Tuesday, April 5, 2011

April 5, 2011: What If?

While the idea makes for easy textbook focal points—and, per I hope my The Professor, the Bluff, and the Union post about Joshua Chamberlain, for incredibly compelling stories—the fact is that history includes very few singular moments in which the course of a nation could, if things had gone differently, have been significantly altered. That’s not to say that there aren’t plenty of significant moments in American history to which one can point, but rather that almost all of those moments can be more accurately described as illustrating broader trends or trajectories, instead of representing a site from which different such paths could genuinely have diverged.
The clearest exception to that rule would seem to be presidential elections, since the national choice in each case dictated not only much of the subsequent four years but often many longer-term effects and issues as well. But even there, I would argue that most presidential elections, even the more famous ones, have reflected, rather than themselves caused, broader national shifts: the Jeffersonian Revolution of 1800 would in that lens be the culmination of (among other things) trends illustrated by the Alien and Sedition Acts and the responses to them, to cite an example about which I’ve written in this space; Obama’s historic 2008 election would have to be connected to (again among other things) the 2006 midterm victories for the Democratic party and George W. Bush’s historically low approval ratings for the last couple years of his administration, to cite the most recent example. Which is to say, while it’s fun (or scary) and telling to ask “What if?” about each of those elections, the question doesn’t really do justice to the larger contexts in which the elections and their results took place.
To my mind, there’s only and one presidential election for which “What If?” really makes sense, and thus only one election that can be read as one of the rare moments in which a great deal of our subsequent national history could have gone very differently. That’s the election of 1876, which pitted Democrat Samuel Tilden against Republican Rutherford B. Hayes; Tilden garnered more of the popular vote but the electoral college was a complete chaotic mess, with at least a few states (most notably Florida) apparently too close to call. While the particulars of what happened next will always be somewhat murky, and have been contested by various historians, it seems clear that Hayes made a deal with the Democratic leadership of a few Southern states—the Compromise of 1877, textbooks often nicely call it; the Crooked Bargain is the more accurate nickname—to gain their electoral votes by promising to remove all Federal troops from the South, thus ending Reconstruction. Whether the deal was explicitly made or not, those two things most certainly took place—the contested Southern states swung their votes to Hayes, and one of his first acts upon his 1877 inauguration was to withdraw the troops and end Reconstruction. Left entirely to their own devices, the Southern states greatly amplified and deepened the variety of white supremacist laws (such as the Black Codes that blossomed into Jim Crow segregation) and practices (such as vote suppression, the Ku Klux Klan, and lynching) toward which they had been moving since the end of the Civil War; the rest, quite literally and tragically, is our history.
It’s impossible to know what Tilden might have done as President, whether Reconstruction would have continued and what that would have meant, whether those late-century regional and racial trends could have been in any mitigated. But it’s certainly possible that they could, and at the very least impossible to imagine that a new president not withdrawing the troops in 1877 wouldn’t have had significant and ongoing meanings in the South and for the nation. What if? More tomorrow, on one of the most highbrow and yet democratic texts ever produced in America.
PS. Three links to start with:
2)      Some stats and details about the election:
3)      OPEN: Any “What if?” moments you’d highlight?

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