Close Call Could've Changed History

Mar 17, 2017

I love counter-factuals. Lately I ran across a real doozy of a counter-factual.

In 1852 Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire was elected president of the United States and was due to be sworn in on March 4, 1853. But before he was, he and his family were involved in a tragic train accident. The choo-choo jumped the rails and threw both President-Elect Pierce and his wife and small son off the train. Pierce and the soon-to-be First Lady were unharmed, but their son Bennie was killed. A train axle missed the Pierces but crushed Bennie.

This was and is awful. But suppose the axle had hit Mr. Pierce instead. He would have died. Meanwhile, his vice president, Rufus King, was so ill that he had to ask Congress’ permission to take the oath of office in Cuba, where he had gone for the warm air. He soon died. Had both Franklin Pierce and Rufus King died, the presidency would have fallen to one David Atchison of Kansas, a rabid pro-slavery man. Atchison was president pro-tem of the Senate and constitutionally next in line.

With President Atchison in charge, the Civil War might have begun eight years earlier. Kansas might be known as the Land of Atchison. Illinois would not have become known as the Land of Lincoln because Mr. Lincoln would have never been elected president, and even if he had, he would not have been the wartime martyr that he is honored for today.

A lot depended on a railroad axle. It still does. This is Tom McBride, and that’s my Perspective.