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Virtual History: Alternatives And Counterfactuals

Virtual History: Alternatives And Counterfactuals

2.2 10
by Niall Ferguson

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What if there had been no American War of Independence? What if Hitler had invaded Britain? What if Kennedy had lived? What if Russia had won the Cold War? Niall Ferguson, author of the highly acclaimed The Pity of War, leads the charge in this historically rigorous series of separate voyages into “imaginary time” and provides far-reaching answers to


What if there had been no American War of Independence? What if Hitler had invaded Britain? What if Kennedy had lived? What if Russia had won the Cold War? Niall Ferguson, author of the highly acclaimed The Pity of War, leads the charge in this historically rigorous series of separate voyages into “imaginary time” and provides far-reaching answers to these intriguing questions.Ferguson's brilliant 90-page introduction doubles as a manifesto on the methodology of counter-factual history. His equally masterful afterword traces the likely historical ripples that would have proceeded from the maintenance of Stuart rule in England. This breathtaking narrative gives us a convincing, detailed “alternative history” of the West—from the accession of “James III” in 1701, to a Nazi-occupied England, to a U.S. Prime Minister Kennedy who lives to complete his term.

Editorial Reviews

Following an extensive introduction by Ferguson (history, Jesus College, Oxford) to the study of counterfactual history, he and eight other British and American scholars offer descriptions of the possibilities of history. Incorporating significant research to answer questions such as "What if there was no American Revolution?" and "What if Germany had invaded Britain in May 1940?," these historians explore what could have been, with interesting results. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)

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ONE: ENGLAND WITHOUT CROMWELL:What if Charles I had avoided the Civil War?

The grievances under which the English laboured, when considered in themselves, without regard to the constitution, scarcely deserve the name; nor were they either burthensome on the people's properties, or anywise shocking to the natural humanity of mankind . . . and though it was justly apprehended, that such precedents, if patiently submitted to, would end in the total disuse of Parliaments, and in the establishment of arbitrary authority, Charles [I] dreaded no opposition from the people, who are not commonly much affected with consequences, and require some striking motive to engage them in a resistance of established government.

DAVID HUME, The History of England (1778), CH. LIII

Between 1638 and 1640, when not distracted by fiscal crises and Scottish wars, Charles I turned his attention to a more congenial task: the plans for a new royal palace at Whitehall.' Designed in the Classical style by John Webb, Inigo Jones's gifted pupil and collaborator, the project was the fulfilment of the King's longheld ambition to replace the rambling and outmoded palace which he had inherited from the Tudors. The new Whitehall was conceived on a vast scale, a setting for the court which could rival the grandeur of the Louvre or the Escorial. Given adequate funding (an assumption which in 1638 was not yet wholly farfetched), it would probably have been completed by the mid- to late 1640s. Here, at last, would be a seat of government appropriate to the system of `Personal Rule' Charles I had established since dispensing with Parliament in 1629. At least until 1639, it was from here that Charles could expect to govern his realms, resplendent amid Webb's Baroque courtyards and colonnades, during the next decade and beyond.

Implicit in such ambitious planning was the confident presumption that Charles I's regime would not only survive, but prosper. Was such confidence justified? Or was it, as many historians have held, the self-deluding folly of a remote and isolated regime - yet another instance of the sense of unreality which characterised the Caroline court? The answers to these questions have rarely been considered on their historical merits. To the two political philosophies most influential in historical writing during the last century, Whiggery and Marxism, the collapse of Charles I's regime during the 1630s appeared `inevitable'. In seeking to enhance monarchical authority (in practice, the powers of the executive), Charles I was standing, Canute-like, against historical tides which were outside mere kingly control: the rise of parliamentary authority; the belief in individual liberty guaranteed by the common law; even, it was once believed, `the rise of the gentry' (the nearest seventeenth-century England could get to Marx's `bourgeoisie'). These forces swept inexorably on, so the theory ran, to produce a parliamentarian victory in the Civil Wars of the 1640s and the Glorious Revolution of 1688-9, before finally reaching the sunny uplands of parliamentary government in the heyday of Gladstone and Disraeli. To Samuel Rawson Gardiner - the Victorian historian whose work remains, a hundred years on, the most influential narrative of Charles I's reign - the King's opponents had the future on their side; the parliamentarians' proposals for the settlement of the kingdom during the 1640s `anticipate[d], in all essential points, the system which prevails in the reign of Victoria'.' And in seeking to create a Personal Rule during the 1630s - a strong monarchical government unfettered by parliamentary control -Charles I was not merely up against his critics; he was up against History itself.

Of course, such assumptions about the inevitability of the regime's demise have recently been subjected to a battery of `revisionist' criticism. Yet, in subtler ways, the belief that Charles's experiment in government without Parliament was inherently unviable continues to enjoy currency, even among historians who reject the teleological approach of Marxists and Whigs. So unpopular were the King's policies that they were bound, at some point or other, to provoke rebellion; and, as the King could not mount a credible war-effort without parliamentary finance, the luxury of unfettered monarchical rule was one which Charles - quite literally - could not afford.' From this perspective, the King's great act of folly was his decision in 1637 to impose a `Laudian' revision of the English Prayer Book on the Scottish Kirk - to which it reeked of `Popery and superstition'. The sequence of events set in train by that decision revealed the political and financial impossibility of sustaining a nonparliamentary regime. Confronted with a full-scale rebellion in Scotland, for which the new Prayer Book had provided the catalyst, the King refused to compromise with his critics, and resolved to re-establish royal authority in Scotland at the point of the sword. It was the King's adamant refusal to yield to the Covenanters' demands, and his determination to fight on - even after the debacle of the 1639 campaign, the misgivings of his own Privy Councillors, and the failure of the Short Parliament in May 1640 to fund another war - which left his regime politically and financially bankrupt. The Covenanters won the `Second Bishops' War' of August 1640. And, with a Scottish army of occupation in the north of England, Parliament met in November in conditions which -for the first time in Charles's reign - prevented the King from dissolving it when he willed. Once the two Houses had convened, it was only a matter of time before royal ministers were brought to book and the `innovations' which had been at the heart of Charles's regime - from the exaction of ship money to the placement of the communion table `altar-wise' in parish churches -were declared illegal, piece by piece.

The spate of research on the `fall of the British monarchies' has stressed the highly contingent nature of the linkages which connected these events. At least until February 1641, Professor Russell has argued, Charles could have reached a modus vivendi with his Scottish and English critics which would have averted the Civil War.' This essay takes the enquiry one stage further: to ask not just whether Charles might have avoided a civil war, but whether he might have emerged from the Scottish crisis with the structures of the Personal Rule unscathed. Could Charles I have continued to govern his three kingdoms without referring to Parliaments - as he had done effectively at least until 1637 - into the 1640s and beyond? In considering these questions, it is clear that the critical moment was 1639. There is now broad agreement that, had he not failed to suppress the Covenanter rebellion at his first attempt (and so initiated the disastrous sequence of events which flowed from that failure), Charles would never have been forced to call the Long Parliament of November 1640, the body which set about dismantling the whole edifice of Personal Rule. But for the military failure of 1639, the future of Charles's regime would have taken a very different course. Success against the Scots would have brought the crown prestige, perhaps even popularity, and removed the need for a parliament for the foreseeable future - arguably, for decades to come..

Meet the Author

Niall Ferguson is Fellow and Tutor in Modern History at Jesus College, Oxford. He is the author of Paper and Iron, The House of Rothschilds, and The Pity of War ). He writes regularly for the Times Literary Supplement, and lives in Oxford.

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Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals 2.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 10 reviews.
CENY More than 1 year ago
This is a collection of essays by various historians about key events in history, from the American Revolution to the Eastern European revolutions of 1989. The themes are "did this event have to happen?" and "what would have happened if it didn't?" The book is thought-provoking if you're interested in the historical periods covered. Having lived through 1989, I found the essay on that period to be kind generalizing and conclusory, but otherwise it's worth a read.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This was very useful in setting up boundaries for a lesson on alternative paths history could take at key points in a timeline.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This title reads like a LIT 211 lecture at a very small college. More on the theory of alternate history literature and less on the cases themselves. Same scenarios have been better explored elsewhere.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
If you read before bedtime, this is better than any sleeping pill. You'll be out in less than 5 minutes