Just for Fun, Games Historians Play

tags: teaching history

Randall Balmer, a resident of Santa Fe, is a historian of religion in North America and teaches at Dartmouth College.


When historians feel frisky (or perhaps a bit bored), we sometimes engage in thought games, teasing out various possibilities. One of the favorites is counterfactual scenarios. What if, for example, a favorable wind had not helped the English navy defeat the superior forces of the Spanish Armada in 1588? Would Elizabeth have survived on the throne? Would England have remained Protestant? How would the balance of power in Europe have shifted?

What if the Supreme Court had allowed the Florida recount to continue following the 2000 presidential election rather than issue a 5-4 decision that threw the election to George W. Bush?

Or, a question I recently put to my students: If the Great Awakening, the religious revival that consumed the Atlantic colonies in the middle decades of the 18th century, had not occurred, would the American Revolution still have taken place? And if so, would the patriots, who drew from the persuasive oratory and the patterns of communication in the Awakening, have been successful?

A second game draws on history to play out various scenarios in the future. As someone who predicted the day following the 2016 election that Donald Trump would refuse to leave office should he be defeated in 2020, I listened with grim satisfaction as the president declined to affirm that he would abide by the results of the election in November. I’ve long feared that, having spent his presidency assailing the media, Trump would cry fraud and “fake news.” His supporters, in turn, heavily armed and abetted by the downstream media, would stage menacing demonstrations.

The Constitution, for all of its genius, doesn’t really account for such a possibility; the founders presupposed the integrity and goodwill of those who held public office, something we can no longer assume in the age of Trump. And if you add to the mix the fact that the president is also commander in chief of the armed forces, you have a truly chilling scenario that could unfold later this year.

Read entire article at Santa Fe New Mexican

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