- Historic Sites
Conjectural or speculative history can be a silly game, as in “What if the Roman legions had machine guns?” But this historian argues that to enlarge our knowledge and understanding it sometimes makes very good sense to ask …
December 1982 | Volume 34, Issue 1
Why did the American Presidency develop as it did? The rectitude and good sense of the first President, George Washington, must be taken into account. He regulated the succession, denying himself a third term, with highly beneficial consequences. There is, too, the element of accident. He was seriously ill during his first term. What if he had died in 1790 or 1791? We need not believe that the United States would have been completely wrecked if that had occurred and the succession had been conceded to Vice-Président John Adams (not a foregone conclusion: the matter of whether a Vice-Président automatically inherited the office on the death of the President was not settled until William Henry Harrison’s sudden demise in 1841). Even so, the shock to the new system might well have weakened its as yet precarious legitimacy. And somewhere between Washington’s conscious policy and sheer accident, there is a specific problem: What if he had had sons? As it happened, few of the early Presidents had male heirs. John Adams did; and sure enough, his son John Quincy Adams eventually attained the Presidency. We need not deem Washington a scoundrel to suppose that, if he had fathered a healthy male or two, paternal pride could conceivably have led him to dream of seeing another generation of Washingtons in the White House. George and Martha were married in January 1759. If a son had been born to them in 1760, he would not have been too young for high office in the 179Os. He could even have directly followed his father as President. If that had happened, the Presidency and the whole nature of American republicanism could have been different.
Washington, too, could have instituted another precedent for us to ponder. He was reluctant to accept the Presidency in 1789 and to indicate his willingness to be re-elected in 1792. In both situations, Washington’s associates offered the encouragement that he need not actually serve out a whole term. Suppose he had taken them at their word and had resigned from office at a midway point during either administration? He might have opened the way for others, long before Richard Nixon, to step down voluntarily.
Other scenarios in the test presuppose shocks to the Presidency, most of them over the crucial issue of succession, the moment in any governmental system when its legitimacy is potentially in doubt. There were several such moments in the first century or so of presidential history. The crisis of 1800, with Thomas Jefferson eventually recognized as the winner, is among the crucial elections. His acceptance, and his conciliatory inaugural address, signaled the capacity of the American system to accommodate the peaceful transfer of power from one national party to the opposition. Jefferson had in fact tied with Aaron Burr in the electoral college. The deciding vote went to the House of Representatives. The defeated Federalists could, out of spleen, have thrown the election to Burr. If so, Thomas Jefferson might never have been President. President Burr might then never have fought the fatal duel with Alexander Hamilton in 1804, and would presumably never have got tangled up in the mysterious Western conspiracy of 1806. Perhaps the nation’s capital today might be graced not with a Jefferson but with a Burr Memorial.
Assassinations are times of extreme tension. The killing of Lincoln and the wounding of his secretary of state, William H. Seward, came near the end of the prolonged crisis of civil war and revealed a possibly widespread conspiracy. If John Wilkes Booth and his little gang had also struck down Vice-Président Andrew Johnson, we can readily picture the resultant chaos within the federal government. The actual succession, however, did not then involve the secretary of state. After the President and Vice-President, the president pro tern of the Senate was next in line, followed by the speaker of the House of Representatives.
This suggests the dictum that big events need not have big consequences. If Lincoln, Johnson, and Seward had all been murdered, the executive branch would have suffered a severe blow. Congress would no doubt have acquired power at the expense of the executive, especially since the new President would come from the legislative branch. Yet as it was, in the real course of history, the Gilded Era was one of legislative supremacy. This would almost certainly have occurred, in revulsion from Lincoln’s wartime executive aggrandizement, even if Booth’s motley conspiracy had failed to hurt anyone. Could something similar be postulated of a successful impeachment of Andrew Johnson in 1868? The attempt failed by only one vote. If it had succeeded, presidential prerogative might have been drastically curtailed. But then, to repeat, executive power was in any case markedly reduced, vis-à-vis Congress, in the last third of the nineteenth century.
We are left, in these instances, with a counterfactual paradox: differing historical patterns of development may sometimes end up with similar rather than different results. To revert to a question raised earlier: Did the railroad boom greatly affect American agriculture? No, says an expert cliometric witness: “Ninety-five per cent of the prairie land in commercial cultivation in 1890 would have been cultivated even in the absence of railroads.” Counterfactural hypotheses do not have to be mind-boggling.