Wednesday, October 07, 2009

What if?

What if?

What is now history once lay upon the edge of a knife. The slightest twist of fate could have changed everything we know, everything about our lives we take for granted. Whether that would be for good or bad, of course, we can never know, nor how differently history may have turned out. You do not need to accept the butterfly wing theory - that a butterfly beating his wings in Brazil might mean a tornado in Asia, -in order to recognize that if certain persons who arose to greatness at critical moments in history either did not exist, died or had their own circumstances change before that moment arrived, things would be extremely different - perhaps unrecognizably so. The following are just some interesting facts from history that make you say - what would the world be like if just a few little things changed? What ifs are just novelties, although they seem to be a cottage industry, but they can be entertaining all the same, particularly where the actual history is interesting itself.

One day soon after the end of the Revolutionary War, Young Thomas, age 6, and his two older brothers, Mordecai and John, were working in a corn field with their father on one of his 5000 Kentucky acres. He was a former Captain in the Virginia militia during the war and well regarded. At the time, Kentucky, originally part of Virginia, was considered part of the western frontier. Conflicts with Indians were common. Suddenly, while they toiled with the corn, an Indian appeared from out of the woods, and shot the boys’ grandfather, killing him instantly.

The two older boys ran for their lives, but Thomas, still only an infant, merely sat beside his dead grandfather and cried. The attacker came out of the woods, a silver crescent hanging upon his chest, and made his way towards the young boy, perhaps to take him as a prisoner, a slave or to raise him as a son, or maybe to kill him with a blow from a tomahawk or the butt of his gun.

Mordecai, age 14, stopped running, turned and raised his rifle. He aimed for the silver jewelry on the Indian’s chest and fired, killing the brave, and thereby probably saving his little brother’s life or at least preserving for him a future in the culture he grew up in.

The name of the father was Abraham Lincoln, but not the one you are thinking about. But Captain Lincoln, as his men called him, was the father of the father of the future president. The young son crying by his side after he was shot was Thomas, the future president’s father. When the president's Uncle Mordecai saved Thomas’ life, he indirectly saved his future nephew’s life and changed history forever.

What if Uncle Mordecai’s aim had not been so good?

Some might say, it would have been better for our country. The South only seceded upon Lincoln’s election. Maybe they would not have if someone they trusted more had been elected. For example, if Stephen Douglas, who had beat Lincoln out for the 1858 Illinois’ Senate seat, didn't have to face Lincoln, he might have also won the 1860 presidential election and there would have been no reason for the South to Secede. After all, many Southeners voted for him and he had a laissez faire approach towards slavery. Perhaps, indeed, slavery would have come to an end in a few years without the need for the bloodiest war in our history. Some folks suggest that not only would it did not have to occur, but that the hundred year plus struggle of blacks for true liberty in the South would not have occurred either. Of course, they may be all wrong. Perhaps the war would have come upon the next election anyway, or, perhaps no Northern commander-in-chief would have had the stomach to handle the horrifying casualties and steady defeats that occurred and would have made an armistice, basically freeing the South (but not the slaves). There are an infinity of other possibilities and only so much of your patience.

Here is another story which shows how subtly history may change.

The young man was proud of his little flat bottomed boat. One day two prospective passengers on a steamer anchored in the middle of the river asked him if he would row them out to it with their luggage. He obliged and even loaded their luggage for them. The young man was known for his kindness and did it without thought of reward.

So he was stunned when both of the gentlemen threw him a half dollar and much later said it had been a very important moment in his life. He thereafter performed the same services for a few other people when he found himself in trouble. He was called before the Justice of the Peace and charged with ferrying without a license, a complaint brought by a family that felt they had a monopoly on it.

The young man appeared himself and pleaded innocent. His only defense was that he was only helping passengers on his side of the river, not taking them all the way across. Sure enough, when the Justice looked at the law, it turned out he was right. It only prohibited unlicensed persons from ferrying from one side of the river to the other. Case dismissed.

Now that young man actually was the future President Abraham Lincoln himself. What if he had been convicted? It is neither inconceivable or even unlikely that the Justice of the Peace could have interpreted the statute differently or never never bothered to look at the statute itself. How much would it have changed Lincoln’s life and his future had he been convicted? If you think this is too small of an incident to consider as life changing, then consider this - no president had ever been elected who was previously convicted until George W Bush was in 2000, a much, much more tolerant era when it comes to youthful indiscretions (not that he was that young). If you know of another president who had been convicted and I missed, let me know. That’s what comments are for.

Lincoln was also almost killed when he was just nineteen years old and on a commercial raft trip with another young man down in New Orleans. Seven men attacked their boat in what appeared to Lincoln to be an attempt to both murder and rob them. Lincoln, of course, was famous for his great height and strength and his friend, after poling much of the 1200 plus miles on the Ohio River and the powerful Mississippi must have been no slouch either. The two of them fought the attackers off and survived.

Years later, in his thirties, Lincoln was challenged to a duel by a well known and quite deadly soldier named James Shields, who felt Lincoln had slandered him. The story of how that ended I have already blogged about (10/23/07), and, leave it to your perusal if you are interested. Of course, Lincoln wasn’t the only one whose life hung in the balance.

In another recent post here (8/20/09) I quoted from George Washington's own journal of a perilous crossing of a river strewn with fast moving blocks of ice into the path of which he was hurled, almost losing his life, and his companion's journal which described how an Indian they were traveling with shot at Washington at close range and missed, both events taking place during the French and Indian War. But Washington escaped death so many times before he became father of our country, we could do this entire post on him. He was shot at numerous times without unfortunate result in both of his wars, nearly froze to death, managed to survive the mumps, smallpox, malaria, tuberculosis, typhoid, infection, the flu, dysentery and pneumonia, all of which were regularly fatal back in those days. He dodged death so many times that instead of telling about one of those, I'll relate instead an incident where he might have been facing death, but certainly the Revolution almost faltered. Either way, our lives would be much different today.

On September 18, 1780, Benedict Arnold, who Washington once called his "finest officer," met with Washington and Alexander Hamilton near his base at West Point (when it was a critically important fort, not a school). Washington was traveling with his staff and a very small Life Guard. At one point, ferrying across the Hudson, Washington and co. (even Lafayette and the artillery chief, Henry Knox) came within cannon shot of the nearby British ship, The Vulture. Had the Captain known it was Washington, he undoubtedly would have fired at him or moved in to capture him. At the meeting Arnold asked Washington just when he would be returning to West Point. He was told it was to be six days later, the 24th. The traitorous Arnold signalled the British signalled the British in code when Washington would return. He had already been negotiating to turn over West Point and thousands of troops and had lied to Washington about the state of its defenses, which were terrible as opposed to formidable.

One of my favorite Revolutionary era historical characters, a man with the almost impossibly heroic name of Hercules Mulligan, was a spy for Washington in New York City where he pretended to be a loyalist while the British controlled it. He had already advised Washington that one of his own generals was a spy (obviously, that was Arnold). Now he learned that British troops were indeed headed up river and warned Washington about that. One of the British officers Arnold contacted was a charming and talented intelligence officer, but ultimately unfortunate man named Major John Andre, who went up towards West Point to meet with Arnold in secret, traveling out of uniform. Arnold waited at West Point for his prey, who was supposed to show for breakfast Saturday.

Hamilton showed up with one of Lafayette’s staff and they breakfasted with Arnold. Washington, he explained, would be delayed but would be there later. During breakfast Arnold got an express from a courier. He learned that Major Andre had been captured and papers with Arnold's name on them discovered. In fact, Andre had been waylaid by some brigands (some say deserters from the American Army) who were robbing loyalists and Andre's secret papers were discovered by them in his boot. He was also informed that papers, which he knew would incriminate him, were on their way to General Washington. Without letting anyone know what he was doing, Arnold excused himself, told his wife to burn their papers and to stall his guests, while he left the house and commandeered a boat. Later, when Washington arrived, he received the papers Andre was carrying and ordered Hamilton after Arnold. It was too late. He was already on a British ship - The Vulture.

While still at the house, Hamilton had heard Arnold’s wife shrieking upstairs. She played the role of a madwoman and fooled Hamilton and Washington completely. They let go and never suspected her. Her role in the espionage, which was extensive, was not discovered until the last century. But Major Andre was hung as a spy.

There are some questions about whether the British really were going to try and take Washington and his men in addition to capturing the fort for which they already agreed to pay Arnold a very large sum of money. There is a paucity of evidence of it on the British side, but, given the fact that Washington, upon visiting West Point, would (and did) discover the awful condition the fort was in, he certainly would know Arnold was lying to him and probably would have figured out he was the traitorous general Hercules Mulligan warned him about. Why would Arnold have taken this risk unless he Washington was to be quickly captured? On the other hand, if that was the case, why didn't Arnold execute his plan anyway. It is all lost in the mists of time and the fog of war, to overwhelm you with cliche. However, we know that many important figures at the time believed that Washington was the target, including Lafayette and Henry Laurens, then president of congress.

What if Andre wasn't captured and the plot uncovered. Both Washington and the British knew if West Point fell, the Americans would be split in half and the war all but over. Arnold, in fact, had been completely false to Washington as to the condition of West Points' defenses. If Washington, not to mention his staff, had been made British prisoners, perhaps executed in London, the war would quite possibly have been over in 1780, even if West Point wasn't taken. Even if matters caused Washington not to head back up to West Point, it would have soon been taken and war ended. As another alternative, what if Washington had perished or was rendered unable to serve in one of his earlier adventures or succumbed to one of his illnesses. As strange as it might seem to us now, it is not that unlikely that the brave and competent Benedict Arnold, who craved recognition from his countrymen, would have been turned to early on in the War as a leader and we would be recognizing Benedict Arnold as a founder, if the not the father of our country.

Many presidents have narrowly escaped death. But, if Benjamin Pierce had been killed when his carriage crashed on the way to D.C., taking his son’s life, or, if Andrew Jackson died in one of his bloody duels or in the assassination attempt on him when he was president, for example, I doubt the world would have been very different. But Washington’s and Lincoln were extraordinary men and their absence or disappearence would have had enormous consequences.

Here are a couple more "what ifs" which might have had changed our history dramatically.

The rotund British author was visiting New York City a little before Christmas, 1931, on a lecture tour.

Already a disgraced government official who had had an exciting life including a life of risk in the Boer War and WWI, in 1929 he had lost a ton of money in the Great Crash. Now he was on his way to see an old friend, the famous financier, Bernard Baruch. But, while walking to Baruch’s place on Fifth Avenue, he looked the wrong way crossing the street and was struck by a passing car.

He was thrown into the gutter and suffered a serious head wound. He went to the Bahamas to recuperate but then caught a form of typhoid fever.

But he survived all of it.

Good thing. The fortunate pedestrian was soon to be leading the last stand in Europe against Nazism. Without Winston Churchill bracing Britain, it is possible both that she would not have survived Germany’s assault on her or that the United States would not have put so much effort into defeating Germany when Japan was considered her real enemy by so many of our citizens. Perhaps without Churchill's iron will, Britain would have sought an early armistice. Although I believe that the good guys would have won in the long run, Churchill was more than just instrumental, and his special relationship with Roosevelt, his own American heritage, his indomitable spirit, and ability to motivate the British people not to mention Americans, were critical. Not for nothing, Churchill sometimes tops opinion polls of the 20th century’s greatest man, and, in fact, won this blog’s award (the most coveted of all such awards - 5/9/07) as well.

But what if the driver had been going just a little bit faster or had hit him more squarely in the front of the car?

Last one.

Just two years after Churchill’s accident, an Italian immigrant named Giuseppe Zangara was down in Florida. He was an anarchist, believing that no government was the best government. He was not only out of work but had just lost a couple of hundred dollars at the dog races. He purchased a 38 caliber pistol and went to the park to hunt a particular human one day. It wasn't a fair fight as his prey was crippled. Zangara stood up on a chair just 25 feet away from his target and opened fire. He got off five shots before a bystander knocked his hand away and he fell off his chair.

He hit some people, but missed his main target, in fact managed to gravely wound the mayor of Chicago, Anton Cermak. It took only 5 days to convict Zangara who was sentenced to 80 years in prison. Then the mayor died of his wounds. Zangara was tried for murder and convicted. His execution quickly followed.

The very fortunate main target was then president-elect Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Because Zangara missed, and we tend to remember only successful assassination attempts, people forget how close FDR came to missing his dates with destiny – both the depression and WWII.

What if Zangara had gotten closer or been a better shot or waited until he was closer?

We might have a clue to this since we know who the Vice President-elect was. John Garner was also a Democrat, but he was a southern Democrat, and had very different ideas about policy than FDR. There probably would not have been a New Deal – for better or worse – as Garner was against it. Who can say how he would have dealt with WWII as he was out of office before the war actually started and Roosevelt would not have given him any real role anyway. Unlike Roosevelt, Garner was very committed to the two presidential term custom and actually ran against him in the primaries (losing badly). But, had Garner been president instead of Roosevelt, would he have found reason to run again himself as WWII loomed. Also, unlike Roosevelt, Garner would have lived through the whole war too. He didn't until he was nearly 99 years old in 1967, exceeding by far the life span of all other presidents or vice presidents. Ironically, If FDR had died while president-elect not only would he be virtually unknown today, but possibly we never would have heard of George Marshall, or Dwight Eisenhower or many others for whose fame FDR was directly or indirectly responsible. Perhaps not even Winston Churchill. If there was a short war, perhaps the atomic bomb never would have been created, or for many decades.

Of course, some might argue we'd have been better off as FDR has his critics. Some say that the New Deal was the wrong way to handle the bad economy and made it worse. Some also say that regardless of how we did in the war, Roosevelt's giveaway to Stalin at Yalta set up a much longer war, albeit a cold one. However, most people feel Roosevelt did well, and there can be no doubt his life has been quite consequential.

Roosevelt, Churchill, Washington and Lincoln all came within a hair’s breadth of losing their life or, in Lincoln’s case, to not even being born. They were arguably the four most important men in the English speaking world since America’s inception. You can play what if with anyone about almost anything, but the virtually unique importance of these four men and the dramatic ways they almost disappeared from history makes it a somewhat more interesting consideration.

But, the truth is, I just like to talk about interesting history I come across, and what ifs are as good an excuse as any.


  1. What fun. Good job. Knew the Lincoln and Churchill stories but not the FDR. You may have created a new specialty: historic detective. Keep at it.

  2. Merci beaucoup. Few things more fun to me than reading and writing about history. I take the rest as pleasant hyperbole.

  3. Anonymous11:23 AM

    Another way to look at it is to imagine if some of the people who were killed in wars didn't die, what discoveries could have been made but were lost.


  4. Sure. Actually works both ways - more people, more inventions, etc. But also, what potential evil doers were snuffed out in an artillery barrage.

    Thanks for writing.

  5. Very interesting and a lot of fun.
    I think we ran through afew of these lasy weekend too.

  6. Yes, you knucklehead. I was discussing my future blog post with you. I recommend Ginkgo Bulova.

  7. I thought Gingo was a Star Wars character.


Your comments are welcome.

About Me

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .