Thursday, February 07, 2008

“What Ifs” and Historical Inevitability

I get the sense that many historians frown on “what ifs,” and I’m not sure why. True, “what ifs” can be silly, when they posit technologically or otherwise impossible scenarios of the “What if the Confederates had nuclear weapons at the Battle of Gettysburg?” variety. But I think that a good “what if” can provide both a lot of fun and valuable lessons.

One great value of a well-crafted “what if” is that it can bring home just how contingent history is. In a recent post, for example, I mentioned the possibility that Henry Clay could well have been elected president in 1840, rather than William Henry Harrison. What might the consequences have been? Would the annexation of Texas and war with Mexico have been deferred or avoided? How about the Civil War? (I speculate on some of these things here before collapsing into incoherence.)

I raise all this because Daniel Walker Howe is apparently not one of those historians who turns up his nose at a good “what if.” His What Hath God Wrought includes what amounts to a “what if” discussion about a closely related issue: What if Henry Clay had been elected president in 1844? Professor Howe clearly believes that history would have been very different. After concluding that Clay might well have won the election – that is, we are talking about a highly plausible “what if” – he continues:
The consequences of the election of 1844 went far beyond Texas annexation, important as that was [in other words, Clay clearly would not have annexed Texas]. If Henry Clay had won the White House, almost surely there would have been no Mexican War, no Wilmot Proviso, and therefore less reason for the status of slavery in the territories to have inflamed sectional passions. . . . President Clay would probably have strengthened the Whig Party . . .. In the South, he would have encouraged moderation on the slavery issue, including the acceptance of an alternative future characterized by economic diversification and, in the long run, the gradual compensated emancipation which he advocated all his life. There might have been no reason for the Whig Party to disappear or a new Republican Party to emerge in the 1850s.

After quoting Horace Greeley, Professor Howe even raises the possibility that Clay’s election in 1844 might “have avoided the Civil War of the 1860s.” (To this I would add Gavin Wright’s suggestion that, if the Civil War could have been avoided in the 1860s, it might never have been fought at all. See here and here.)

I’m not sure I agree with all of Professor Howe’s predictions. It seems to me that (for example), even with Henry Clay as president, compensated emancipation and colonization were unattainable pipedreams. Then again, thinking and arguing about such things are what make “what ifs” so much fun.

But I do emphatically agree with the broader lesson concerning the uncertainty of history that Professor Howe draws at the end of his discussion:
We too readily assume the inevitability of everything that has happened. The decisions that electorates and politicians make have real consequences.

While I’m at it, I might as well pass on a couple of Professor Howe’s sources, cited in an accompanying footnote, that look interesting:

Gary Kornblith, “Rethinking the Coming of the Civil War: A Counterfactual Exercise,” JAH 90 (2003): 76-105.

Robert Cowley (ed.), What Ifs? of American History (New York 2003) (which apparently includes an essay by Tom Wicker on the question, what if William Henry Harrison had not died in office).

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