
The power of Lincoln’s personal example in the closing days of the war offers a portrait of a peacemaker. He did not demonize people he disagreed with. He used humor, logic, and scripture to depolarize bitter debates. Balancing moral courage with moderation, Lincoln believed that decency could be the most practical form of politics, but he understood that people were more inclined to listen to reason when greeted from a position of strength. Ulysses S. Grant’s famously generous terms of surrender to General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox that April were a direct expression of the president’s belief that a soft peace should follow a hard war.
While his assassination sent the country careening off course, Lincoln’s vision would be vindicated long after his death, inspiring future generations in their own quests to secure a just and lasting peace. As US General Lucius Clay, architect of the post-WWII German occupation, said when asked what guided his decisions: “I tried to think of the kind of occupation the South would have had if Abraham Lincoln had lived.”
Lincoln and the Fight for Peace reveals how Lincoln’s character informed his commitment to unconditional surrender followed by a magnanimous peace. Even during the Civil War, surrounded by reactionaries and radicals, he refused to back down from his belief that there is more that unites us than divides us. But he also understood that peace needs to be waged with as much intensity as war. Lincoln’s plan to win the peace is his unfinished symphony, but in its existing notes, we can find an anthem that can begin to bridge our divisions today.
[Recorded on May 5, 2022.]
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John Avlon is a senior political analyst and anchor at CNN. He is an award-winning columnist and the author of Independent Nation, Wingnuts, and Washington’s Farewell. Previously, he was the editor-in-chief and managing director of The Daily Beast and served as chief speechwriter for the Mayor of New York during the attacks of 9/11. He lives with his wife Margaret Hoover and their two children in New York.