Counterfactuals and Anniversaries in History

As many of us already know, today marks the 150th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s famous “Gettysburg Address.” Friday will mark the 50th anniversary of the death of President John F. Kennedy. A lot of media attention surrounds the anniversaries of these historical events and it seems as if everybody’s writing essays and/or talking about the legacies of Lincoln and Kennedy.

While this increased press attention towards the past temporarily emerges, I find myself wondering why historical anniversaries should matter to society. Do people really care about “this day in history”? Does the Gettysburg Address evoke a special feeling or provide insights into the past on November 19 that aren’t otherwise there on November 18 or November 20? Do we “feel” Kennedy’s death in a more personal manner on November 22 than other days? Will anyone remember what they did on the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s address or the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination? I don’t have clear answers, but I have an idea I’d like to bring to the table. What I’ve noticed with many recent discussions is that rather than talking about the actual moment in which Lincoln spoke or Kennedy was shot, many public thinkers have used counterfactual history to guide their discussions about these two men and their legacies well after died. Perhaps historical anniversaries are important to us because they offer an opportunity to talk about contemporary issues in society.

I define conterfactual history as essentially “what if” history. When I turned on the television this past Sunday, I happened to flip on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” David Gregory, Tom Brokaw, Chris Matthews, and a host of others discussed the Kennedy assassination for a brief while, but the most impassioned discussion revolved around the “what if” questions. What if Kennedy had survived? What would have happened during the 1964 election? Would Kennedy’s stance on the Domino Theory have changed had he lived to see the increasingly tenuous situation in Vietnam? These questions are what I consider counterfactual history. We don’t have evidence to predict what Lincoln or Kennedy would have done or how events and circumstances would have changed had they lived past their untimely deaths, but we are often attracted to these questions because they challenge us to use our imagination about “how things could have been” or how our situation could be better or worse in our world today. To many people, history is an account of what actually happened in the past based on historical evidence and interpretation. Counterfactuals, however, go beyond the archived record and into the realms of our personal experiences and ideologies.

Scholars have also used counterfactuals when looking at the Gettysburg Address. Over at the History News Network, Alan J. Singer muses on what Reconstruction would have looked like had Lincoln lived beyond 1865:

I suspect if . . .  Abraham Lincoln had lived, presidential Reconstruction would not have differed much from the program promoted by his successor Andrew Johnson, and it probably would have received more support because of Lincoln’s political capital earned as a victorious war president. In this circumstance, the United States may never have seen the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments defining African Americans as citizens entitled to vote.

Whereas Singer suggests that Reconstruction would have remained largely the same under the Lincoln administration (and perhaps even worse for African Americans because the 14th and 15th amendments may not have been passed), Scott Hancock speculates on the possibility that Lincoln may have supported Thaddeus Stevens’ and the Radical Republicans’ efforts at redistributing southern lands abandoned by former Confederates to newly freed African Americans:

What would Lincoln have done to take advantage of one nation-changing opportunity: Thaddeus Stevens’s proposal in 1867 to take land that had belonged to Confederates whose property value exceeded $5,000? He was a master of political compromise but also was committed to making the Union whole. He may have seen such a measure as so punitive it would have keep [sic] the wounds of war too deep and fresh. But Lincoln only compromised when it did not involve forsaking his core principles, and he understood freedom to be severely compromised without equality.

So the question emerges: is counterfactual history useful or relevant to understanding the past?

My answer is no (mostly). Brooks Simpson at Crossroads has addressed several counterfactual questions in Civil War history (what would have happened to slavery in America without the Civil War, how would the Lincoln administration have dealt with the media in the age of television, what if the Confederacy won, etc.) that have provoked much discussion on that blog. These questions are somewhat interesting and to a certain degree they challenge us to consider why the past happened the way it did. For example, asking about the state of slavery without the Civil War may provoke an interesting discussion about the state of slavery in 1860 and why war may have been unavoidable at that time. However, these discussions often veer into less useful territory by asking when slavery would have ended, which no one knows and is impossible to judge. Any educated answer to such a question would require a great deal of subjective speculation.

I suppose that is where I start to have problems with counterfactuals. I don’t know what Abraham Lincoln would have done during Reconstruction, I don’t know what he would think of Barack Obama, and I don’t know if he’d prefer Captain Crunch or scrambled eggs for breakfast if he were alive today. I don’t know how John F. Kennedy would have addressed Vietnam or what he would have said had he been alive when the first man made it to the moon in 1969. While these questions are fun, there is little evidence to back any claims made by those living today. In reality counterfactual history tells us more about the way we want history to play out rather than saying anything substantial about what actually happened.

This notion of counterfactual history as dialogue about the present may partly explain why historical anniversaries are important. Anniversaries present a sense of time and chronology that give us a better sense of our place in history and where we’ve come from, but I think their real importance (if there is any) lies in provoking questions about where we are now and where we’re going in the future.

What do think about counterfactuals? Do you have a particular counterfactual that interests you?