Since moving to Massachusetts, in September 2015, I’ve taken great pleasure in visiting some of Boston’s historic sites. I’ve walked (part of) the Freedom Trail and visited the Old State House, Faneuil Hall, the Granary Burying Ground, the Old South Church, and the Adams crypt in Quincy. A few weeks ago, I took it a step further: I went on a duck boat tour. While on the tour, the on-board historian told passengers that Joseph Warren would have been America’s first president if he was not killed at the Battle of Bunker Hill. *MIC DROP*
This wasn’t the first time I’d heard about what could have been for Joseph Warren. In fact, earlier that same week I was told by another person that they’d heard the same thing. Joseph Warren “would have been the first president of the United States, not Washington.”
So as the duck boat went along, the on-board historian’s short but punchy tribute to Warren took me by surprise. Warren potentially upstaging George Washington? Surely not. This was counterfactual history at its best.
I’m not particularly fond of counterfactual history. In past teaching situations, in Scotland and in the U.S., I’ve invoked E. P. Thompson when discussing its utility: “Geschichtswissenschlopff, unhistorical shit.” (Similarly, E. H. Carr dubbed it a “parlour game.”) Many “professional” historians, with perhaps the exception of Niall Ferguson, are, to paraphrase Ferguson’s term in his Virtual History, hostile toward it.
To be sure, counterfactuals can be fun. I’ve often heard students go back and forth over a particular “what if” question. For instance, what if Napoleon’s defeat in Russia never happened? When this particular question popped up, however, I nipped it in the bud, deciding instead to do a little bit of digging to see if I could use this particular counterfactual for something other than a fiery debate. It didn’t take me long to find something.
In the early nineteenth century, Louis Geoffrey published Napoléon Apocryphe. 1812–1832. It offered an account of Napoleon conquering a large portion of the world and becoming its ruler. As one reviewer wrote, “It is a history hanging on a single ‘if.’ It is the life of Napoleon, as he would have been. If Moscow had not proved his ruin.”
It was a “curious history,” the reviewer continued, and a “curious romance.” The account was “interesting in the extreme.” In the end, though, Napoléon Apocryphe was more akin to a good novel. Geoffrey gave “zest and animation to his tale by sprinkling it with real events.”
Other counterfactual histories have emerged over time. In July 1907, the distinguished English historian G. M. Trevelyan published an essay in The Westminster Gazette titled “If Napoleon Had Won the Battle of Waterloo.” It was subsequently reprinted in an edited collection in 1926. In Douglas Egerton’s essay, “The Empire of Liberty Reconsidered,” in The Revolution of 1800, he suggested, “a North American, perhaps even a hemispheric, empire of liberty, would have been better served by the re-election of John Adams.” And in 2002 Robert Cowley’s edited collection, What Ifs? of American History, hit the bookshelves. Counterfactual history was and remains extremely popular. (We’ve dabbled in some here, too.)
But would Joseph Warren have been America’s first president, if he had lived? I’m not sure. Of course, he was militarily and politically significant. As Ethan Rafuse writes, “No man, with the possible exception of Samuel Adams, did so much to bring about the rise of a movement powerful enough to lead the people of Massachusetts to revolution.”
Contemporaries appreciated his importance, too. When Abigail Adams heard of his death, she told John, “our dear Friend Dr. Warren is no more but fell gloriously fighting for his Country.” “Great is our Loss,” she continued, “He has distinguished himself in every engagement, by his courage and fortitude, by animating the Soldiers and leading them on by his own example.” Even Thomas Jefferson appreciated Warren’s importance, though he also recognized his significance was amplified in New England. In a short statement, which reads like an obituary, Jefferson stated: “Dr. Warren, a man who seems to have been immensely valued in the North.” In 2016, it seems, Jefferson’s view remains accurate.
Indeed, for the duck boat historian, it was Warren who was Massachusetts’ most important (male) figure, at least in 1775. And for that, he offered a unique insight into how Bostonians remember the American Revolution and, equally important, how they want duck boat riders, most of whom are tourists, to understand it.
There’s no doubt that the same process of “regional remembering” occurs in other areas. It happens to different aspects of history, too. Perhaps most famous is the “Lost Cause” interpretation of the Civil War and its impact on American memory, well discussed by David Blight in the classic Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. As he argues, after the war ended the United States had to redefine and recreate what it was as a nation. By extension, people had to reexamine their immediate and distant past, something which many struggled to do.
The manner in which the duck boat historian remembered Joseph Warren was similar. And it’s forced me to reconsider how people beyond George Robert Twelves Hewes remembered the Revolution in different areas. In particular, I’ve found myself revisiting the Westchester County Historical Society’s McDonald’s Papers, a “record the interviews of 241 elderly men and women who had been living in Westchester County during the [Revolutionary] war.” Perhaps now I’ll find a way to finally get to Elmsford, New York.
 “The Apocryphal Napoleon,” The Boston Miscellany of Literature and Fashion, May 1, 1842, p. 231–36.
 James Horn, Jan Lewis, and Peter S. Onuf, ed., The Revolution of 1800: Democracy, Race, and the New Republic, Jeffersonian America (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2002), 309–30.
 Recent Essays, ed. W. A. J. Archbold (London, 1926).