Celebrating Counterfactuals: Ross Douthat Speculates About the French and Indian War
I’m an equal opportunity commentator on the world of “what if?”, and so I have to give credit where credit is due.
While I’ve criticized Ross Douthat (and plenty of other journalists) for using sloppy counterfactuals in the past (see HERE), his latest essay in The New York Times is a great example of how “what ifs” can be profitably employed in the service of historical understanding.Entitled “The War That Made Our World,” Douthat’s essay argues that the history of the French and Indian War (1757-63) offers a way for present-day Americans to understand the complexity of history, while also taking pride in it.
Central to Douthat’s argument is the possibility that the outcome of real history (the British defeat of the French and the dominance of the former over North America) might not have come to pass and, instead, that the French might have emerged victorious.
How would history have been different if the French had won?
Well, according to Douthat:
“The French empire in North America represented an unusual model of European colonization: The combination of the smaller, scattered population, the harsher climate and the distinctive vision of figures like Samuel de Champlain and the French Jesuits all contributed to a friendlier relationship with Native American populations than obtained in the English colonies.”
As he goes on to note:
“A world where the French somehow held on to their territories might have been more Catholic (obviously a good thing) while offering more possibilities for Indigenous influence, power and survival than the world where England simply won the continent.”
A longtime conservative (Catholic) columnist, Douthat’s fantasy of a more Catholic North America is in keeping with his personal religious preferences – and is more believable than his embrace of the putatively more left-liberal fantasy of a more autonomous turn in Native American history.
But never mind that.
What is more notable is that he is self-aware about his own use of counterfactuals and willing to credit them with deepening (rather than impoverishing, as so many other pundits have claimed) our ability to lend significance to the past.
As he notes:
“Imagining an alternative timeline, a history in which New France endures and a more, well, “French and Indian” civilization takes shape in the Great Lakes region, isn’t exactly the stuff of the patriotic American education that I wrote about last weekend."
"But it also makes a poor fit with contemporary progressive pieties, in which organized Christianity is a perpetual scapegoat for the mistreatment of Native peoples — since it was arguably the power of the church and the Catholic ancien régime in New France, relative to the greater egalitarianism, democracy and secular ambition in the English colonies, that helped foster a more humane relationship between the French colonizers and the Native American population."
For Douthat, there is room in historical analysis for both a “patriotic spirit” and historical “speculation.”
As he declares:
"The first, the patriotism, is a form of gratitude for the particular goods that the American Republic ended up embodying — the initial goods of greater equality, liberty and prosperity for many ordinary people, and then the gradual extension of those goods to people once subjugated and excluded."
"The second, the speculation, is a recognition of contingency and complexity — the reality that although the United States we have is good and great in many ways, along another timeline there might lie other goods, other civilizations, that would have been different from our democratic empire but also admirable, and whose real and imagined histories can be usefully contrasted with our own."
"Both attitudes cultivate the appreciation of the past that seems essential to sustaining historical memory."
I think that such a melding of opposites -- admiration and critique; empiricism and imagination -- is precisely what's needed both in academic and public history. So I'm happy to cheer on Douthat as he uses his bully pulpit to prop up the use of counterfactuals in historical analysis.