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Book Review: Lincoln And the Fight for Peace

Simon & Schuster

CNN anchor and Sag Harbor resident John Avlon’s newest nonfiction book is receiving a lot of attention. Maybe because of the intriguing oxymoron in its title — Lincoln and the Fight for Peace — and, for sure, because of its heartfelt humanity. Avlon’s Lincoln is a peacemaker, not a pacifist. A scripture-quoting statesman from a slaveholding state who insisted that justice, mercy and reconciliation must follow unconditional surrender in war; a sympathetic “soulful centrist” up to the day he was assassinated over the 1865 Easter weekend. We know the script; we still gasp at the narrative. Avlon’s a good storyteller, but he’s less interested in the assassination than he is in what Lincoln was trying to achieve right before it.

Lincoln and the Fight For Peace is an inspirational revisiting of Lincoln’s last weeks based on an impressive amount of secondary source material that serves Avlon’s theme: Lincoln the peacemaker. But when Avlon celebrates Lincoln’s character — “nothing mean or small. Nothing petty; intelligence suffused with humor, humility, compassion” — and a gift for the telling tale or anecdote — he inadvertently suggests that Lincoln was a hard act to follow. Indeed, the last sections of the book show how much Lincoln’s apparent heirs in the 20th century did not and could not realize his goals.

Could anyone else have turned former slave Frederick Douglass from critic to ally and friend? Could anyone else have written The Second Inaugural Address? “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in….” Avlon points out that three-quarters of the words of this brilliant speech, written one month before the assassination, are words of one-syllable: basic, uncomplicated, unlike the man himself. Lincoln revered the Bible, which he was forever quoting, but his favorite play was Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.” Think about that.

“We will not find another Lincoln,” Avlon acknowledges, but Lincoln can inspire individuals with a similar spirit to carry forward his “redeeming vision of reconciliation” to heal a divided country. Avlon traces Lincoln’s legacy, to, among others, Martin Luther King, Willy Brandt, Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, but concedes that we don’t know how The Great Emancipator would have effected his moderate and merciful Reconstruction policies (the South preferred the word “restoration”), especially with some Republican radicals in the North turning against him as going too slow. Ironically, after his death, some diehard Sons of the South, including those sympathetic to the KKK, admitted that they might have fared better had the bigoted and corrupt Andrew Johnson not inherited the presidency.

Reading Lincoln and the Fight for Peace now, as the world reels from Putin’s egomaniacal aggression against Ukraine, gives Avlon’s book a challenge he and many others might not have anticipated: how to sue and keep the peace if your opposition is an amoral, unrepentant, cruel ideologue. Although the epigraph to Avlon’s book, from Lincoln’s 1864 reelection speech, states that we can “learn wisdom from the great trial” that was The Civil War, and “not seek out wrongs to be avenged,” the passage begins with these words: “Human nature will not change.” But as Avlon knows, history changes — its demography, its maps, its narrative, its capacity to generate heroes who might overcome, but don’t. Clearly in the eternal debate of who or what most makes history — a person or a policy — person wins in regard to Lincoln. As Hamlet says, recalling his father, “we shall not look upon his like again.”

Joan Baum is a recovering academic from the City University of New York, who spent 25 years teaching literature and writing. She covers all areas of cultural history but particularly enjoys books at the nexus of the humanities and the sciences.