Hypothetical History

20 Nov

This weekend, I went to the Hermitage, home of Andrew Jackson, to hear my colleague speak on his latest book about the former president. A large crowd filled a church on the property, and it was a great event. I learned a lot about a president who I have lectured about numerous time. It goes to show that we can all learn something new. Actually, that’s what the study of history is all about.

At the end, time was allowed for questions, and several people raised their hands. I asked a question that wasn’t very good, but it was far from the worst. Just before me, a man asked which side Andrew Jackson would have been on if he had been around for the Civil War. These kinds of questions bother me because they are impossible to answer. I call them “hypothetical history.” Interestingly, my colleague said that is the question he gets the most. Really? Of all the things Andrew Jackson actually did, people are more interested in what he might have done? Hypothetical

These same questions are being asked about John F. Kennedy. As we have been reminded over and over, the 50th anniversary of his assassination is coming up. That means numerous documentaries and articles about his murder and the conspiracies surrounding it. However, it also means numerous documentaries about what might have been. What if he had not been assassinated that day in Dallas?

Many people think that the world would have been a better place. There would not have been a Vietnam. There would not have been more assassinations as the 1960s moved forward. There would never have been a Richard Nixon or a Watergate. All of the bad things that have happened since 1963 would not have happened if only John F. Kennedy had lived.

On Sunday, there was an article in The Tennessean, Nashville’s daily, about this very thing. A Nashville native and friend of Kennedy’s talked about what might have been and what he thought would have been. But, here’s the thing. We don’t know that. It’s all hypothetical. Last year, I read 11/22/63 by Stephen King. It’s about a man who goes back in time and saves John F. Kennedy. In King’s imagination, the world ended up in a worse situation because of that.

Some may say that there’s no way. Kennedy would have made things better. However, Stephen King’s book is just as valid as anyone’s. He writes fiction, and that is what “hypothetical history” really is.

John F. Kennedy’s death was a tragedy that affected everyone who was alive at the time. It changed the course of American history. We just don’t know how it changed that history. The study of history is difficult enough without wondering what might have been. We can only study what happened and try to figure it out as accurate as possible.

By looking at “hypothetical history,” I believe that we are doing the people of the past an injustice. Instead of thinking about what Jackson or Kennedy might have done, we should focus on who they were and what they did. That’s the best way to honor people who we are interested in. Let’s get to know them the best we can. We can never really know the real people, but that is better than trying to know them in an imaginary way.

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4 Responses to “Hypothetical History”

  1. DyingNote November 20, 2013 at 03:35 #

    Hypothetical history or wishful thinking. I particularly love that last paragraph.

    • Rick November 20, 2013 at 03:58 #

      Thank you. We all want the world to be a better place, but history can’t be changed.

  2. jcalberta November 21, 2013 at 01:41 #

    History. Endless pages in legions of libraries.
    My Dad was ‘well read’, but I fear he was not wise and knew little of life.
    Maybe all we can do is take the best of what great men gave to us and run with it. As far as we can.
    Forgive my pretentiousness.Thank you for a provoking piece.

    • Rick November 21, 2013 at 02:46 #

      You’re welcome. Thanks for your comment. I just think we learn more from studying what happened rather than dwelling on what we wish had happened.

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