What if, back in 1788, we hadn't ratified Mr. Madison's Constitution?
Smithsonian, June 1988

The answer is speculation, though clearly many a great event in America's history would not have happened the way it did.

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Imagine America's past, not as a hardbound chronicle, but as a series of turning points, each of which could have turned another way.


RETURN WITH US now to the days when the East was young. From out of the past come the thundering hoots and hollers of a great debate, as the raw, under­populated, bitterly divided ex-Colonies wrangle over their future. In the troubled spring of 1788 all the uproar is about whether or not the still-sovereign states will ratify the text of the new Constitution coopered up by delegates in Philadelphia the fall before.

The goings-on in Philadelphia were secret. But the document, so cavalierly ascribed to "We the People," is now out in the open, and each side is busy claiming that if it doesn't get its way, wolves will be running in the streets and life as we know it will shortly come to an end.

Federalists, led by James Madison, declare that nothing less than the complete text of the new Constitution will do. There must be no backsliding to even a modified version of the weak-kneed Articles of Confederation. We need a strong government with broad powers to tax, pay debts, regulate trade and defend the country from foreign enemies. Without it, the brave New World experiment in self-government will founder and split into rival economic confederacies, soon be gobbled up by the crowned heads of Europe.

Not so, anti-federalists insist. The new Constitution will destroy the very independence for which we fought the British. The President it establishes will be more powerful than any king. The crushing grip of the Executive and Congress together will intolerably impinge on the liberties of individual states and citizens. Worse, by stirring regional fears of being steamrollered by rich lawyers and stockjobbers in the populous Northeast, the new Constitution will sap the spirit of cooperation that has thus far held the states together.

History is written by the winners.  For the past century or so, Americans have assumed the federalists were right. The Constitution was ratified, after all, even if with some anti­federalist modifications. As for the American Experiment, it has worked so well that a hardheaded operative like Otto von Bismarck could speak of the special Providence that watches over fools, drunkards and the United States of America.

No matter that we owe our Bill of Rights directly to anti-federalists. Today, despite the octopus reach of our federal bureaucracy, we think of the anti-federalists of 1788, when we think of them at all, as obstructionists who read history wrong - and perhaps as racists too, since states' rights eventually became code words for the defense of slavery.

But what if we hadn't ratified the constitution Madison worked so hard for? Would the disaster that federalists predicted have really occurred?

We have long been led to believe that ratification was inevitable, an indispensable step to the triumphal progress democracy was destined to make. In early 1788, though, nobody was sure the Constitution would be ratified in anything like the form Madison wanted. What kind of constitution the Union would get very much depended on the big ratification debate. Some states ratified quickly, though in Massachusetts the fight was touch-and-go for awhile, and acceptance came only after the federalists had acquiesced on many "recommendations" for changes to the text. But everyone agreed that without ratification by the two most powerful states in the Union, Virginia and New York, where anti-federalism was rife, those endorsements did not really matter. In neither state did the text that Madison had sweated over in Philadelphia look like a sure thing.

The coastal cities favored the Philadelphia text; farmers and frontiersmen didn't. When delegates specially chosen from all over New York turned up in Poughkeepsie on June 17 for the ratification debate, the count stood at 46 delegates against the Constitution, only 19 for. Down in Richmond, Virginia, where a battle royal was already in progress between Madison and fiery anti-federalist Patrick Henry, just over 80 elected delegates were in favor, with almost the same number staunchly against.

Had television and daily polling existed in 1788, Madison would have been badgered by the 18th-century equivalent of Sam Donaldson, asking him to defend his stand against adding a bill of rights to his constitution.  But even without such populist distractions, the Virginia debate was fierce. The issue remained in doubt until Madison finally promised a bill of rights later if only his state would now ratify the text as it was. On June 25, Virginia's exhausted delegates finally approved - by a narrow margin, 89 to 79. Six delegates changing their minds would have defeated Madison and the federalists.

New York's anti-federalists held their 46 to 19 edge well into the convention. But when, at the end of June, a messenger reached Poughkeepsie with the surprising news of Virginia's ratification, some anti-federalist delegates began to drift home: their crops needed tending. New York would approve the Constitution by just three votes, 30 to 27.

Clearly the issue could have gone the other way. If the anti-federalists in New York had voted more quickly. If Madison, who was often sickly, had been laid low by one of his bilious attacks and found himself unable to counterbalance the torrent of anti­federalist arguments flowing from Patrick Henry. A total of eight switched votes in the two states would have produced the second convention that Madison rightly feared, and eventually a much different constitution.

And what would have happened to us then?

Scenario 1 essentially plays out the worst fears (or threats) of the federalists. It should probably start with the grim future they predicted in 1788: the disaster we have long been convinced only their skill helped avert.

The plot runs as follows: after a second convention, the constitution finally agreed upon grants less power to the federal judiciary. The President is allowed to serve only one term, his powers severely limited, especially with regard to raising troops and making war. The Congress is weaker, too - its ability to tax and spend limited. The sovereign states forming the Union would remain clearly sovereign. And the young United States of America, freighted with the future hope of democracy around the world, is obliged to launch itself into history with one hand tied behind its back.

In Scenario I, as predicted in Alexander Hamilton's "Federalist Paper 13," the Union soon splits into two confederacies according to economic interests. The business-and-shipping­dominated Northeast turns toward Britain; the agricultural, slave-owning South toward France. The new Northern Confederation includes Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware. The Southern Confederation is composed of Maryland, Virginia, North and South Carolina, and Georgia.

Given a weaker central government, a Scenario I map as of, say, 1794 would show the original Thirteen Colonies considerably reduced from the turf - as far west as the Mississippi - acquired under the 1783 peace treaty with Britain. The British, in fact, steadily refused to honor the clauses of the treaty dealing with the Great Lakes and what was called the Northwest Territory, so that by 1794, according to Scenario I, they would have completed plans for dropping the Canadian border south to Penobscot Bay in the East and acquiring Vermont as a dependent state, a possibility which in fact many Vermonters flirted with. They would also have separated most of the Northwest Territory from the United States as a British-controlled Indian nation. In short, for want of a strong constitution, the weak ex-Colonies have lost control of their claim to all the land west to the Mississippi. Their hope of future expansion toward the Pacific is blocked off, perhaps forever.

West of the Appalachians the British have it all their own way, continuing with plans to support separatist elements in Kentucky and Tennessee. These frontier folk distrusted Easterners. The new and distant federal government, they correctly felt, had neither the power to protect them from Indian raids nor the will to look out for their right to trade freely down the Mississippi and through Spanish-held New Orleans.

And so it goes, until one can imagine the United States maturing over the decades into a largely coastal nation, surrounded by vast territories linked to the British Empire.

To ask any "What if?" questions of any moment in history is to head down the slippery slope of what many modern historians deplore as "counter­factual speculation." Yet anybody over 40 knows that one way of assessing your life is to look back on roads not taken. And there is something to be said for historian Oscar Handlin's notion that you can't fully understand history, or at least really enjoy it, unless you can see the past as a line made up of millions of points, with every point a turning point that could have gone the other way.

Playing with those turning points, one soon learns the powerful, sly truth embedded in the celebrated story about a question once put by President Nixon to Soviet Premier Brezhnev. "What would have happened if Lee Harvey Oswald had shot Nikita Khrushchev instead of Jack Kennedy?" Nixon is supposed to have asked. And Brezhnev, after a desperate pause, replied, "Well, Mr. President, Aristotle Onassis wouldn't have married Mrs. Khrushchev."

As the Soviet Premier ungallantly perceived, personal character and background circumstances are likely to survive even dramatic, short-term zigzags due to chance, choice or sudden tragedy. And in such terms, the federalists' 1788 scare-the-delegates forecast, though a version of it has been taken as gospel for ages, seems fairly shaky.

Between us and what Jefferson described as the "exterminating havoc of one-quarter of the globe" lay that blessed, great ocean, customarily and correctly credited as a source of our salvation, which until the 1840s often took many weeks to cross. Perhaps it is true, as we still like to think, that America's success may be attributed to some Divine approval of our democratic vision. It was certainly true that beginning only a year after ratification, during the crucial 25-year period of our formative growth under the new Constitution, European threats to the young nation were distracted. Spain was heading into what turned out to be permanent decline. Britain and France, meanwhile, were largely deterred from sustained efforts in the New World by a war that ended only when Napoleon was shipped off to St. Helena in 1815.

By then, French global ambition was temporarily eclipsed. As for the British, who handily burned Washington in 1814 and emerged from the Napoleonic Wars as the most powerful country in the world and our main fear, they had learned the tactical limits of trans-Atlantic warfare. During the American Revolution they realized how difficult and costly it could be to try establishing control over unruly Yankees. Their foreign policies and economic strategies were also in the process of change. They would maneuver and poke at us along the frontiers, of course, but essentially aimed to use force and diplomacy to create a worldwide system of commercial advantage, rather than outright colonial control.

As late as 1789 Sir Guy Carleton, Governor General of Canada, did propose creating a British colony called Kentucky, at a time when Kentucky had not yet entered the Union. But he was swiftly rebuked by London. Again, at the armistice negotiations in Ghent during the War of 1812, ambitious Britons expected to snap up territory in the West and North in return for peace, but were not supported by the Foreign Minister, Lord Castlereagh, who instructed them to settle for the status quo antebellum.

The British, the French and the Spanish all had designs upon the infant nation, and no doubt would have been encouraged had the new federal government been less muscular. But whatever constitution was adopted, it was bound to be stronger than the Articles of Confederation, since the country had already agreed that they needed improving. More important, Americans would have remained the people so often proudly described in high school history texts. We were a practical, mostly egalitarian people, possessing a common language, a tradition of British justice, a remarkable political dream of self-government, a seedling sense of continental mission, and a deep distaste for being messed with. Despite bitter state rivalries and a patchwork constitution that provided no executive leadership whatsoever, we had broken free of the British Empire. In 1789, no matter how much a compromised constitution had weakened the new government, the men running it - Washington, Adams, Hamilton, Madison and Jefferson - would have been the same who fought the British and founded the Union in the first place.

Recent scholarship makes clear how much the federalists exaggerated the divisive economic woes of the Union in 1787-88. Their claims were repeated through the years until, as historian Merrill Jensen puts it, "partisan argument became 'history.' " In fact, by 1787 the ex-Colonies were coming out of the postwar depression. Trade was rapidly improving. Contrary to federalist claims, relatively few serious trade barriers existed between the states. Even under the admittedly inadequate Articles of Confederation some of the war debts had been paid. The states were cooperating in the use of the Delaware, the Potomac and Chesapeake Bay. They had even hammered out the Ordinance of 1787, a difficult plan for the Northwest Territory, which included progressive machinery for the region to sort itself out into states and be admitted to the Union. Significantly, that required states like Virginia to cede vast tracts of long-claimed Western lands to the new United States.

Threats and overstatements seem to have been bred into the bone of American politics, and threats of secession were part of the hard political bargaining of the 1780s. But Americans were immensely proud of the Union, and a weaker central government wouldn't have dampened that pride. So federalist claims that without the Philadelphia constitution the seaboard states would quickly divide into two (or three) confederacies don't make much sense. The economy was growing. Though cash poor, the country was clearly land rich with opportunities that would eventually bring immigrants by the millions from all over the world. (The federal government began selling land for a few cents an acre in 1787, and went on selling it, for a total revenue of $44 million by the 1830s.) It seems reasonable that even under a far weaker government, the states would have found a way to go on doing at least the necessary minimum about finance, taxes, and internal trade.

Farfetched, too, was the threat of foreign-backed, separatist states actually setting up shop beyond the Appalachians. It is true, of course, that machinations by Spain, France and England, as well as plottings by traitor-adventurers like James Wilkinson and Aaron Burr, make an extraordinary chapter in American history. By the 1790s the depth of Western feeling against the power of the Eastern government was astonishing. Some frontier resentment was inevitable because at first the federal government was bound to be dominated by seaboard states. There is no doubt, however, that the swift rise in central power, and the obvious influence of city financiers and lawyers, helped stir threats of secession. By 1794, Madison himself had already turned against his former federalist friends and was fighting the power of the new government, playing upon frontier resentment until the political air was thick with charges of tyranny.

One federalist argument for strong central government was that it would give the President power to act if trouble started on the frontier. But even with a looser federal system, if real foreign threats occurred or local rebellion against the government had broken out, as happened in 1794 when frontiersmen in Pennsylvania rebelled against a new excise tax on whiskey, it is hard to imagine that George Washington would have had trouble raising a sufficient force to put it down.

Time has proved how right the anti­federalists were about an explosive increase in federal power with the consequent proliferation of bureaucracy. So it is tempting, as Scenario 2, to take more seriously than history tends to, the anti-federalist assertion that things would have gone better with a weaker central government operating under a more modest version of the Constitution.

Unlike Scenario I, Scenario 2, especially in the early decades, cannot be presented as a dramatic map of the states which, in 1794, would have been different from what actually existed then. Scenario 2 suggests that Americans would not have split apart and, with an inevitable press of population from birth and a torrent of immigration, would have eventually annexed any parts of the continent claimed by European powers and wound up, as we have, with most of it. According to Scenario 2, things simply would have proceeded at a different pace and in more peaceable ways. In the early going, especially, it has less to do with turf than with the gradual effect on precedent, policy and evolving national character, of a different philosophy of government - strict constructionism combined with a version of Jefferson's notion: that government is best which governs least.

In keeping with the Brezhnev principle, Scenario 2 offers a list of real and familiar events that wouldn't have happened if, back in 1788, those eight delegates' had nudged Virginia and New York into rejecting Madison's Constitution.

Among them:

A capital called Washington, D.C., yes, but not on the Potomac.

In 1790 the new Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, and the new Secretary of State, his political rival Thomas Jefferson, are supposed to have lunched with Madison to talk over Hamilton's controversial plan for funding the national debt. The Southerners Jefferson and Madison traded their crucial support for it in Congress in return for a deal to place the national capital farther south than seemed likely. Under this scenario, because the funding would have had no chance in Congress, Madison and Jefferson would have had nothing to trade. As a result, the nation's capital, inevitably to be called Washington, winds up on the Susquehanna, not the Potomac.

No doctrine of "implied powers," broadening down from precedent to President.

In 1790 Hamilton's touchy plan for a National Bank is not passed by Congress and then presented to Washington early the next year. Instead, Hamilton consults the President in advance. As he did in actual history, Washington asks Hamilton and Jefferson to advise him about the plan's constitutionality. Hamilton offers his famous, overriding doctrine of implied powers - i.e., that unless something is specifically forbidden by the Constitution, the federal government can do whatever it thinks necessary to carry out its constitutional charge of promoting the general welfare and providing for the common defense. Jefferson, just as he actually did, points out that with such an interpretation the government will soon be able to do pretty much anything it pleases. As we all know, Hamilton won, with lasting effects on expanding federal power. Under Scenario 2, however, Washington, true to the new Constitution's limitations, reluctantly rules for Jefferson instead.  The plan is shelved and the Secretary of the Treasury has to figure out a less controversial and less precedent-setting way of handling the federal cash flow and, credit.

No Louisiana Purchase.

By 1803, with a little help from malaria and the fierce slave rebellion that won Haiti its freedom and destroyed an army of 20,000 Frenchmen sent to put it down, the Emperor Napoleon's hopes for a New World empire, based on the Caribbean and lower Mississippi, have temporarily withered. He is willing to sell Louisiana to the Yankees. But President Jefferson knows his constitutional powers do not permit him to buy it (he worried about this even as matters actually stood in 1803), and by the time he gets the requisite Congressional approval, weeks have passed. Napoleon changes his mind .

No War of 1812.

Presidents Jefferson and Madison demonstrated that one way to limit the power of federal government and keep down the tax burden is to avoid having anything much in the way of an army or navy. In 1812, we would have been even worse off than we were, especially with regard to the navy. So, despite British confiscation of American cargoes bound for Napoleon's France, and the impressment of American seamen, the American President doesn't lead us into war. He hasn't the means, nor the votes in Congress to declare it, much less pay for it. America, as she did anyway, endures continuing humiliation at the hands of the British, but without a war. Unlike Washington, D.C. in 1814, the nation's new capital in Pennsylvania isn't burned to the ground.

Nothing stays simple. Under Scenario 2 the country grows larger and larger, more and more complex as it was bound to do. And, in keeping with Jefferson's analogy about the need to increase the size of a growing boy's suit, federal powers, even under a modest constitution, expand in order to get things done. Persuasive Presidents stretch what powers they have. At the expense of states and private citizens, Supreme Court justices like John Marshall try to expand the role of the federal judiciary. But precedent-producing decisions like Marbury v. Madison and McCulloch v. Maryland (which, respectively, established the Supreme Court's right to rule on the constitutionality of laws, and expanded the federal government's implied powers) are possible only much later, if at all.

Under Scenario 2, the whole process of extending federal power would have been slowed down. In domestic politics, as things actually happened, it was Andrew Jackson who most explosively and shockingly expanded Presidential power. He fired Cabinet members left and right and made the political spoils system a way of life in Washington. As a popular hero and the head of a party with patronage to give out, he flexed his federal muscles at all times. In his two terms Jackson vetoed more bills (12) than the combined total (10 terms, 11 vetoes) of all six Presidents who preceded him. By the 1840s, the U.S. Presidency was so out of hand that the Swiss, creating a constitution in 1848 and expecting to use ours as a model, used it instead as a caution about runaway Executive power. As a result, their federal Executive is a seven-member rotating council. Under this scenario, what Jackson did to the U.S. Presidency couldn't have been done that early, and perhaps never.

Yet the surging forces that moved America westward, though slowed somewhat, would have been the same: the growing prosperity; the frontier need for tinkering and inventiveness; the all but limitless supply of workable land; and the onward rush of a restless, exploding population constantly reinforced by immigration from crowded, more militarized, less freewheeling countries. Eventually these would simply have displaced whatever foreign forces that might have been capable of standing temporarily in the way.

Many landmark events would have stayed the same, of course. The Monroe Doctrine, for instance, because it began as an essentially protective idea, was in fact first proposed by the British. Indeed, in 1823 President Monroe counted on the British Navy to do most of the policing work. The massacre at the Alamo in 1836 and the formation of the independent Republic of Texas would have occurred, too, because the lure of new land had drawn 35,000 American settlers there by 1835. Once independent of Mexico, the beleaguered Texans, just as in fact they did, would have appealed in vain for swift admission to the Union and, while waiting, briefly become a British client state.

Under Scenario 2, however, Americans would have gone overboard much more slowly for aggressive, 19th­century nationalism. In the 1840s the political struggle between Whig moderates and expansion-minded nationalists was close. In actuality it was won by the nationalists, the people fired up by the new doctrine of Manifest Destiny (born in 1845 in the mind of a New York newspaperman named John L. O'Sullivan). A portentous, and some would say sinister, turning point in our history was the Mexican War (1846-48), an event that was bitterly resisted by many Whigs.The Mexican War was our first offensive war fought by a serious, trained, volunteer Army led by West Point-trained officers. It was our first war on foreign soil and the first war in which the President gave orders as a confident Commander in Chief.

When it was all over, the United States had won an empire-which by then clearly would include California - a chunk of land totaling more than 377 million square acres. Americans have always been land hungry, at least in what we soon came to regard as our own inevitable backyard. And more and more there was also a high­minded, though flagrantly racist, mystique involved, the notion of bringing the benefits of American liberty to "lesser" lands and peoples. "Miserable, inefficient Mexico," Walt Whitman wrote, "what has she to do with the great mission of peopling the New World with a noble race? Be it ours to achieve .... "

People today who deplore American militarism, the country's overseas commitments, the influence at home and abroad of what is called the military-industrial complex, may be drawn to Scenario 2, especially those who believe that all wars are bad because they never settle anything. Under Scenario 2, the Mexican War would never have occurred. And neither would that deadliest, most heroic, tragic and shaping conflict in America's history, the War Between the States.

By 1846, President Polk would not have had the political or military means under Scenario 2 to pick an aggressive quarrel with Mexico. As for the Civil War, though the anguished and savage debate over slavery would have evolved to some extent as it did, in the America evolving under Scenario 2, the right of a state to secede voluntarily from the Union would have been clear from the beginning. Nothing like the nullification debates (over whether the states could nullify federal laws they thought unconstitutional) that occurred in 1798, 1828 and 1832 would have been necessary. Nor, despite justified moral and political rage, would the North have developed quite the same holy cult of the Union, bolstered by the new nationalism and Daniel Webster's resounding speeches. Certainly not at anything like the level of passion that actually occurred. Under a looser federal system, the seceding states would have been raged at and spiritually spat upon, and no doubt there would have been plenty of divisive violence and bloodshed of the kind that made Kansas the scene of near-guerrilla warfare in 1856. But the states would have had the legal right to go, and the Union would have had no legal right to coerce them.

Even in actual history, the Civil War came very close to not happening when it did, and perhaps not at all. At first, Lincoln made clear that if a way could be found he would preserve the Union at the cost of temporarily extending slavery. Weeks after secession, the actual fighting was triggered by the existence of a federal installation, Fort Sumter, that could not be revictualed, as other federal forts below the Mason-Dixon Line had been, without entering a Southern harbor. Certainly, under Scenario 2, there would have been far fewer such federal military installations. Under Scenario 2 the Southern states might not have felt the need to secede, but had they done so, the North, being essentially what we today call racist, and still partly convinced that property must remain property lest economic chaos ensue, would have expostulated and wrung its hands - and in all likelihood done nothing.

It is nice to speculate that under Scenario 2, common sense, patience and humanity might have accomplished what it took nearly a million American casualties inflicted by other Americans between 1861 and 1865 to do - lift the cross of slavery from Americans, black and white, thus sparing everyone the hatred and agony of Reconstruction as well. There is even a way of construing such an outcome from Scenario 2. It runs as follows:

Americans had officially outlawed the importation of slaves as early as 1808. Great Britain had banished slavery at home and in all her overseas possessions by 1833. From the early 1830s the moral pressure and outrage of abolitionists in America grew steadily stronger and louder. In the South, though their opinions were suppressed, thousands of people hated slavery and wanted to end it, their convictions profoundly touched by books like Uncle Tom's Cabin (which Harriet Beecher Stowe directed straight at the nation's conscience) and by the Protestant evangelical movement generally. In a South less emotional, less fearful of military intervention, there would have been less embattled solidarity. It is possible to imagine states like Virginia and Maryland (where cotton wasn't king and slaves were fewer and not regarded as crucial to prosperity) gradually giving up the "peculiar institution" under terms financed by federal money from the sale of Western lands. Besides paying off slave owners, the government could have set up transition schools for emancipated blacks - faintly resembling current job-training courses.

In the Deep South, however, one has to try to imagine not only some change of heart, but some economic catastrophe. We used to be told by historians that by 1861 slavery was already a dying institution, bound to fall - quite apart from the cruelty and moral horror involved - because of its own economic inefficiency. Intense study in the past 20 years seems to have proved that interpretation illusory. Cotton continued as a big crop until the 1880s. The demand from Europe remained high, though increasingly cheaper cotton was being grown and exported from India and Egypt.

America did suffer economic crises in 1873, 1893 and 1907. Even with the greatest optimism, however, it's hard to conceive of enough economic dislocation to have led to the end of slavery on the first two of these dates. Even for that last date, no workable scenario by which emancipation could have come about seems to present itself. Counterfactualists are forced to fall back on a generalized - and therefore rather thin-hope. It is this: the antislavery movement was the greatest and most important international crusade of the 19th century. By 1890, slavery had disappeared entirely from what, with some reservations, could be called the civilized world. Gone from Cuba in 1886. Gone even from Brazil by 1888, just at the end of Emperor Dom Pedro II's 40-year reign. This was America, after all. Conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Whatever the mechanics, however great the real and latent racism, could America have endured the shame of slavery a moment longer than Cuba and Brazil? Surely, the heart argues, we would have somehow found a way to end it in time to keep the Statue of Liberty - had France chosen to offer it at all in 1875 - from being some kind of mockery.

Don't bet on it. In counterfactual speculation, the word "somehow" must be regarded as a wishful cop­out. In the past 20 years, naturally, the subject of American slavery - how it worked, how it might have been gotten rid of, how the condition of the serfs in 19th-century Russia or the blacks in 20th-century South Africa illuminate it - has been the concern of many scholars. Not much of what they have found encourages hope of early emancipation in the United States without either a Civil War or an economic depression so appalling that owners would have freed their slaves out of raw, financial necessity.

Few are as extreme as Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who flatly declared in 1986 that, "had the states' rights creed prevailed, there would still be slavery in the United States." But most are hard put to create a working scenario for emancipation without force until well into the 20th century. Even then the presumption is that the condition of freed slaves would have been far nearer to total servitude than what we had - forced segregation with its degrading Jim Crow customs and discriminatory voting laws. Unlike the Russian nobility, the rich and powerful slave owners of the Deep South were not decadent and often-absentee landlords, but tough, practical, belligerent and unabashed. They sought new land to spread slavery and its profits, some of them even scheming to take over Cuba for that purpose. Had Virginia and Maryland bailed out, one gloomy line of thought goes, what is known as the South African effect might have taken place. The remaining Deep South slave states, instead of changing, would have simply become more and more rigid, embattled and resentful.

The discussion is tortuous. It involves such things as the rate at which Southern soil might have become exhausted, and whether or not the South could have retained slavery and at the same time managed to industrialize. (Some scholars say yes, some say no.) A basic requirement would have been the existence of a major labor market outside the South to absorb large numbers of emigrating former slaves, which did not occur until World War 1. And, at a shocking and depressing guess, it is not until then, under Scenario 2, that emancipation might have occurred.

"Of all historical problems," Henry Adams once wrote, "the nature of national character is the most difficult and the most important." Under Scenario 2, we would have wound up with the same land, but with a different character - different and better, some might say. We would certainly have had fewer martial memories and heroes. Washington at Valley Forge, yes, but no Perry on Lake Erie, no Jackson whipping the British at New Orleans, no Grant, no Lee, no Pickett's Charge and, above all, no Lincoln to use, and sometimes abuse, the by-then almost-dictatorial powers of the Presidency, riding roughshod over the 10th Amendment to the Constitution (which reserved for the states all powers not delegated to the federal government) so that, after much bloodshed, the 13th (which abolished, slavery) could be written.

In the short term, the federalists were wrong about what would have happened if those eight delegates in New York and Virginia had voted the other way in 1788. For six decades thereafter, history kept proving the anti-federalists right. By 1861, however, the central powers they had deplored, and the federalists had claimed were crucial to the survival of the Union, suddenly proved to be exactly that. But in the interdependent, tinderbox world of 1988, in which democratic institutions seem highly vulnerable, Lincoln's famous question about whether a government so dedicated and so conceived can long endure is still something to be pondered.


Additional reading:

  • The Ordeal of the Constitution by Robert Allen Rutland, Northeastern University Press, 1983
  • Chance or Destiny by Oscar Handlin, Little Brown, 1955
  • So Vast, So Beautiful a Land: Louisiana and the Purchase by Marshall Sprague, Little brown, 1974
  • The History of American Wars by T. Harry Williams, Knopf, 1981