Heather Cox Richardson

Two of the speakers I heard at The History Society’s conference last weekend got me thinking about the importance of contingency in historical events. Michael Barone of the American Enterprise Institute argued that the pattern of American politics since the early twentieth century had been determined by two central pivot constituencies. George Washington University’s Leo Ribuffo disagreed. He pointed instead to the unexpected quirks that had shifted key elections. Ribuffo’s funny look at the oddities of history poked a hole in the idea that there was any such thing as the sort of clear pattern Barone found in the political history of the past century.

I might have passed over this disagreement except that the previous day, in a session devoted to a review of his work, William Freehling—one of our leading scholars of the antebellum American South—had also mentioned contingency. He explained that his work on the rise of secession had made him come to see history as a series of themes flowing through time, altered at an immediate level by contingency. For proof of his theory, he challenged the audience to think of events in their own lives that had been determined by something accidental. And who can’t?

Two references to chance in two days made me wonder: What is the role of contingency in historical change? Professors Freehling and Ribuffo are undoubtedly correct. Our lives are not predetermined by impersonal societal forces. Chance matters. But historians study the past to figure out what creates change in human society, and Barone’s identification of a pattern that gave certain constituencies control over political elections also had great merit. How do these two seemingly contradictory factors work together?

As I thought about it, I came to lean toward Freehling’s vision of contingency, with an important adjustment. I do believe that societal change is driven by larger forces (my personal favorite is ideas) and that there are unexpected accidents that affect change in quirky ways. But—and this is an important but—I think that the larger forces in play limit which accidents turn out to be important, change the terms of those accidents, and ultimately define their significance. That is, a chance meeting might enable two scientists to develop an energy technology that goes on to change the world, but that chance meeting can only happen in certain kinds of societies, the nature of the meeting is determined by the society, and the results of the meeting can only matter in a society that recognizes the importance of their sort of work. That same chance meeting of two brilliant innovators in a society convulsed by civil war might mean they pass each other unnoticed as they struggle to get their families to safety. If they do speak, they might work together not on energy technology, but on a new wagon box spring or artillery carriage . . . or they might kill each other. And the result of their collaboration or collision might either fall forgotten in a society that has no current use for it, or it might revolutionize society in ways that have nothing to do with energy. In this scenario the same two great minds meet—a contingency—but the significance of that meeting depends largely on the trends of the larger society in which they live.

Or so I think at this particular (contingent?) moment.