By Kevin Peraino, author of Lincoln in the World: The Making of a Statesman and the Dawn of American Power (Broadway Books, October 2014)
I came to Abraham Lincoln in a roundabout way. I had been working as a correspondent in the Middle East, reporting from countries like Syria and Libya and Yemen—where I was exposed to foreign affairs in a very high-intensity, granular way. I found myself searching for—almost craving—a wider, more thoughtful perspective on the events I was witnessing up close. I began poring through works about the historic traditions of American foreign policy in an attempt to make better sense of what I was seeing first hand on the ground.
I never imagined that I would write a book about Lincoln. But, as I was combing through this material, working my way through the 19th century, I stumbled across some striking stories about American diplomats and foreign statesmen in the Civil War era. They were an amazing bunch of characters. Cassius Marcellus Clay, Lincoln’s minister in St. Petersburg, liked to walk around picking fights and brandishing his bowie knife. Not very diplomatic. Lincoln’s man in London was Charles Francis Adams, son of John Quincy Adams and father of Henry Adams. The cast of foreign figures was just as rich. The French empress, Eugenie, was endlessly scheming and quite influential. I was pulled in by the gravitational force of these great personalities.
For whatever reason, I found that historians had largely ignored Lincoln’s foreign policy. The last time a historian had attempted a full-blown, human narrative of Lincoln’s approach to global affairs was more than 70 years ago—before the Lincoln Papers were even open to researchers. Only in recent years have scholars begun to think harder about how the events of the American Civil War fit into the broader currents that were reshaping the globe in the mid-19th century—and how those influenced Lincoln’s entire worldview. So the time was right for a project like this. Considering America’s influence in international politics, the time was right for a project that examined pivotal events closer to our country’s origins.
KEVIN PERAINO is a veteran foreign correspondent who has reported from throughout the world. He spent a decade at Newsweek, most recently as a senior writer and bureau chief in the Middle East. He was a finalist for the Livingston Award for his foreign-affairs reporting, and was part of the team that won a National Magazine Award for its coverage of the 2004 presidential campaign. A graduate of Northwestern University and a term member at the Council on Foreign Relations, he lives in Connecticut with his wife and children. Follow him on Twitter @KevinPeraino.