What If?

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The American philosopher Sidney Hook ( The Hero in History , 1955) draws a useful distinction between the “eventful” person and the event-makers in history. Eventful characters affect history by being in the right place at the right moment, like the Dutch boy who is supposed to have saved the town by inserting his finger into a hole in the dike. The event-making hero, on the other hand, is someone whose extraordinary personal qualities can be deemed to change the course of history, as with Julius Caesar, Napoleon Bonaparte, Adolf Hitler, or Franklin D. Roosevelt. The historian William E. Leuchtenburg puts the case for FDR by remarking that he cannot conceive that American history would have been just the same if Roosevelt had been assassinated in 1933 and we had had Vice-President John Nance Garner in the White House.

A final tendency should be noted. Writers of fiction seem increasingly interested in semidocumentary forms that are somewhere between the invented and the actual. John Fowles interrupts the narrative flow of The French Lieutenant’s Woman to supply short essays on Victorian behavior or to insist that his characters are not real and could themselves have counterfactual (counterfictional?) experiences. E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime mixes actual historical personages with stylized fictitious characters. Gore Vidal’s historical novels Burr and 1876 cleverly blend authentic material with the author’s own inventions.

Conversely, while “fiction” moves toward “history,” some historical writing reveals the attractive pull of fiction or at least of the imaginative, verging on the imaginary. Scholars sympathetic to this impulse may claim that history, being selective and subjective, can never be a science; or that the surface of events is less profound than the hidden realm of the psyche, where the scholar’s speculations as to the makeup and motive resemble those of the novelist: they depend more on the author’s sensibility, his hunches, than upon external “fact.”

In other words, counterfactual history is probably here to stay. It is no newcomer, and its purposes and techniques are numerous. In fiction, for example, the author may seek a comic effect from deliberate anachronism, as with Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court . We laugh at the absurdity of knights in armor carrying advertisement billboards. Scholars, too, now and then flippantly exploit anachronism. The Roman Catholic historian Hilaire Belloc, asked by a younger aspirant how to deal with predominantly Protestant versions of the English past, gave this advice: “Write ‘William the Conqueror then got out of his aeroplane.’ Then all the dons write in and say that there weren’t any aeroplanes in William’s day, and then you write back and say that that’s their anti-Catholic prejudice.”

Serious history need not be solemn stuff. But to achieve some worthwhile end, a counterfactual approach must obviously abide by a few simple rules:

It must not falsify the established record before one’s point of departure . Suppose we consider the consequences if Andrew Jackson had been beaten and killed at the battle of New Orleans instead of gaining his spectacular victory. We would subvert such an inquiry by introducing other, prior assumptions: for instance, that New England had seceded, or that Louisiana was still French.

It must not violate basic historical data . Jackson’s defeat at New Orleans could thus not be attributed to, say, British employment of Harrier jump jets.

It must not go beyond improbability into impossibility . Thus, a woman could not have become a major political figure in nineteenth-century America, nor could a known Roman Catholic have attained the Presidency.

With these provisos, counterfactual history can be instructive as well as entertaining. It can help us to challenge the crude form of narrative-as-explanation embodied in the tag post hoc, ergo propter hoc (“after, therefore because of”).

Now for the scenarios in the George Washington University test. I think it reasonable to suppose that the American Presidency in its first decades could have develoned differently, though not altogether differently. In the libertarian, constitutionalized, decentralized American context, the office could probably not have become a dictatorship regulated by coups d’état . There was no apparatus of government for George Washington to seize, no palace for him to occupy, no subservient standing army for him to control, even had he wished to. However, the Presidency in 1789 was an untried creation. No one was sure how it should or would evolve. In some respects, whether or not the Founding Fathers recognized this, it was arguably a kind of monarchy—though elective rather than hereditary. The President was head of state, like a king; and in common with constitutional monarchs such as George III, he had a real say in the government of the nation. He could be re-elected indefinitely.