What If?

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What if any of the pre-Civil War Presidents had gone mad?

What if Andrew Johnson had been successfully impeached?

What if William McKinley had not been assassinated?

What if there had been no tape-recording system in Nixon’s White House?

THESE ARE a few of the questions on the final exam I set last spring for my students at George Washington University, where I give a course on monarchy, republicanism, and the evolution of the American Presidency. (Additional questions from the exam—together with some answers derived from the resourceful essays turned in by the class and from my own speculations—are printed under the illustrations for this article.) My immediate concern is with the status of such pedagogical exercises. Are they just harmless jokes? Are they hopelessly “unhistorical"? Or are they potentially valuable?

“What if” conjectures of the kind I asked my students to write on have intrigued me ever since I was in my teens. This appetite was intensified, I suppose, by my having studied American history as a foreigner. Material and theories that would be immediately familiar to a native-born student were to me often in a literal sense outlandish—puzzling and problematical. Then, by chance, I found myself teaching in an American Studies department. The mix of history and literature encouraged me to ignore the conventional boundaries between fact and fancy and to study the relationship between the two. In such a context it seemed natural to undertake a book ( George Washington: Man and Monument ) about America’s prime hero, in which the emphasis was as much on the Washington image as upon the real person.

More recently I have been writing a book about republicanism in America: why the new nation became a republic, and what effects this had on the United States. Opting for republicanism instead of monarchy was, I believe, a fluke, in the sense that almost no one was advocating a republic in the American colonies before about 1770, and not many even up to 1776. However, it was a kind of logical fluke—an option that disclosed itself, became useful, and soon was hailed as quintessentially American. Such considerations led me to other matters of what I call counterfactual history: Why, for example, has Canadian development differed from that of the United States? Does the survival of monarchy there enter into the story?

 

The first thing to be said about speculative, counterfactual questions is that they are not uncommon or new. To commemorate the two-hundredth anniversary of the British surrender at Yorktown, Time magazine printed an ingenious squib by Gerald Clarke, in the shape of a 1981 lecture by “Sir Geoffrey Gabb, George III professor of history at Cornwallis University,” outlining to his freshmen the development of North American history after the surrender of the Franco-Ameri can armies in the Yorktown battle. With a more sober emphasis, Harvard’s Oscar Handlin ( Chance or Destiny , 1955) scrutinized eight incidents in American history so as to assess in each the blend of accident and predestination. One of his cases was the explosion on board the U.S.S. Princeton , cruising on the Potomac in 1844, which killed Secretary of State Abel Upshur and could easily have killed President John Tyler.

In 1931 the English author J. C. Squire edited If , a collection of essays on altered historical outcomes. Among the contributions of American relevance was a piece by Hendrik Van Loon on the supposed continuance of Dutch control of New Amsterdam and a more famous essay by Winston Churchill, imagining what might have happened if Robert E. Lee had won at Gettysburg (Churchill’s scenario envisaged the recognition of the Confederacy as a separate nation; its eventual alliance with the Union and Great Britain; and their combined success as international pacificators in preventing the outbreak of world war in 1914). There have been various other fantasies as to the achievement of Southern independence— including Thurber’s comic story of a fuddled General Grant surrendering his sword to a bewildered but polite Robert E. Lee at Appomattox in 1865.

And in 1979 Daniel Snowman brought out If Had Been … : Ten Historical Fantasies , among which was a clever pastiche by the British scholar Esmond Wright in the guise of Benjamin Franklin, explaining “how I would have prevented American discontent from becoming revolution.” All such imaginings, whatever their degree of earnestness, can be covered by the observation attributed to the philosopher A. N. Whitehead: “Very nearly everything that happened in history very nearly did not happen.”

In general, though, professional historians have been unenthusiastic about what Franklin D. Roosevelt used to call “iffy” questions. Like FDR they have tended to shrug off such inquiry as a waste of time. Lawrence Stone of Princeton cites a colleague’s dismissive reaction to counterfactual history: “Yes, and if my grandmother had wheels she would be a Greyhound bus.”