An interesting alternate history essay from the New York Times.


What if World War I had never happened? What if John F. Kennedy hadn't been assassinated? Fascination for such scenarios is growing, with a handful of books on that theme to be published this fall. Yet such counterfactual, or virtual, history, as it is often called, has long intrigued historians, filmmakers and others with its suggestion that destiny hangs on a single event, or even a triviality. In What If. . . ?, a 1982 collection of historical fictions edited by Nelson W. Polsby that is now out of print, a handful of scholars challenge the tendency to take the past and present for granted, imagining what would have happened if, for instance, Hitler had gotten the atomic bomb. The political scientist William H. Riker, who died in 1993, speculated that the United States might never have been created but for a vote cast 212 years ago yesterday. As he explained in his preface:

A look at a map of South America should alert us to the fact that there was nothing inevitable about the continent-wide reach of the United States. In Latin America a common ethnic heritage among European colonizers and more or less synchronized revolutions produced many nations, not one. I suppose there are several turning points that predisposed the North American colonies of England to stick together and to expand together. The replacement of the Articles of Confederation with a Constitution that made it possible for the colonies to fight a war together was undoubtedly one such turning point, and perhaps the most important one. And it all turned on one Massachusetts delegate's vote at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. But what if Elbridge Gerry had voted 'nay'?

Mr. Riker is referring to the votes cast on July 16 by the Massachusetts delegates Elbridge Gerry -- and Caleb Strong -- for the Great Compromise, an agreement to give the states equal representation in one house, the United States Senate. Mr. Riker suggests that without the compromise, the convention would have broken up and a weak confederation instead of a strong federal republic would have resulted. That structure, he argues, would have made military conflicts among the New World's regional blocs unavoidable, producing a very different map and history.

So this is what North America would have looked like in about 1850. In the far north, all the provinces now part of Canada would be separate British colonies, gradually attaining a kind of self-government but never coming together to form the Dominion. Because the New York-New England War would have destroyed the United States under the Articles, what is now the United States would be divided up thus: the Confederacy of New England, stretching from Boston to the Mississippi, would have claimed what is now Minnesota, the Dakotas and Montana from the great nation of Louisiana, as well as what is now Washington and Oregon from Britain.

Obviously, at least two territorial wars would have been possible here. The Middle Atlantic states (aside from Delaware, which would have been conquered in a brief and bloodless war by Pennsylvania) would remain independent entities: New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Maryland. The great nation on the continent would have become Virginia, consisting of what is now West Virginia and Kentucky and most of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. Of course, North Carolina would consist of its original territory (including Tennessee), and South Carolina-Georgia (including Alabama and Mississippi) would be another independent entity. The nation of Florida would have rebelled from Spain; and Louisiana, with control of the western half of the Mississippi valley, would vie with Virginia for continental leadership. By 1850 Texas and California (including western Colorado, Utah and Nevada) would have rebelled from Mexico and established independent governments. Doubtless Arizona and New Mexico would remain part of old Mexico.

Along with the vastly different political geography, the culture of the several nations would be quite different. New England and Pennsylvania would undoubtedly have developed the same kind of commercial and manufacturing abilities they did in fact develop and would have benefited in much the same way from the Industrial Revolution. At the same time the great continental free market would have been absent so commercial prosperity would have been less. The nations of the South, especially South Carolina-Georgia and Virginia, would be the most prosperous on the continent, supplying raw materials and food to the rest of the world.

Political and cultural achievements would also be different. New England would have flowered in much the way it did with Emerson and Longfellow. But New England would be a rather lesser place than it actually became so that the typical American poets would be Lanier and Poe rather than Longfellow and Whittier. The controversy over slavery would, of course, never have arisen, and the peculiar institutions of Virginia and the Carolinas would have been preserved well into the 20th century, with the Carolinas playing on the American continent something of the role that the [former] Union of South Africa plays in Africa.

The most significant difference from what actually occurred, however, would be in the role of America in the world. Instead of being the example of liberal democracy copied in Britain, France, Germany and Scandinavia, America would be merely a set of nations, some successful, some not. While all of them would have some version of a republic, all would in fact be rather more oligarchic in tone. Whether liberal democracy would have spread through Europe in the absence of the American example, I cannot say. But I know for certain that the relatively smaller and weaker American nations would not have been able to participate in European wars. Doubtless what is now called the First World War -- but which would have been called the Second Franco-Prussian War -- would, without American intervention, have resulted in the triumph of the German, Austrian and Turkish empires. These would have carved up among themselves most of European Russia and the French and British colonies. There would, of course, have been no occasion for Hitler and the Second World War, but there would have been other kinds of desperate warfare, mostly on a smaller scale, in Europe, Africa and the Near East, as well as numerous Balkanesque wars on the North American continent.

The absence of the United States, with a less grand civilization in North America and about as much American influence in the world as now emanates from Latin America, would make the world a very different place from what it actually has become.

In that sense, the actions of Messrs. Gerry and Strong were a necessary condition of events of great consequence. While these men doubtless acted out of a genuine patriotic concern for the American Union, their actions were, at least in the case of Gerry, irrational and bizarre. Gerry was one of the few men in the Convention who truly favored a far more decentralized government than the Constitution provided; hence he refused to sign the document and went home to campaign against its ratification. That such an opponent of centralization saved the Convention to do its federalizing work is, to say the least, unexpected and can only be attributed to his failure to understand what he was doing. According to Oliver Ellsworth, most of the Convention members regarded Gerry as a pompous fool -- as a rich man's son who bought his influence but didn't know what to do with it, as a pretentious speaker full of portentous hems and haws who drove everybody in the Convention to distraction, as, in short, a perfect klutz. But then, the klutz has a role in history just like everyone else.

Map: How North America might have evolved had a 1787 vote gone differently. (From What If. . ./Lewis Publishing Company)