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The Weekly Winston: On Lincoln and the Civil War

I still haven’t got out to see the new Lincoln movie yet—perhaps this week—so I’ll have to let it rest with Scott’s review here, with the caveat that I’m tempted to weigh in on his mention of Richard Hofstatdter, whose views on Lincoln are inadequate and defective in important ways.  (But for a fragment of the argument against Hofstadter, see this old post.)

Here’s what Churchill had to say about Lincoln in his History of the English-Speaking Peoples:

To those who spoke of hanging Jefferson Davis he replied, “judge not that ye be not judged.”  On April 11 [1865] he proclaimed the need of a broad and generous temper and urged the conciliation of the vanquished. . .  But the death of Lincoln deprived the Union of the guiding hand which alone could have solved the problems of reconstruction and added to the triumph of armies those lasting victories which are gained over the hearts of men.

I think there is room to doubt Churchill’s judgments here; for all of the sentiment that Lincoln could have managed reconstruction better, which the portrayal in the new movie will surely reinforce, it is difficult for a president “alone” to secure radically different outcomes in our system of separated powers.  While Lincoln surely would have been better than Andrew Johnson, it is just as likely he would have had difficulty with his own party in Congress.

In this regard, it is worth having a look sometime at one of Churchill’s more fanciful flights of fancy, his 1930 alternative history thought experiment expressed in a Scribner’s magazine article entitled, “If Lee Had Not Won the Battle of Gettysburg.”  (It is hard to find, but is available behind a paywall here.)  In this ironic telling, Lee’s victory paves the way for secession to succeed, with the key variable being Lee’s decision to free all the slaves—clearly the least plausible aspect of this scenario—thus removing the moral cause at the center of the North’s drive to preserve the Union.  A key step here is Britain’s recognition and support of the South upon the abolition of slavery.

But Churchill doesn’t end here.  He goes on to spin out a yarn about how the two American nations joined with Britain to prevent the outbreak of World War I in Europe.  But what if, Churchill adds in his final irony, Lee had lost the Battle of Gettysburg and the South lost the Civil War.  Why then somehow World War I comes, with its awful aftermath.

Fun stuff, and a glimpse into that period where Churchill made his living from what he called his “pot boilers.”  But not especially convincing.


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