Abraham Lincoln: A Poet of Democracy Who Inspired Freedom’s Spread

John Avlon, Senior Political Analyst at CNN, discusses Abraham Lincoln's influence on the spread of democracy. He also reminds us that self-government requires vigorous citizenship.

John Avlon is Senior Political Analyst at CNN, where he also serves as an anchor. A Yale graduate who holds an MBA from Columbia University, Avlon previously served as Editor-in-Chief of The Daily Beast, columnist for The New York Sun, and chief speechwriter for Rudy Giuliani when the Republican served as New York City’s mayor. Avlon also has authored such books as the recent Lincoln and the Fight for Peace.


He discusses Lincoln’s influence on democracy’s spread in this conversation with David Kramer, the Bradford M. Freeman Managing Director of Global Policy at the George W. Bush Institute; Christopher Walsh, Deputy Director of Freedom and Democracy at the Bush Institute; and William McKenzie, Senior Editorial Advisor at the Bush Institute. Lincoln’s understanding of how to “win the peace,” Avlon believes, made it possible for democracy to take hold in Germany and Japan following World War II. He also reminds us that self-government is work and requires vigorous citizenship.


Your book makes the case for Abraham Lincoln being, in essence, a transatlantic figure who was a force for liberal democracy abroad. How so?


Abraham Lincoln is absolutely an inspirational figure, not just in the United States but around the world. And one that endures to this day.


What I found fascinating in researching this book was how his example stood out because of his reputation for reconciliation. A leadership that embodied reconciliation made him most inspirational to people overseas.


You see it in moments like the Treaty of Versailles negotiations after World War I, where all three of the so-called “Big Three” have deeply personal relationships with Lincoln; from Wilson being a son of the Confederacy, to George Clemenceau, the French prime minister, having been a reporter covering Reconstruction, to David Lloyd George growing up with a portrait of Lincoln over his mantelpiece in Wales.


That gives you a sense of the resonance of Abraham Lincoln. His contemporaries and the following generations believed that what made him really great was his willingness to lift up his defeated enemies once they accepted defeat. Lincoln’s vision for winning the peace, which was unconditional surrender followed by a magnanimous peace, was so unusual that it carried his reputation forward. And his vision was ultimately vindicated.


He’s not just an American hero. In some ways, he’s the archetypal American hero in politics. His example inspired generations around the world, including a disproportionate number of Nobel Peace Prize winners. They tried to apply his reconciling leadership in their own lives in their own countries.


Along those lines, what is it about Lincoln that speaks to people so many years later who are struggling for freedom?


First, Lincoln’s a poet of democracy. He’s our greatest writer of, I think, any field, but certainly among presidents. His second inaugural, the Gettysburg Address, and his first inaugural make that clear. Those words carry forward. Even Sun Yat-sen in Taiwan in the Republic of China devoted an entire governing theory based upon the Gettysburg Address of government for the people, by the people, of the people.



First, Lincoln’s a poet of democracy.



Lincoln’s life story also matches the arc of the classic hero’s journey. He is a boy born into obscurity who feels called to destiny. He is a common man. He is not formally educated. He hears a great calling to confront the moral issue of his time. He suffers through a fiery trial, but has a reputation for honesty, empathy, humor, and humility. He ultimately brings his nation in a time of great war to the other side, without ever losing his belief that there’s more that unites us than divides us. That is not only a classic hero’s journey, but an example that resonates.


There is something cinematic about Lincoln’s life, the arc of his life, including being struck down in the moment of greatest triumph. That leads to a greater triumph still, as he becomes a symbol for the cause of freedom and democracy and liberty.


You refer to his peers toasting him for having “a brave heart that beats for human freedom everywhere.” Can a nation make a transition to freedom without effective leadership?


Great question. I would say no, although we live in a time of decentralized movements. A leader’s example is essential. It’s an example to which, in Washington’s words, the wise and honest can repair. It’s the example that frequently stops movements from becoming mobs.


Lincoln was so mindful of the example he set. His words alone were not enough. He tried to embody that spirit of reconciliation in his actions. He insists on visiting wounded Confederate soldiers at the Depot Field Hospital behind the front lines, when the doctors assured him that he didn’t need to go visit them.


He used words with great precision as a lawyer. But he understood the power of his example would last even longer than the example of his power, as it were.



Leadership is indispensable, although we cannot simply wait for great leaders to come save us. As citizens, we must straighten our civic backbones and set our own examples of leadership inspired by the best of our past.



That toast you recalled is in Charleston, South Carolina, the day of Lincoln’s last Cabinet meeting after the flag is raised again over Fort Sumter. It was at a restaurant owned by an African American chef named Nat Fuller. The toast was given in a moment of great inspiration and reconciliation, which affected even some in the South.


Leadership is indispensable, although we cannot simply wait for great leaders to come save us. As citizens, we must straighten our civic backbones and set our own examples of leadership inspired by the best of our past.


That’s part of the civic religion Lincoln tapped into that we’re in danger of losing sight of today. It’s part of the reason why studying our civic history and American history is essential. As the only nation founded on an idea, and not a tribal identity, our nation disproportionately depends upon making the old stories new again.



We need a shared story for us all to buy into. Leaders can help articulate and advance that story. But it’s also about citizens in every city, town, and state living up to those examples in their own way. They’re leaders as well. It’s not just one, it’s many. It’s out of many one – e pluribus unum.



As the only nation founded on an idea, and not a tribal identity, our nation disproportionately depends upon making the old stories new again.



Beyond effective leadership, what other conditions or ingredients are essential for nations to make a transition to democracy?


Let’s think about the definition of democracy because it is much debated. On the most simple level, it is government of the people, by the people, for the people. It’s majority rule where minority rights are respected. It’s based on civil rights and civil liberties. Those ideas evolve over time, and certainly in America they have evolved to form “a more perfect union.”


What I love about that is we are not a utopian nation. We understand that utopian dreams usually turn into nightmares. It’s about constant progress, and each generation having a role to play to help us live ever closer to that ideal.


There’s a certain moral humility that is necessary for democracy. Democracy depends upon an assumption of goodwill among fellow citizens.



That has been eroded and needs to be revived. The constant balance about being connected to our past but also constantly striving to evolve closer to our ideals is dynamic and never-ending. Change and evolution are essential to the idea of a democracy.


What role should the United States and other Western democracies play in helping nations transition to democracy and develop institutions? That includes countries that have no culture or experience as a democracy.


First, you do need to deal with the aspirations of countries within the realm of their experience. But if you truly believe there’s more that unites us than divides us as human beings, then you want to always keep the door to freedom open.


It’s been said that America’s real influence comes from the power of our example, not the example pf our power. Living up to our ideals is difficult compared to other countries that have no pretense of standing up for liberty, equality, democracy, and opportunity.


America is great because it’s good. That’s true of Abraham Lincoln as well. His goodness solidified his greatness in the eyes of his peers. He showed us that kindness is consistent with effective leadership.



Using our power in a way that lifts people up or provides an inspiration to them is important. So is assistance to governments that want to move in the direction of democracies. We have made mistakes when sometimes we have coddled dictators under the name of realpolitik. It’s forgivable in the context of things like the Cold War. But it comes back to bite us, it seems to me. Those deals are perhaps not durable.


George Washington said in his farewell address, ” The Great rule of conduct for us, in regard to foreign Nations is in extending our commercial relations to have with them as little political connection as possible.” In some ways that’s a common-sense framing of what our foreign policy should be. But we live in an interconnected world in a way that Washington could not have imagined.


It’s important that America and our allies now formally strengthen the relations between democracies. It must be a club that is different than simply being a member of the United Nations, which is an essential organization. But I do believe in a league of democracies that can stand together as a counterweight against the rise of authoritarian regimes, which have their own short-term self-interested reasons. Liberal democracy is an ideal that must be defended.



Using our power in a way that lifts people up or provides an inspiration to them is important. So is assistance to governments that want to move in the direction of democracies.



Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has revived the idea and the importance of the institutions that America and its allies set up in the wake of the Second World War to win the peace. At the same time, we in America have awakened to the fact that some of us have taken democracy for granted in recent years. Likewise. we have taken for granted some of these multilateral institutions that helped win the peace for granted.


We cannot take those gains for granted anymore. That’s one of the gifts, so to speak, of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. The United States and its allies need to keep elevating the idea of liberal democracy offering an open hand, including to our adversaries when they are decisively defeated and accept defeat as a guarantor of peace.


We need to play an active role in the world, but because we hold ourselves to a higher standard, we need to be very mindful of that high standard. Our adversaries will use violations of our ideals against us to create a sense of moral equivalence. We can’t permit that to happen. We’re not perfect. We’re human. But we must safeguard our reputation as a nation and build as many multilateral organizations as possible to safeguard and defend, and, where possible, advance the ideals of liberal democracy through the power of our example.


Let me step back and ask you a more fundamental question that maybe we don’t ask enough. Generally, what must democracies, including the United States, deliver to keep themselves healthy, vibrant, and strong?


There is a danger that governments see economic growth as the primary vehicle for creating a satiated citizenry. It is important. As General Lucius Clay said, there’s no choice between being a democracy on 1000 calories a day or a communist on 1500 calories a day.


But authoritarians always claim they are providing an ever-expanding quality of life for their citizenry. An appeal the authoritarian regimes of our century make is they offer wealth without liberty. Some people think that’s a good trade. And some businesses participate in that because they think they have a financial upside.


Yet part of what makes democracy different is that while we believe free markets, free ideas, and free people can go together, if you trade your freedom for security, you’ll soon have neither.


We need to revive the idea that democracy requires vigorous citizenship. The real benefits of democracy come from the responsibilities of citizenship. Self government is work, and we sometimes have gotten a bit civically lazy. We all need to be preaching the doctrine of the strenuous life as it applies to self-government. That’s part of the civic culture that creates a vibrant democracy.



In the 1930s and other eras, we’ve seen people run down the idea of democracy, and say it can’t possibly compete with the efficiencies of autocracies. They offer five-year plans and promises of economic growth. And belatedly, but always, democracies get their act together. You realize that a diverse concert of free people, the essential pluralism of a free society, provides the creativity and determination that authoritarian regimes just can’t compete with.


But we also keep learning that we cannot take that advantage for granted. We need to remain committed to that idea that winning the peace is perpetual and requires effort. So does defending democracy.


Earlier you said that “Lincoln is a poet of democracy,” which is a great line. How do you think that Lincoln speaks to our democracy today? I’ll give you an example: You wrote that Lincoln’s vision for uniting the nation after the Civil War was pro-enterprise and pro-worker and pro-immigrant. Tell us more about that please.


If you just look at Lincoln’s policies, which don’t get that much attention, he dramatically increased the amount of immigration to the nation. The cynic’s view is that was a way of getting new folks to fight in the Civil War. But that’s incomplete.


He was increasing immigration even though some people said, “That’ll be bad. You’re going to put all these former slaves into the free labor market. How can we accommodate immigrants as well?” And Lincoln said, in effect, “Look West. Go expand our nation. Go find natural resources and make us the treasury of the world.”


Typical politicians use false dualities to divide us. Lincoln and other reconciling leaders transcend the dualities that are used to divide us. They recognize that even liberty and equality, which is the greatest philosophical tension in our nation, are not in inevitable opposition. They find a practical balance under the Union.


Nelson Mandela’s biographer called him “Africa’s Lincoln.” He said that, as a reconciling leader, Mandela and Lincoln both did the more difficult thing. The easy thing for politicians of any stripe to do is to divide in order to conquer, to turn “us” against “them.” That’s the easy way. That’s the lazy way.



There’s a certain moral humility that is necessary for democracy. Democracy depends upon an assumption of goodwill among fellow citizens.



The harder way is to confront the great moral issue of your time while emphasizing our common humanity. Lincoln in particular and the leaders of the second founding, provide a vibrant example that can still unite the nation, in part because they confronted the core contradiction of the original sin of slavery.


It was imperfect, yes. But if you take Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses Grant, Frederick Douglass, and many other leaders of the second founding, you’ll find a much more stable basis for creating a common foundation for a revived civic patriotism in a nation that is far more diverse than one we have had in the past.


In that second founding, they didn’t solve all our problems, no generation does, but there’s a lot of wisdom to be gained from that generation — from Lincoln’s leadership to Grant’s actions, particularly in combating the Ku Klux Klan, to Frederick Douglass’s very prescient vision of being a “composite nation”.