'Lincoln': Does Knowing the Ending Blur Our Understanding of the Story?

The seventh installment in a roundtable discussion between Ta-Nehisi Coates, A.O. Scott, Kate Masur, and Tony Horwitz about history and Steven Spielberg's movie


Ta-Nehisi makes an excellent point about hindsight. Those who question whether the Civil War was worth fighting can see, in a way that Americans in 1865 could not, that the Klan, Jim Crow, and other forces would quickly erode emancipation. I agree that dwelling on the war's dispiriting aftermath, from our superior vantage, shouldn't diminish the vision and actions of those who sought racial justice.

However, hindsight also blurs our understanding of the war itself. Put aside the post-war backlash and focus on 1861 to 1865. We know how this story ends, with the defeat of slavery and the South. Americans tend to see this as foreordained—due largely to the Gone With the Wind romance that infects memory of the war. Brave but backward, the "Old South" was doomed. The North's masses and industrial might were destined to prevail.

But this wasn't at all clear to Americans at the time. The South didn't have to defeat the North; it needed only a stalemate that exhausted Northerners to the point where they stopped fighting. Such an outcome was a real possibility as late as the summer of 1864, before Sherman's capture of Atlanta effectively sealed Union victory and Lincoln's reelection. I'd add that there are many examples of military underdogs coming out on top, particularly when fighting on their own turf. The Afghans versus the Soviets, and Americans in the Revolutionary War, are two.

What if the South had fought the war to a draw? Hundreds of thousands of lives lost, only to validate the Confederacy and entrench slavery, possibly for generations. This may be idle, counterfactual history, but it should make us ponder whether ruinous war was the best or only way to resolve the crisis. I doubt slavery would have died a natural death within decades (a hoary argument of Southern apologists). Nor were many slaveholders open to compensated emancipation or any compromise. Even so, the conflict's shattering toll, uncertain outcome, and flawed aftermath should give us pause as we consecrate the Civil War as a nobly tragic and inevitable passage in our history.

As for Hollywood, let's hope Lincoln is a harbinger. If it's judged a commercial as well as a critical hit, then I think we'll see more high-budget, high-quality treatment of history. But I suspect the core crowd for Lincoln is older than Hollywood's target audience. It will be interesting to see if the global box-office take exceeds Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.

Lastly, I agree with the other Tony that Lincoln (or any creative work) should be judged on "what it is." But I still think a brief flashback, or real-time encounter with Douglass (who saw Lincoln in March, 1865), would have improved Lincoln without making it a different movie. It would have made Abe more human and (if possible) even more heroic in his struggle to overcome not only the nation's prejudices, but his own.


A.O. Scott: "Steven Spielberg's Slavery Obsession Is Bigger Than 'Lincoln'"

Ta-Nehisi Coates: "Does 'Lincoln' Mean Hollywood Is Finally Catching up With History?"

Tony Horwitz: "'Lincoln' Would Have Been Better if It Had Told More of Lincoln's Story"

Kate Masur: "Is 'Lincoln' Liberal? Depends on What You Mean by 'Liberal'"

A.O. Scott: "The Underrated Radicalism of 'Lincoln'"

Ta-Nehisi Coates: Why Aren't More Liberals Defending 'Lincoln'?

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Tony Horwitz is a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist who has written for The Wall Street Journal and The New Yorker. His books include Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War and Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War.

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