Sunday, March 08, 2009


While I have Kevin Levin’s attention (hopefully he’ll read this post), I’d like to respond to another thought he expressed in his recent post about Lincoln’s vice presidential choices in 1864. There Kevin stated, “I’m not a big fan of counterfactuals.”

I’ve always wondered why some historians seem so negative about counterfactuals. It’s certainly true that counterfactuals can be silly or stupid – What if the Confederates had an atom bomb at Gettysburg? But I would submit that much historical analysis – and much of what makes history fun – uses counterfactual reasoning.

Historians and history buffs alike routinely do more than simply recite facts: they express judgments about those facts. Some judgments are purely moral – Hitler was evil. But many, and perhaps most, are, in effect, covertly counterfactual. Take, for example, the judgment that the Compromise of 1850 was a Bad Thing (or a Good Thing), or that Robert E. Lee made a mistake in undertaking the Gettysburg campaign.

Both opinions are (or at least should be) judgments that weigh the option taken against other options that might have been taken. If I say that the Compromise of 1850 was a Bad Thing, I am saying, in effect, that there were other options that would have resulted in better outcomes. For example, I might be saying that I do not think that the South would have seceded (or Texas would not have invaded New Mexico territory) even if there had been no compromise. Or I might be saying that it would have been better for war to have come in 1850-51. But either way I am saying something about what might have happened if the Compromise did not occur.

Brian Dirck inadvertently makes precisely this point in his most recent post. He says that he did not pick Lincoln’s selection (or re-selection) of George McClellan as general as one of Lincoln's "worst flubs" because, in Brian’s view, Lincoln really didn’t have any other reasonably available option:
But I'm not sure if it would be fair to do so, because when you get right down to it, what were Lincoln's alternatives? It was painfully clear at that Winfield Scott was past his prime. Henry W. Halleck had his uses, but displayed many of McClellan's same failings. The country likely would not have tolerated elevating McDowell after the Bull Run debacle. As for Grant, Sherman and the other stars of the post-Gettysburg war, they had yet to prove their mettle in combat. McClellan probably was the only viable game in town, so it doesn't seem right to criticize Lincoln here for doing what pretty much any other president would have been compelled to do, given the available personnel.

This is, in effect, a series of counterfactual judgments. If, for example, Lincoln had selected Henry Halleck, he would have been as bad as or worse than McClellan. Fair enough. Based on Halleck’s performance in the posts he wound up actually holding, there is ample basis to agree. But you’re still projecting the outcome of an event – the appointment of Halleck – that never occurred.

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