In And There Was Light: Abraham Lincoln and the American Struggle, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Jon Meacham argues that "[a] president who led a divided country in which an implacable minority gave no quarter in a clash over power, race, identity, money, and faith has much to teach us in a twenty-first-century moment of polarization, passionate disagreement, and differing understandings of reality." We spoke with Meacham about what surprised him about Lincoln and how history informs his view of the present.

What did you learn about Lincoln when you were preparing this book that you had not known?

I had not fully grasped how courageous he was at a couple of turning points. I don't think Lincoln's explicable without understanding that. He had every political incentive, certainly from the time of his election in 1860 through really the fall of 1864, to put politics above conviction. And that's somewhat counterintuitive, right? Because so many people see him as a politician, above all, a particularly eloquent politician. But if he had solely been a political creature, I think he would have taken a different course. He was under immense pressure to step back from emancipation being a pre-condition of peace. I think one of the great moments that I hadn't fully paid attention to in American history, in human history, to some extent, is in August 1864. The chairman of the Republican National Committee comes to him and says emancipation should not be a requirement for a restoration of the union, or else you will lose. And Lincoln said no. This is what the war is about. This is what the union is now about.

Was Lincoln a fatalist?

I've always been skeptical of that sort of talk, because why would you go into politics if you believed that human beings do not have agency? And Lincoln was determined to be one of the greatest agents in human history and had that kind of vision, not of grandiosity, but one shaped by the story of the revolution where the founders and framers did shift the course of things. Spending time with Lincoln has the risk of being off-putting because he seemed so much larger than our experience. I found the opposite - that spending time with him made what he did explicable, admirable. But also replicable in a way. If someone self-educated, if someone who fought to make a living, if someone who endured at best a tumultuous marriage, lost children, suffered from anxieties about his place in the world because of his family, dealt with what we would call mental illness, depression, if someone with all of those factors shaping their lives, were still able to shape the life of the nation so profoundly, then perhaps the rest of us can too.

What else, from your perspective as an American historian, gives you hope?

My hope is rooted in history. If the nation that could overcome the institution of slavery, that could, painfully and incompletely, attempt to fulfill the the promise of the Declaration of Independence as Lincoln understood it, and articulated it in the Gettysburg Address, if generations past, with all of their imperfections, with all of their sins, with all of their failings, could continue an experiment that delivers more justice tomorrow than we have today, then we should be able, God-willing, to do the same because they weren't superheroes. The story of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass and Ulysses S. Grant is not that they were these 19th-century Avengers. They were human beings struggling to, as Theodore Parker put it, bend the arc of a moral universe toward justice. And so my faith is not that everything is going to turn out ok because somehow or another, the American story is foreordained. Quite the opposite. My faith is that the American story has the capacity to be worthy of defense and commensurate to our challenges because it is grounded in an idea that we are all created equal. And that idea has withstood the bloodiest and most fundamental of attacks. And so prior success is no guarantee of future success. But I don't see how you can read and engage with Lincoln and abolition and the racist Confederate white supremacist struggle and not see that, however difficult, it is possible to produce a better tomorrow.

You were one of a group of historians who met with President Biden to talk about the future of democracy. Can you share how Lincoln came up in that conversation?

Let me answer it this way. The struggle in which we are engaged now in the 21st century is a sequential chapter in the struggle that Lincoln led. And Lincoln was fully aware that the test of the Civil War was a test of the capacity of self-government to stand against autocracy. I think it's safe to say that President Biden understands that the struggle of our time is one between democracy and the rule of law versus autocracy and a trend toward authoritarianism. And, in a way, the story of America can be told as the story of the contest between those two impulses. It's a perennial battle, and one that requires, I would argue, a moral commitment to the idea that we have to see each other as neighbors. And I think that President Biden has tried to talk about this idea of covenant. He believes deeply in the constitutional experiment that can, for all of its imperfections, deliver actual change and progress. And I think this moment is as profoundly challenging as the late 1850s. Because you have a dedicated part of the country that is devoted to their own pursuit of power, at any cost. And it's not just a difference of political opinion. It's a differing vision of reality itself. And it's a profound struggle. And one of the reasons I found this work so rewarding is Abraham Lincoln was at the pinnacle of power when two diametrically-opposed visions of America were in contest. And light was shed. But just because the union and emancipation prevailed 150 years ago is no guarantee that it will again. And that's what we have to focus on.