CNN’s John Avlon
Join us at The Commonwealth Club for a conversation with CNN's John Avlon about Abraham Lincoln’s plan to secure a just and lasting peace after the Civil War. The implementation of Lincoln's vision was cut short by his assassin, but Lincoln's hopes still inspired future American presidents—and Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr. General Lucius Clay, the architect of the post-WWII German occupation, explained that his decisions were guided by thinking what “kind of occupation would the South have had if Abraham Lincoln had lived.”
As the tide of the Civil War finally turned in the spring of 1865, Abraham Lincoln visited the troops on the front lines, seeing combat up close, meeting liberated slaves, and comforting wounded soldiers, both Union and Confederate. The power of Lincoln’s personal example was enhanced by his use of 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 also understood that people are more inclined to listen to reason when it is presented 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 Lincoln's belief that a soft peace should follow a hard war.
Avlon shows how Lincoln’s character informed his commitment to unconditional surrender followed by a magnanimous peace. Even during the Civil War, when he was surrounded by reactionaries and radicals, Lincoln 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—an understanding that Avlon says remains relevant today, for both our domestic and our foreign policies.
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Speaker photo by Lynsey Addario; main image is detail from book cover.
This program is part of The Commonwealth Club's Good Lit series, underwritten by the Bernard Osher Foundation.
Senior Political Analyst and Anchor, CNN; Author, Lincoln and the Fight for Peace
In Conversation with John Boland
President Emeritus, KQED; Vice Chair, Commonwealth Club Board of Governors