Big historical events seem inevitable in hindsight. The Civil War, for instance. You can make a strong case that the United States was doomed from the start, incorporating as it did two wildly disparate cultures that had very little in common other than a shared struggle with the British. Or you could say that the writing was on the wall by 1800, with the Virginia and Kentucky resolutions. Maybe the annus horribilis was 1801, when Jefferson appointed John Marshall Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Maybe it was the Hartford Convention of 1814-5, when the Yankee states threatened secession, or the Tariff of Abominations and Mr. Calhoun’s Exposition and Protest of 1828 that did us in….
And yet, all of those were contingent. Even very late in the game, the crisis could’ve been averted, or at least seriously mitigated. The Democrats could’ve all pulled together behind Stephen A. Douglas, who had a real shot of winning, in 1860. The 1861 Peace Conference could’ve succeeded. Major Anderson could’ve followed orders and remained in Fort Moultrie. The Confederates could’ve waltzed into Washington DC after 1st Manassas. Nothing that happened was inevitable. And yet…
Would it have mattered? Which big decision in the run-up to the war would’ve stopped the war, had it been decided the other way? Maybe Major Anderson stayed put in Moultrie, or surrendered Sumter before Beauregard opened fire. Maybe John C. Calhoun was never born, or the Black Hawks scalped Abe Lincoln. Would it have mattered?
Hegelian “Forces of History” are Idealist metaphysical bullshit, but the aggregate of a million little decisions, inconsequential in themselves, do seem to add up to an unstoppable tide. If you want to say that due to tobacco agriculture, the Atlantic Slave trade, Puritanism, and the Industrial Revolution, something like the US Civil War was inevitable from at least the end of the French and Indian War, no matter if “we” won the Revolution or not, you won’t get too much of an argument from me. Zhou Enlai’s quip about the French Revolution (“too early to say“) has been deliberately distorted into the profound wisdom of the Inscrutable Orient — he was talking about the street riots of 1968 — but he was at least half right for all that. The roots of any great human calamity run centuries deep.
The problem with making these kinds of analyses lies with a simple phrase: “All else equal.” You can make the facts fit any thesis you want, depending on when and how you deploy that crucial qualifier.
It might help to consider a less life-threatening situation: Baseball. Half the fun of barroom baseball arguments is comparing players from widely disparate eras. Mike Trout, for instance, is often compared to Mickey Mantle. Well, what if Mantle were playing today? If, instead of growing up a dirt-poor dust-bowl Okie with a drinking problem, the Mick grew up middle class in a nice New Jersey suburb, like Trout did? Give Mantle 21st century diet, nutrition, and training, and who knows? Maybe he hits 100 homers a year, steals 95 bases, hits .450 lifetime….
Or maybe not, because the Mick did what he did against 1950s competition. Put Mike Trout on the field back then, when black players were a rarity, relief pitchers were scarce (and not very good), and all but the superstars still had to work regular-guy jobs in the offseason, and maybe it’s Trout who hits 100 homers, steals 95 bases, goes .450 lifetime….
Or maybe not, because of course, Trout wouldn’t have all those 21st century benefits — nutrition, training, coaching, travel teams that play against top-tier competition all year long….
See what I mean? “All else equal” is fun for friendly arguments over a few beers, but pointless in real life. Even if you go all sabermetric on it, and somehow decide that the average pitcher in 1958 is 0.7924 times as good as the average pitcher from 2018, then multiply Mantle’s stats by the phases of the moon, divide by the cosine, carry the one… it still doesn’t matter, because all of that is ass-pulled. 1958 isn’t 2018, 2018 isn’t 1958, and in this case at least, the similar things aren’t as similar as the different things are different. Or maybe they are…..
Eventually you just have to go with your gut. Since folks in Our Thing are historically literate, we tend to love these “all else equal”-type arguments. The problem is, they’re seductive — you can get lost in them, such that while you’re arguing about what might’ve happened all those years ago, you miss what actually is happening now. What does your gut say? Whatever else might have happened in 1860, doesn’t it feel rather 1860-ish right now? ‘
History’s nice, but don’t let “all else equal” act like a lullaby. Follow your gut. My gut tells me things are about to get really bad, really fast….