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?


6 thoughts on “Counterfactuals and Anniversaries in History

  1. I can’t help wondering if we don’t ask the what if questions then does it somehow blunt the impact of past events in the modern mind. Why study the Gettysburg address or Kennedy’s Vietnam policy if we can’t speculate on the what ifs? Do we run the risk of becoming antiquarians, studying history for the sake of history itself rather an a higher purpose?

    1. Hi James,

      To clarify, I very much believe in the possibilities of a “useable past,” one that influences how we understand the world today. As historians, we study change (and sometimes similarity) over time, and that often means studying how history has changed in ways that shape contemporary society. What I am trying to suggest is that the Gettysburg Address and Kennedy’s Vietnam policy exist as distinct ideas and principles beyond the lives of their creators. The Gettysburg Address still resonates with us today and has been quoted millions of times by politicians seeking to justify both good and bad things. Kennedy’s ostensible adherence to the Domino Theory up until close to his death undoubtedly shaped U.S. foreign policy in Vietnam long after his death, and perhaps there are is still a strand of Kennedy influence on foreign policy initiatives today.

      Asking what-if questions can be fun and sometimes enlightening. Asking what would have happened had George Meade continued to pursue Robert E. Lee to Virginia after Gettysburg could provide new context for explaining the frustrations of Union supporters and President Lincoln–who believed the war could have ended had Meade chosen to pursue Lee (which in turn could have radically changed the circumstances in which Lincoln would have addressed to people of Gettysburg, if he chose to do so at all)–seems like a good question for provoking discussion about the purposes of the Gettysburg Address. We have evidence to show that he was frustrated with Meade for not pursuing and, more importantly, we have evidence showing that more Northerners were starting to question the purpose of the war. By posing this counterfactual, we can see the Gettysburg Address as an effort by Lincoln to reaffirm the nation’s dedication to democracy during a time of bloody war and in a world dominated by monarchies (just one of several messages conveyed in the address). Asking what Lincoln would have thought about Johnson’s Reconstruction policy or the Radical Republicans in Congress doesn’t really challenge us to think historically because any conclusion we make is going to lack evidence and instead rest upon a lot of speculation. I would love to say that Reconstruction would have gone a lot smoother under Lincoln than under Johnson and that Lincoln would have come around to the idea of universal suffrage and political equality, but we simply don’t know. Asking how Johnson or the Radical Republicans may have interpreted the Gettysburg Address to justify their particular positions on Reconstruction would be more fruitful for understanding the meaning of the Gettysburg Address over time, in my opinion.

      Hope that makes sense.

  2. Nick,
    I love counterfactuals, I really enjoy reading them and (embarrassingly) writing them. However, I also recognize that they are–as you said–often used to just tell history the way we want it to be. You’re right, looking at how Lincoln might have dealt with Reconstruction is less useful because we just don’t know, the president always played his cards very close to the chest.

    That being said, I think a counterfactual, deeply rooted in the historical evidence, can be quite useful in understanding potential pathways. Too often history is viewed as inevitable, point A leads to point B which ends up at point Z. This is, of course, false. People make hundreds of decisions a day and these choices add up to historical change. For example, I read an excellent one where Jimmy Carter promised full support to the Shah of Iran in 1978. In response the Shah had Khoemeini murdered in France, a violent mob destroyed the US embassy killing 1,000 people and Carter had to invade Iran to rescue the other 25,000 Americans. I believe this showed real potential, highlighting the challenges of supporting a dictator, and walking the line of personal freedom in a Cold War setting.

    In regards to the two anniversaries, I believe Kennedy’s assasination is a good opportunity to look at what would not have happened if he lived. No Civil Rights Act. No Voting Act. I am sure that Kennedy, no matter his wishes, would never get either one of these bills through Congress. Both houses were incredibly frustrated with Kennedy and were loath to help him. It took the ultimate Machiavellian LBJ to bully each bill through a reluctant Congress.

    As always I enjoy your posts. They do things I do not have the courage to try. My essays stick to historical narratives, and I love how yours explore how these narratives came to be and why they matter. Bully for you sir!


    1. Thanks a lot, Nathan! I’m fascinated by historical methods, process, and thinking, so I find myself often musing on why history is important and what kinds of questions we can utilize to help us think critically about the past. And yes, there’s nothing wrong with reading and writing counterfactuals. Brooks Simpson has a way of framing conterfactuals in ways that provoke serious discussion about why history happened the way it did.

      If I remember correctly, you are right in suggesting that Kennedy’s death moved the Civil Rights Act of 1964 forward, largely because Democrats in Congress (and LBJ, as you point out) argued that doing so would “honor” his legacy as President. I’m a 19th century guy, so don’t quote me on that.

    1. Great comment, Andrew. I agree 100%. I recently had a great conversation with a classmate about the fact that nothing in history is predictable or inevitable. There’s a story behind every action and event in history; it’s the job of historians to help make sense of and give meaning to those events!

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