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What if?

09/07/05 12:00AM By Vic Henningsen
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(HOST) As Iraq has been struggling to write and approve a constitution, commentator Vic Henningsen has been thinking about what was going on prior to the signing of the American constitution on September 17th, 1787 - and playing a little game.


(HENNINGSEN) Everyone likes to play the "What if?" game. What if the South had won at Gettysburg? What if Hitler had conquered England in 1940? What if the polio vaccine had never been developed? Or the birth control pill? How might our lives be different assuming we'd be here at all if history had happened differently?

Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich plays the "What if?" game, co-authoring a series of books presenting an alternative Civil War in which the South does win at Gettysburg. Even scholars like Harvard's Niall Ferguson have gotten into the act, producing a whole volume of counterfactuals.

Many consider the best "What if?" piece ever written to be James Thurber's "If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox" in which a badly hung-over U.S. Grant surrenders his sword to an amazed Robert E. Lee with the immortal line: "We 'dam near licked you. If I'd been feeling better, we would have licked you."

Although I was taught that it was a complete waste of time, playing "What if?" is fun and occasionally instructive.

So let's play "What if?". Given today's headlines, and the fact that September 17th marks the 218th anniversary of the signing of our Constitution, let's assume that the world power instrumental in freeing America from that oppressive tyrant, George III, stayed to make sure we developed a frame of government they considered appropriate.

What if France had played a role at the Constitutional Convention? The food would have been better. The summer convention would have gone longer, given the French propensity for taking August off. And since the French regard argument as an art in itself, compromise might have been harder to reach.

But, seriously, suppose the French had tried to influence the Convention, had laid down guidelines to follow, or issued a set of expectations to meet? What if King Louis had tried to resolve the conflict between large and small states over representation in the new national government? Would the United States have emerged with a king, a self-indulgent aristocracy, a resentful middle class, and a mass of peasants - illiterate, ill-nourished, ignored -- in other words, a mirror of the France that would be destroyed by the Revolution of 1789, the year the new American government took office?

Probably not. Americans would have resisted such intrusiveness. The French might have realized such meddling would harm their long term interests.

But playing "What if" makes us think about the role of "senior partner." It forces us to question the idea that what works for one country automatically works for all; that there is one best system and it is, of course, ours.

Playing "What if" demands that we challenge the assumption that our position in the world not only allows, but requires us to make sure that others are not permitted to develop in ways we deem inappropriate.

The French would not have been welcome at the Philadelphia Convention in 1787; should we be surprised by what's happening in Iraq today?

This is Vic Henningsen of Thetford Ctr.

Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian.

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