"Counterfactual history" are fighting words for historians. Some view "what ifs" as useless or even pernicious. Others, and I am among them, think they can be a useful way to deepen our understanding of the past and how we got here.
In a previous 101 column, I looked at some specific lost opportunities for Phoenix. This time, I want to lay out some turning points that might have gone another way, with profound implications for Arizona and the nation.
1. William Henry Harrison lived and served out his term(s). As every schoolboy or schoolgirl should know, the hero of the Battle of Tippecanoe was elected president in 1840. He delivered the longest inaugural address in history on a frigid March day with no hat or overcoat. He caught cold, which turned into pneumonia and pleurisy and he was dead in a month.
The consequences for American history were profound. Harrison led a Whig agenda (the "American System") that today would be considered progressive. His vice president, John Tyler, a former Democrat, abandoned it. Had the Whigs been able to enact their policies under this popular president and extend them with the election of another statesman, Henry Clay ("Harry of the West"), the power of the South would have been lessened and the Civil War might have been postponed for decades.
The Mexican War likely wouldn't have happened. An independent Texas Republic might have emerged and even joined the union. But what became Arizona would have remained part of Mexico. A weak and divided Mexico would have been unable to subdue the Apaches in the late 19th century. The result: Cal's dream of "sahuaros" as the largest population in a land of empty majesty.
2. The Gadsden Purchase didn't take place. When Mexico lost its war with the United States, it ceded land all the way to the Gila River. Washington approached Mexico City in the early 1850s about buying more — a deal which resulted in Arizona's current borders.
The purchase was not inevitable. It was driven by the desire for a southern transcontinental railroad route — what became the Southern Pacific's Sunset Route (shown above). But most Southerners, including the majority of their leaders, had no interest in the railroad or diversifying the economy beyond slave-based agriculture, especially cotton. James Gadsden, the ambassador who pushed through the agreement, was a slave holder but supported the railroad.
The opposition wasn't limited to the South. Anti-slavery northern lawmakers didn't favor it, fearful that it would extend the "peculiar institution" west. Mexicans resisted efforts to make the purchase include much more territory, including Baja California and Chihuahua. Santa Anna, president once again, felt pressured by Washington and asked for British help. London demurred.
In other words, several hinges of history might have turned the other way.
Without the Gadsden Purchase, Mexico would begin directly south of metropolitan Phoenix. Imagine Phoenix as a border town. Or a border city, as with San Diego.
3. The Confederacy won the Civil War. In May 1863, Gen. Stonewall Jackson was killed by friendly fire after the Battle of Chancellorsville. Had Robert E. Lee been able to use his most effective lieutenant at Gettysburg two months later, the Army of Northern Virginia might well have prevailed.
Until Gettysburg, the union had lost most of its major battles against the South. Defeat in Pennsylvania could well have marked a turning point where northern enthusiasm for the bloody conflict, already wavering, collapsed. British and other European recognition of the CSA might have been forthcoming, followed by the defeat of Abraham Lincoln in 1864 by the peace-seeking former general George McClellan.
The immediate result would have been a border between the two countries that ran horizontally through what is now New Mexico and Arizona. The latter had a territorial delegate in the Confederate Congress. Whether the United States and Confederate States could have co-existed is the subject of much speculation, as well as several novels. But had Richmond enacted its version of the Newlands Act, the Salt River Valley would have become a cotton kingdom tilled by slave labor. Slaves also would have mined copper at Bisbee
If, on the other hand, state rights would have trumped a strong central government, Confederate Arizona might have remained a wild place of Apaches and adventurous Anglo miners in perpetuity. This would have been doubly so without a transcontinental railroad, which the South would have been unlikely to build.
4. No Newlands Act. Had the financial panics of the 1890s not abated, and had northern and Midwestern farmers realized that reclamation would use their tax dollars to subsidize crops to compete against them, the transformational water projects of the early 20th century might never have been funded. Phoenix would have remained a small, tenuous community for much longer.
5. No Barry Goldwater or Steve Shadegg. The 1952 senatorial campaign managed by Shadegg and showcasing the handsome young department-store owner only barely unseated Majority Leader Ernest McFarland. And that was with the deep unpopularity of Harry Truman and exhaustion of essentially 20 years of national Democratic control. Without those two individuals, Arizona would have remained a Democratic state far longer.
6. California prevails before the Supreme Court. If the Golden State had won the long-running Arizona v. California case, there would have been no Central Arizona Project and not enough water to encourage the vast population explosion from the 1960s onward.
7. Roy Elson won the 1964 senatorial election. Elson was the longtime aide to Sen. Carl Hayden. When Goldwater ran for the presidency, he left an open senate seat. Elson ran against Paul Fannin. Elson lost then and again in 1968, but had his best shot four years earlier in the LBJ landslide. An Elson victory would have short-circuited Fannin's career and retained a Democratic seat once Hayden retired in 1968.
7. Republican fratricide wrecks the party. John Conlin and Sam Steiger engaged in a bitter battle to succeed Paul Fannin in 1976. It tore the party so badly that Democrat Dennis DeConcini won the general election. By this time, the "big sort" of Republicans that had moved to Arizona might have made further gains by the other party difficult. But Arizona was still a competitive, two-party state. Much of today's reactionary inevitability might have been avoided had the GOP civil war continued.
8. Carolyn Warner is elected governor in 1986. A Democratic civil war split the party this year with developer Bill Schultz getting in, then out, then in again against Warner (and the reader should know she was one of my mother's best friends and reminds people that she has known me since I was "this tall" — lowering her hand). Warner was the most qualified, most capable candidate and would have made a fine governor. Instead, Arizona got Evan Mecham, followed by Fife Symington.
9. A more aggressive agriculture industry. Billions of dollars had been invested to create the citrus, produce and other farming sectors that dominated the economy of the Salt River Valley for decades. The CAP was sold as a way to insure the viability of agriculture and extend cultivation. But there was no will to retain agriculture, as has happened in much of California, or try imaginative methods to preserve pieces of it, such as the Japanese flower gardens, through agricultural trusts. The money was hot for sprawl and the notion of growth boundaries or agricultural preservation would have been equated with communism.
10. Sandra Day O'Connor votes to keep the Supreme Court out of a presidential election. Had the lionized daughter of Arizona followed the Constitution, Al Gore would have been president in 2000. No Iraq war. Plenty of action against climate change and for nation building at home. So when you see her face on the sidewalk by the old courthouse (WBIYB) light-rail stop, do step on it.
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