What Ifs? of American History

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The What Ifs? essay collections address questions of alternate history, how things would be different if other paths had been taken at crucial moments. This third volume in the series concerns American history and includes essays from noted historians on events ranging from the sailing of the Mayflower (what if it hadn’t sailed, or if it reached its original destination in Virginia?) to the Nixon administration (what if we had never had him to kick around?). The Civil War, with its plethora of vivid personalities and dramatic battles, comes in for special emphasis, with four essays out of a total of seventeen.

Two of the particular pleasures of this collection are the essays on presidents Tyler and Hayes, unfashionable presidents in American studies. Their stories remind us that no matter how obscure some historical figures come to seem, their decisions and conflicts were important in their time and the results still have the power to affect us. Tyler’s “accidental” presidency—begun after William Henry Harrison’s surprising demise after only a few weeks in office—established the rules of succession still in effect today and Rutherford Hayes’s management of the riots that accompanied the birth of the railroad unions was an important victory for the working class.

Counterfactual history can be seen as an amusement for history buffs, but it’s more than that. What Ifs? provide a different perspective on history, and seeing things from a different angle deepens our knowledge and understanding.



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