The last few years have not been easy for the totemic figures of American history, caught in the crossfire of our culture wars. Even Abraham Lincoln, who routinely wins reelection as our greatest president in the polls historians like to give each other, has been buffeted by these winds. In 2020, a Lincoln statue was torn down by an angry mob in Portland, Ore.; another was removed, more decorously, in Boston. The fate of other statues, including the Freedmen’s Memorial in Washington’s Lincoln Park, remains up in the air.
So it is reassuring to read a bracing defense of Lincoln’s leadership. John Avlon’s “Lincoln and the Fight for Peace” does two things at once. It offers a close reading of Lincoln’s final weeks in office, with the Civil War winding down and huge questions still unresolved about the terms of surrender, the rights of newly liberated African Americans and the Reconstruction to follow.
The book also serves as a kind of leadership primer, a growing subcategory of presidential biography, and explains how Lincoln’s lessons were absorbed by later generations of presidents and policymakers.
Avlon succeeds admirably in the first task. A former speechwriter for Rudy Giuliani (whom he identifies, without saying his name, as “the mayor of New York”) and a CNN commentator, Avlon has a sure sense of pacing and pays close attention to one of the most consequential periods of Lincoln’s presidency, from the glorious second inaugural address to the shattering end of April 14, 1865.
Lincoln guided the ship of state brilliantly in these critical weeks (for a time, the ship of state was no metaphor — as the final battle for Richmond was raging, Lincoln was close by, living on a naval vessel). As Avlon shows, he pursued two complementary goals with great effectiveness. His military policy was to crush Robert E. Lee’s army and force an unconditional surrender, so that the war would end cleanly. But his political policy was to work quickly toward normalization, with the rebellious states readmitted under generous terms and most former Confederates forgiven. Perceptively, Avlon sees this as part of Lincoln’s natural need for “symmetry” — he would often announce two very different policies at the same time as he moved, crablike, toward the twin goals of reunion and emancipation (a goal that was far clearer at the end of the war than the beginning).
That strategy was not always popular in the North, but Lincoln stayed with it doggedly, and it paid off. Day by day, Avlon shows the life draining from the Confederacy and Lincoln’s rising joy that the Union would endure. But we also feel a vivid sense of danger, as Lincoln wanders into Richmond too soon, while the fires are still burning (his bodyguard saw a man with a rifle in a second-story window, aiming at him). In scene after scene, he seems to court disaster with a cavalier disregard for his safety — courageous, yes, but arguably a poor form of leadership, given what followed. The dread only deepens as Lincoln returns to his capital, while quoting scenes from “Macbeth” that portend assassination.
The murder comes as no surprise, of course, but it is still heart-rending, after seeing his rare gifts up close. Our appreciation for Lincoln then deepens some more after Avlon presents “the Anti-Lincoln,” his vice president and successor, Andrew Johnson of Tennessee. With none of Lincoln’s generosity, Johnson squandered his moment and quickly got bogged down in nasty disputes with Congress. Avlon then details all the ways in which Lincoln’s vision unraveled as lesser politicians pursued their own agendas.
There the story might have ended. But Avlon brings it into the 20th century and beyond, to offer broad leadership lessons to today’s readers. The results are mixed. He finds fascinating ways in which memories of the Civil War reverberated well into the modern era — as late as 1938, the same year that Germany occupied Czechoslovakia, Northern and Southern veterans were gathering for spirited reunions at Gettysburg.
But it is no simple matter to shoehorn other historical situations into the specific frame of 1865. One example works well: Franklin D. Roosevelt pursued a similar two-track policy of unconditional surrender and reintegration as the end of World War II approached (fortunately, Harry S. Truman proved an abler successor than Andrew Johnson). That policy continues to pay dividends, as recent weeks have proved, with Germany and Japan forming a strong part of the pro-democracy coalition standing up to Vladimir Putin.
It is harder to make a case for World War I. In 1919, the United States had nothing like the leverage it would have in 1945, and it requires an acrobatic leap of faith to assume that President Woodrow Wilson could have imposed a more satisfying surrender on “the Hun,” as Avlon calls the Germans, anachronistically. It is equally difficult to apply Lincolnesque lessons to the smaller conflicts, so unlike the Civil War, that have dogged our presidents since then — except to assume that Lincoln would have steered clear of them.
These later chapters move quickly from decade to decade with a Forrest-Gump-like bounciness — fascinating at times but also unsettling for those accustomed to a steadier read. There are several minor miscues as well: Gen. Lucius Clay, the hero of the Berlin Airlift, was a distant relative, but not a descendant, of Henry Clay, and it is not true that no Southern state held a referendum on secession — Texas did. A moving speech by Lincoln to a group of African Americans in Richmond is placed in the wrong location (the Confederate White House); according to most sources, it was delivered as Lincoln came ashore earlier in the day.
But Avlon’s durable faith in Lincoln offers a boost of confidence at a time when our history, instead of uniting us, has become yet another battleground. With insight, he chooses familiar and lesser-known Lincoln phrases to remind readers how much we still have to learn from our 16th president. His book also offers an extra dividend, coming as it does in the midst of Ukraine’s agony. Avlon closes with the final sentences of the second inaugural address, and its hope that we can “achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.” As Lincoln understood, the work of democracy at home is indispensable to the work of peace abroad. It is reassuring to have the case for each restated so cogently.
Ted Widmer is a distinguished lecturer at the Macaulay Honors College of the City University of New York. His last book was “Lincoln on the Verge: Thirteen Days to Washington.”
Lincoln and the Fight for Peace
Simon & Schuster. 354 pp. $30.