So, Hey, Columbus. That Was A Pretty Big Deal When You Think About It.


Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Editor-in-Chief Emeritus of Ordinary Times. Relapsed Lawyer, admitted to practice law (under his real name) in California and Oregon. On Twitter, to his frequent regret, at @burtlikko. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.

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177 Responses

  1. Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

    I would think a Christian would be obliged to pick the life of Jesus as more important. I might even be tempted to agree.

    One might also argue that walking on the moon is more important, but it’s too soon to say on that one.

    Anyway, it’s a pretty short list that’s even plausibly ahead of Columbus. No argument there.Report

    • Avatar Plinko in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

      Are we talking Columbus or the whole exporting of Western Civilization to the Americas? Let’s say Columbus’ boat sinks on voyage one, how big a change in the history of civilization do we see? How long before someone else makes it? Does that different timeline of when/where/who change the world today that dramatically?
      I honestly don’t know, but I might lean a lot more heavily to ‘Jesus’ than ‘Columbus’ as a result if it’s just him as opposed to the whole export of Western Civilization thing.

      If we’re discussing what historical processes (ie the colonization of North and South America), the only thing that comes close to me is the Industrial Revolution and I might be tempted to pick that first.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Plinko says:

        The 2012 election.

        I had thought that the Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica was something that deserves inclusion but, in the same vein as you point out, Leibniz was working on a similar kinda thing so we’d just have different names in the history textbooks instead of different events. There aren’t *THAT* many Mules in history.

        I tend to agree that Columbus wasn’t one.Report

        • Avatar Kim in reply to Jaybird says:

          Poor Richard’s Almanac.
          Or would we rather choose Priestley?Report

        • Avatar Plinko in reply to Jaybird says:

          There’s an interesting post – who do you think the Mules of history are? A bunch of religious figures are slam dunks. Julius Caesar and Constantine seem easy. I’m sure there are plenty I’m not thinking of.Report

          • Avatar Kim in reply to Plinko says:

            Not Jesus. Plenty of other end-timers around then.

            Maybe… maybe… Temujin!

            Julius Caesar seems much more likely than Temujin, but that may be my own biases talking…Report

          • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to Plinko says:

            I’d strike Caesar from that list. Let’s say Caesar’s family can’t come up with the ransom and the pirates kill him as a young man.

            As for Gaul, it might not have been as violent or as quick as it was with Caesar leading a war of conquest there, but the economics were going to eventually pull more and more of Gaul into the Roman world, one way or another.

            As for the Republic becoming a military dictatorship, someone was going to pick up the Gracchan banner and make another go of it. Crassus, maybe. Or younger men like Antony or Cassius or Octavian from the generation after Caesar and Pompey and Crassus. The exact notes would have been different without Caesar, but the Republic was spiralling into demagoguery and dictatorship well before Caesar came along (Marius, Sulla, even Cicero briefly and Catalina if you believe Cicero) and would have gone further down that path until someone like Caesar came along. Eventually, one of them was going to win all the marbles.

            My choice for a real-life Mule: Mohammed.Report

            • Avatar North in reply to Burt Likko says:

              It’s obvious and a Goodwin violation as well but Hitler strikes me as a particularily Mulish Mule. Though it’s entirely possbile that Asimov may have had ol’ Adolph at least somewhat in mind when he created the Mule (though his was more personable).Report

              • Avatar Kim in reply to North says:

                Demagogues like hitler? dime a dozen. Father Coughlin ring a bell? Half a dozen others in the French Revolution.
                Unrest is easy.

                Now maybe the next one doesn’t try to exterminate the Jews.
                But taking over Sudetenland is tiddlywinks.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird in reply to North says:

                Napoleon is a Mule, it seems to me.

                “Wouldn’t Wellington have to be one?”

                No, Wellington wasn’t brilliant, he was just competent. Another competent General would have done as well.

                Emperors who go out to conquer the world who are capable of getting their hands on much of it? That’s something else entirely.Report

              • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to Jaybird says:


              • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to Jaybird says:

                I’m thinking more about Ghengis and it occurs to me that he was too early; his conquest obviously wasn’t going to stand.

                I think Napoleon gets a bit more credit but not much more, since there’s still no train, plane, automobile, telegraph, telephone -> no small world inventions yet, so any large conquest was going to dissolve back into squabbling nation-states anyway.

                They get points for trying, I suppose.

                Siddhartha Gautama.Report

              • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to Jaybird says:

                Martin Luther was a pretty big deal.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Jaybird says:

                The problem with Ghengis is summed up in this quotation of his:

                “Conquering the world on horseback is easy; it is dismounting and governing that is hard.”

                Qin Shi Huang got off the horse.Report

              • Avatar Kim in reply to Jaybird says:

                Temujin reaching the whole way to Poland and beyond is not something that was guaranteed. That was a LONG way to roam and hold everyone together.

                He gets way more cred than Napoleon, to me, because … agrarian societies tend towards leaders, in a way that nomads really, really don’t.

                Also, Temujin changed things.

              • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to Jaybird says:

                Temjuin didn’t build up an enduring empire, but he swept away a lot of what had existed before his Golden Horde. What he created was, itself, evanescent, but left behind a world very different than what he had been born into and very different than what would have happened had he not done what he did.

                The Golden Horde’s territories strike me as not at all dissimilar to the Mule’s Union of Worlds.Report

              • Avatar Fnord in reply to Jaybird says:

                Martin Luther, like Caesar, seems to be only the tip of a wave of history. You’ve got Jan Huss and John Wycliffe playing the role of Marius and Sulla. The Reformation was coming, just as the Roman Republic was spiraling towards dictatorship. Not to diminish Luther’s accomplishments, nor Caesar’s; they beat out any potential competitors to be the tip of the wave.

                I think Columbus is actually a better example than many, though not because his personal greatness exceeded Caesar or Martin Luther. If Columbus’s first expedition had been lost to some mishap, I suspect most people would have concluded that sailing west from Europe was folly, as indeed many people felt was true before Columbus. And trying to sail straight west from Europe to Asia was folly; luckily for Columbus he found the Americas, which nobody knew were there until he made his crazy voyage.

                And, casting off Eurocentrism, all the same considerations would equally apply about sailing east from Asia. If the Chinese hadn’t turned inward, they might have followed the Indonesian archipelago and found Australia, and that may well have changed the course of history. But you still need someone who can somehow convince himself that he could cross what was, as far as anyone knew, a single ocean as large as the Atlantic and Pacific combined.Report

              • Avatar Fish in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

                Huh. I was going to post that Ghengis may have had more of an impact on Europeans by his death than by his life, because his armies were at the gates of Vienna and were recalled when Ghengis died–or so I thought. Turns out that Ghengis died some ten years before Vienna and it was the death of his successor, Ogedei, who forced the recall and saved Vienna (and perhaps Europe).

                The things you learn…I’ve had a book on the Mongols sitting on the shelf for years. Perhaps I should pick it up sometime, eh?Report

              • Avatar Kim in reply to Jaybird says:

                And yet I’d probably say Alexander the Great wasn’t much…

                Napoleon pioneered the citizen’s army (well, if you’ll leave the States alone).

                His ability to take over France isn’t terribly impressive, but to take over the rest? It was a tough bit, but I think anyone with an eye towards the citizen’s army (not hard coming out of Rev. France) would have managed fine enough.Report

              • Avatar North in reply to Jaybird says:

                I’d endorse Napolean as another Mule, definitly.Report

              • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to Jaybird says:



              • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Burt Likko says:

                Seeing Alexander, I wonder if we shouldn’t put Plato on the list somewhere.Report

              • Avatar Chris in reply to Jaybird says:

                Or Aristotle. For one, between Plato and Aristotle you basically get modern (by which I mean post-Scholastic) Christianity, and the university, and more. Plus, Aristotle taught Alexander everything he knew (OK, that might be an exaggeration).


                If you read Plato, you’d think that Parmenides and Heraclitus did all of the revolutionizing.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Jaybird says:

                I wanted to quote Whitehead but didn’t have the strength.Report

              • Avatar Chris in reply to Jaybird says:

                Sometimes it’s all in the footnotes anyway.Report

              • Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto in reply to Jaybird says:

                Wellington and Castlereigh never get enough credit. They WERE brilliant men who outmatched the likes of Bonaparte and Talleyrand to craft the post-war system.

                It was Wellington, Castlereigh and Metternich who crafted the post-Waterloo balance of power, as much because a Wellington victory had a different significance than if Bonaparte had fallen to Schwartzer.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

                They were playing defense, though. They certainly weren’t Mules.Report

              • Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto in reply to Jaybird says:

                Maybe, it’s hard to tell.

                The impact that Wellington and Nelson had on the psychology of Great Britain in the post-Napoleonic era is actually pretty hard to measure.Report

            • Avatar MikeSchilling in reply to Burt Likko says:

              Definitely Mohammed. It was completely contingent that the Arabs (not the vast swath of people we call “Arabs” today: the residents of the small habitable sections of the arid and unfriendly Arabian peninsula) would conquer so much of the world so quickly. And if the Arabs don’t dominate the Mediterranean and cut the Eastern Roman Empire off from North Africa and the Middle East, it’s quite possible it can regain its lost western provinces, turning a thousand years of medieval plummet and slow rise into a mere single-cenutry blip.Report

              • Avatar Kim in reply to MikeSchilling says:

                I don’t know much about that time, but what really stands out is that the Arabs didn’t seem to be looking for a leader, or an endtimer, or anything…
                those were more his ideas than “gestalt”Report

            • Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto in reply to Burt Likko says:

              This said, y’all are a bunch of eurocentric bastards!

              The Yongle Emperor of the Ming Dynasty is at least as important as any of them, as it was his decision to draw back from the world and isolate China that gave everyone else the ability to move into the void he’d left.Report

              • Avatar North in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

                You’re absolutely correct Nob. That decision was indescribably significant. We’re Eurocentric primarily, if I may beg your forgiveness, due to our general ignorance of the history of the ancient far east.Report

              • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

                Hey, I gave props to Temjuin. And Mohammed. IIRC, I at least referred to China’s turn to autarky under the early Mings, too.

                If I’m going to write a post about Columbus, who is after all the definitively Eurocentric figure of all of history, and say that he is the symbol of the most important thing that’s ever happened in recorded history, then I think I ought to have some idea of history’s sweep in the rest of the world, too, to see how he stacks up.

                That said, Zhu Di blew the call. China had everything it needed to go forth and conquer in the fifteenth century. The best navigation technology. The most wealth. The best trade goods. A surplus of its own people to plant in colonies. The best navy to carry them in. And a fantastic military tradition.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Burt Likko says:

                Confucianism has as its central tenet, paraphrased, “Don’t Be A Mule”.

                How much change did the old man actually *PREVENT*?

                He’s, like, an anti-Mule. He’s the original Hari Seldon.Report

              • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to Jaybird says:


                You just BLEW MY MINDReport

              • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

                Hey, I mentioned the First Emperor.Report

              • Avatar Kim in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

                Depending on you, who has been taught this history, is simply deference to your expertise. 😉 Thank you for it!Report

        • Avatar Chris in reply to Jaybird says:

          Leibniz’ physics were crazy. If we’d gone with Leibniz, science would have been set back a while.Report

      • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to Plinko says:

        I have used Columbus as a symbol of European expansion into the Americas. Columbus may have been foolish in his underestimation of the globe’s circumference, and the beneficiary of blind luck that his ships kept enough fresh water to make landfall, but at least he had some admirable qualities. He was brave, had an audacious vision, and was not (initially) of malign intent towards the Americans he encountered.

        If you wish a more brutal symbol, you may consider the Battle of Cajamarca instead; it was only 40 years after Columbus’ first voyage. Where Columbus was (at least initially) looking for trading partners, Pizarro had been a vicious sumbitch from the get-go — he practically begged Charles I for a license to plunder, slaughter, enslave, and conquer when he couldn’t get one from the viceroy in Panama.

        And yes, it’s fair to say that if Columbus hadn’t returned from contact with the Americas in 1492, it was only a matter of time until some other European did. Competition for trade routes was intense just between the Spanish, Portuguese, Genoese, Venetians, Pisans, French, Dutch, and eventually the English. The only other culture with a strong enough maritime tradition to make a transoceanic voyage were the Chinese, who had adopted a policy of autarky, who had generally unified political control and thus less competitive pressures for exploration, and who had more distance to travel with less favorable wind patterns at their disposal. And while the Turks had strong maritime traditions, too, there seems to have been little economic incentive for them to venture south along Africa’s east coast or east beyond Chinese waters.Report

    • Avatar MikeSchilling in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

      Not Jesus, Paul. Unless someone acts on the fact that the goyim are a much bigger market than the Jews, Christianity stays a Jewish heresy and eventually dies out.Report

    • Avatar KatherineMW in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

      The moon? Of all the things you could suggest, you pick the moon?

      Sure, it’s cool, but unlike a vast number of other technological and societal advances, it had no material effect on the lives of anyone besides Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. If it hadn’t been done, the world of today would be more or less completely the same.Report

  2. Avatar Ethan Gach says:

    I don’t get off, ergo it’s a stupid holiday.Report

  3. Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto says:

    The Industrial Revolution, the Enlightenment, the Thirty Years War….

    That said, the crosspolination of the Americans with Europe is an important event. But it’s best to also remember the huge number of things that flowed back to Europe, among them being maize and potatoes which revolutionized European agriculture.Report

    • Avatar Kim in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

      +1. Without the Scientific Revolution, there’d have been nothing to export except gods and iron (and clean iron at that!)Report

    • Avatar Chris in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

      The Reformation, the fall of Rome, the rise of Rome, the Christianization of Rome, the French Revolution, World War II (including the dropping of the bomb and the rise of the United States and the Soviet Union as the superpowers), and maybe a few other possibilities.

      I see Columbus, like Plinko upthread, as just the first, luckiest dude to get here. It’s highly likely someone else would have gotten here within the 20 years after his first voyage, though they may not have been Spanish (maybe Portuguese?).

      I can tell you for whom Columbus’ voyage was the most important in history, though: The Lucayan. Had to be said, right?Report

    • Avatar James K in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

      And Italian cuisine would be utterly unrecognisable without the Columbian Exchange.Report

    • Avatar North in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

      And syphilis*, not to be a downer.

      *Though goodness knows the Europeans, as active smallpox vectors, had it coming.Report

  4. Avatar Kolohe says:

    Short answer – no.

    Better answer – Columbus himself was a charlatan and one of the luckiest men is recorded history. He’s the poster child for going off on a wild-ass expedition on the basis of faulty intelligence.

    But it must be said that 1500 makes a neat division in world history; there is a difference between all that came before and all that would come after with the sudden doubling of size of the known world (to the Europeans).

    However, it’s pretty easy to postulate that European contact with the Americas *would* have inevitably happened sometime within a century after Columbus. After all, it had happened before with a lower level of seafaring technology. The difference Columbus (and Isabella) made is that the first mover success of his expedition made it more likely for most of the western hemisphere to speak Spanish. But the complete unpreparedness of the aboriginal populations of the Americas to European (or East Asian) contact was inevitable, and the differences were likely to be more extreme with the passage of time – were the Colombian expedition to fail and delay ‘first’ contact.Report

    • Avatar North in reply to Kolohe says:

      It would have been a matter of years or decades at most me-thinks. The Dutch were looking out towards Iceland even then. The English knew there was a lot of fish to the west of them. The ship technology was proceeding apace. The Europeans would have been on America’s doorstep in short order, Columbus or no.Report

      • Avatar George Turner in reply to North says:

        The switch to broadside canon engagements, and the logic of how to win them, created far larger and more seaworthy ships so the discovery of the Americas was going to happen in short order anyway.Report

  5. Avatar Fish says:

    Moveable type?Report

    • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to Fish says:

      This was a pretty big deal, but also pretty inevitable when you think about the fact that the press was already made, it just needed someone lazy enough to come up with that time-saver.Report

  6. Avatar Don Zeko says:

    It sounds to me like this post gives me a choice, behind door #1, I can argue about Christopher Colombus. Behind door #2, I can load up Civ 5 and finishing conquering the world in my Romans game. Easy decision, methinks.Report

  7. Avatar Kazzy says:

    The tricky thing about this is that so many things were predicated on things that already happened. How can Columbus setting foot in North American be the biggest and most important thing if it was dependent upon Mr. and Mrs. Columbus birthing him? Etc, etc, etc.

    But, leaving this aside, I still think Columbus himself is overblown, for reasons already noted. Someone from Europe was eventually going to put up permanent settlements and colonies in Europe. Other groups beat Columbus to the punch; they just weren’t seeking the same ends as he and his sponsors.Report

    • Avatar George Turner in reply to Kazzy says:

      But there is an alternative where the Americas were discovered and colonized by the Muslims, probably sailing from Northern or Western Africa. Since there was so little formal contact during that period, the colonization would’ve likely occured long before Europeans knew about it and got in the game.

      If the Americas, and by extension the Pacific and Australia, had been added to various caliphates and denied to the European powers, the modern world would be entirely different. The age of European expansion would never have taken place, England would’ve never grown beyond an island nation.

      So which Europeans found America is not very important, but it is important that they found it and settled it first.Report

  8. Avatar Dan Miller says:

    I’m a big fan of replacing Columbus Day with Exploration Day, per Boing Boing. At the least, Columbus and Europe’s advance into the Americas had a…complicated legacy.Report

  9. Avatar Kim says:

    What Makes a Mule?
    Is it one discovery that revolutionizes everything?
    Or is it a thousand knifepoints successfully crossed,
    any one of which would have doomed a lesser man?Report

    • Avatar Kim in reply to Kim says:

      oi! Oi! It seems like you’re looking for the unlikeliest times for something meritorious to swing someone to power.
      Feudalism, specifically — rotten feudalism even more specifically.
      Joan of Arc

    • Avatar North in reply to Kim says:

      I’d suggest a Mule isn’t someone like Columbus or even Newton. A mule, it seems to me, is an aberration, a person so personally gifted typically in matters of swaying people* that he or she diverts history in a unique and arguably unlikely to be replicated way.
      So based on my own criteria I’d say that Jesus or Julius Cesar (or maybe his nephew Augustus) and definitely Hitler would represent Mules (which is not to say I consider them morally equal, I’d think Mules can make things better or make things worse).

      *emphasis on non-scientific, scientists race for discoveries; knock one scientist out of history and another one is likely to pick up the discovery after a relatively short amount of time.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to North says:

        Swaying people is easier than you’d think.
        Clinton, Franklin, Bowie (and there’s one in the 3kingdoms, at least!)
        — I think the kitsune type rather specializes in it.
        They aren’t all geniuses, but the ones that are? holy shit, watch your footing.Report

        • Avatar North in reply to Kim says:

          S’not just swaying people. It’s sortof a combination of swaying people in the right time and place etc…Report

          • Avatar Kim in reply to North says:

            Yup! but right time and place is the opposite of a mule.
            Mules kick history in the arse, and take it off in a different direction than it was going before ’em.
            Admiral Perry works, in some way, as a Mule for Japan. [not that he was an actual mule, someone would have sailed up sooner or later, and i’m betting 20 years max. But for Japan? Their whole outlook changes, their whole perspective on life, shattered and reformed.]Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to North says:


        • Avatar Plinko in reply to Chris says:

          I keep gravitating to Constantine as well, but my history isn’t nearly as strong as it should be.Report

        • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to Chris says:

          Christianity had become pretty popular by his day; I would say that legitmization of that religion was going to happen and probably even the Christianizing of an emperor. What was not inevitable was the imposition of Christianity on everyone, and for that we go to Diocletian, not Constantine. Constantine didn’t need to inject himself so deeply in theological matters, either; he just needed the support of enough of the right bishops to get the Christians in line and keep the Mithraists in the legions at bay and the pagans back in Rome on their heels.

          Constantine might be a candidate also for moving the capital to Byzantium, another individualistic and conscious decision. Granted that the majority of wealth, power, and military need was in that part of the world rather than Italy at that point regardless of who was Emperor, so it seems a logical enough decision in retrospect. At minimum, though, Constantine gets leadership credit for seeing it and realizing that things had to change if they were going to improve. And the precise site of the new capital was brilliantly chosen. Better that it be done Constantine’s way than that some Asia Minor-based general lead a revolution and take things over at swordpoint.Report

          • Avatar Chris in reply to Burt Likko says:

            Charlemagne, then?Report

            • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to Chris says:

              Interesting trivia about Charlemange: he was illiterate. As much proof as you’ll ever need that “illiterate” is not the same thing as “dumb.” The man didn’t need to read or write, he had people for that sort of thing.Report

              • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Burt Likko says:

                He was illiterate because that was almost universal when he was born, but he was far from ignorant. He learned to speak some Latin and Greek, and worked hard at reading and writing, though he never mastered them. Famously, he chose counselors and advisers who were educated men. And he founded many schools to create more of them. Charlemagne is a big part of the transition from the Dark Ages to the Middle Ages, the start of the long, slow climb back up to Roman levels of education and prosperity.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to North says:

        I don’t know that Jesus had half of the gifts that Paul did.

        Mohammed, as has been pointed out, changed everything.Report

      • Avatar Plinko in reply to North says:

        I don’t think their particular gifts matter much at all. What matters is that they push events in a different direction than socio-political momentum should lead. That’s why religious figures are easy enough to put on – the idiosyncrasies of whatever they espouse matter a lot. Meanwhile the conquerors are largely those that correctly ride the political and economic waves to victory where it’s easy to ask if any competent person in that same time and place would have/could fought and won more or less the same wars.Report

        • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to Plinko says:

          How about Lenin? Revolution in Russia was probably inevitable without him. But that the revolution be won by the Bolsheviks was not — nor was the top-down recrafting of Russian society that came in its wake.

          How about Lincoln? It was far from inevitable that the Union be maintained, if you ask me. Yes, the North had sufficient power that we can safely surmise its inevitable victory, but we cannot safely surmise that without Lincoln’s tremendous effort of political will, pro-peace factions would not have won in 1862 or 1864 and reached a treaty with the CSA to end the bloodshed even at the expense of letting the South go its own way.Report

          • Avatar Kolohe in reply to Burt Likko says:

            I like the examples, but Stalin I think is more important than Lenin both in the near term trajectory of the Revolution and the long term trajectory of (greater) Russia.

            I agree that Washington and Lincoln are the two indispensable men in American history, things looks a lot different (for the worse) without them.Report

          • Avatar Kim in reply to Burt Likko says:

            and then the south would have been pulled back piecemeal. no, Lincoln did many things,b ut save the Union was NOT one of them.

            Lincoln gave us Jim Crow and the Southern Strategy — and possibly, just possibly, the loss of the American Empire.Report

            • Avatar Kolohe in reply to Kim says:

              It is far more likely for more spin-offs from the union (e.g. Northern New England, the Pac Norwest), then for the South to be brought back into the fold piecemeal.Report

              • Avatar Kim in reply to Kolohe says:

                Cite yer damn sources. I’ve got a fine friend who ran the numbers, and can point to the Southern army starving while the food rotted in warehouses.
                We all know that the South wasn’t unified, that they were a buncha squabbling nobility. Hell, if the South Carolinans hadn’t been so crazy as to start the trouble, there WOULDN’T have been trouble. Because most people didn’t want it, at least not then.
                Maryland gets in some trouble, but Virginia doesn’t have the money or will to defend it. Absorbed (probably a wrong example, more likely to be someplace else).

                Nobody else wanted to leave, not truly, and particularly not with the south gone.Report

              • Avatar Kolohe in reply to Kim says:

                There were New England secession movements once the Jeffersonians took over – Thomas Pickering led one. There were similar regional antgonisms between North and South (with the West serving as the tiebreaker) in the run up to the War of 1812.

                and can point to the Southern army starving while the food rotted in warehouses.

                all this points to is the likelyhood of the South losing. The hypothetical is for the South to win, which takes a lot of counterfactuals.Report

              • Avatar Kim in reply to Kolohe says:

                … yeah, the hypothetical for the South to win involves Meade leading a different populace (one that would have stood for a defensive war).

                The New England secessionists weren’t serious, they were merely throwing weight around… Big cheese don’t actually secede, as everyone gives them their way rather than seeing them secede.

                False equivalence.Report

              • Avatar Kim in reply to Kolohe says:

                … Different hypothetical: the North does not fight, and allows the south to reasonably peaceably secede. Much more likely.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Kim says:

                Hell, if the South Carolinans hadn’t been so crazy as to start the trouble, there WOULDN’T have been trouble. Because most people didn’t want it, at least not then.

                Are you sure about that – that there was a determinate event that caused a tipping point such that if that event didn’t occur then there would have been no war? I’m curious, because it seems to me that the causes of the civil war overdetermined it’s happening. Recall the rhetoric around the Missouri COmpromise and the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Southerners were correct (I think!) to view the natural progression of events as being opposed to the preservation of slavery as an institution. They rightly viewed Lincoln’s victory in 1860 as the beginning of an inexorable slide towards that institutions dissolution.

                Recall also the South, because of its marriage to slavery and agrarianism, was increasingly the economic loser relative to the North. I can’t remember the number off hand, but the North was experiencing substantial economic gains during the 1800s while the South was more or less languishing (at least, on a relative measure).

                They fought to preserve a dying institution. And if they succeeded in seceding, they’re culture wouldn’t have been able to sustain itself in any event. Or, well, they could have, I suppose.Report

              • Avatar Kim in reply to Stillwater says:

                That was a political push. If Israel invades Iran, and forces america, who doesn’t want to invade iran, to come in because of treaties and alliances — it’s the same deal.

                The South Carolinans were hotheads, and a good part of the South weren’t so hot on seceeding.

                They took a brief opportunity (before opposition was organized) and ran with it.

                I’m relatively less certain that the opposition would have prevailed.

                Many things look inevitable that really weren’t. Reagan could have blown us up five ways to sunday. We could be under martial law right now (Thanks Bush!). Kennedy might not have been assassinated.Report

              • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to Kim says:

                1) We were not on the verge of martial law under Bush. Bush did some very questionable things, but that wasn’t ever in the cards.
                2) Kennedy would have dug in just as deep in Vietnam as Johnson did. He didn’t have any good answers either. (Come to think of it, neither did Nixon or Goldwater.)
                3) Reagan was not going to blow us up, or more precisely, get us blowed up. The rules of proxy engagement were well-understood and so was MAD. The Soviets had nothing up their sleeves and half their ICBM silos were filled with water.
                4) It wasn’t just South Carolina that wanted to secede, thought self-determination about slavery was worth fighting for, and found Lincoln’s election intolerable. They just did it first.
                5) Israel isn’t really all that keen about war with Iran, either. It’s not like they want to blow up an Iranian nuke — they need to be convinced that they don’t have to. Still much hope that they can, either because a) Iran doesn’t get a nuke in the first place, or b) it becomes evident that the nuke is intended for the first city within Iran that declares against the mullahs, not at the midpoint between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.Report

              • Avatar Kim in reply to Kim says:

                1) Your sources are what, exactly? If plastic (credit cards) stop working, how exactly do you figure out who deserves to get fed and who doesn’t? Remember manhattan has about one day’s food on it. JIT means taht most places don’t have much more than that. I’ve got a source that shows one of the big banks printing out signs in case of bank run. And it’s not like I’m being alarmist here — I can point you to plenty of shmart guys who were planning for worst case.
                2) Wasn’t talking about vietnam. mentioned kennedy’s assassination, which doesn’t have much to do with vietnam (bears more resemblance to McKinley’s assassination, for that matter).
                3) Heads I win, tails we all die is NOT a fun game to be playing. (see first point).
                4) yeah, I’m not trying to say there weren’t people other places who thought the same way. Just that there was a considerable amount of people (even higher ups) who thought it was a plumb stupid idea — and if you put it to a vote, I don’t think they’d have won.
                5)hypothetical example. Israel wants to tear bibi apart right now — I’m pretty sure he’s toast when obama gets reelected. Bibi is not my friend.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Kim says:

                4) yeah, I’m not trying to say there weren’t people other places who thought the same way. Just that there was a considerable amount of people (even higher ups) who thought it was a plumb stupid idea — and if you put it to a vote, I don’t think they’d have won.

                Well, they did vote, didn’t they? They voted to secede. I think you’re overvaluing the actions of the one state here, and not considering the larger context. It seems to me that even a rudimentary understanding of the 1850s is enough to show that either secession or secession-then-war was inevitable. I just don’t see a plausible counterfactual scenario in which one of those two outcomes isn’t more-or-less logically entailed by the context.Report

              • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to Kim says:

                I’ll echo Blaise elsewhere on points 1 and 3. I’m missing your steps B through Y on food logistics leading to Bush-era martial law that was never declared or an accusation of brinksmanship in the 1980’s that for the life of me I can’t recall living through.Report

              • Avatar Kimmi in reply to Kim says:

                I think cooler heads would have prevailed. Not that something wouldn’t have gone down, perhaps, but the South chose a pretty poor time to do it.

                my apologies. it would appear that I have mislead you unintentionally. did not mean to conflate and then causate all of that together into one spaghetti mess.
                Maybe I’ll get into brinksmanship some other time.Report

            • Avatar Mike Dwyer in reply to Kim says:

              “Lincoln gave us Jim Crow…”

              Kim – you’ve got to explain that one. If any President was repsonsible for Jim Crow it was Hayes, but more accurately it was the Democrats that forced the removal of federal troops in return for his electoral votes.Report

              • Avatar Kim in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

                Lincoln and Sherman went soft on the South. They could have completely obliterated them, shamed them to the point where what had come before was embarrassing — and potentially illegal (see: Germany).

                It’s a rare place in history where the losing side still rallies the flag around their “states rights” going on 200 years later.

                The people whose daddies and granddaddies died in the Sino-Japanese war have quite forgotten it.

                Even the scotch irish aren’t so stubborn that they can’t see when to quit. If it’s ground into their faces enough, at any rate.

                Lincoln could have crushed the south — good and hard. He might have been able to build it back up again (and if not him, one of the reformers at the turn of the century could have done it).Report

              • Avatar Mike Dwyer in reply to Kim says:


                I would disagree. If Lincoln had been harder on them, resentment would have built as the South needed someone to blame for their woes. I’m stealing the concept from Harry Turtledove here, but look at Germany post-WWII. They were treated terribly at Versailles and Hitler turned that into the Holocaust.

                Jim Crow would have been open slaughter if the South had been coming out of 20 years of harsh oppression when the federal troops left. Instead it was bad, but not genocide. That is, IMO, the best we could have hoped for given the cultural baggage the South had to work through.Report

              • Avatar Kim in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

                Versailles and Germany was another instance of too soft. Germany didn’t even have a foreign soldier in it by the end of the war.
                How in HELL was that “treated terribly”??

                With a stronger effort to crush the south, the south doesn’t get the troops off it’s neck until they’re less unruly, and more indebted to the North.Report

              • Avatar Mike Dwyer in reply to Kim says:


                Check your facts on occupation:


                Also, for the general crappiness of the treaty here:


                Assigning responsibility for the entire war, reparations, etc. There’s a reason why Hitler used the same railroad car to accept surrenders during WWII. Germany was still pissed about WWI. A harsh Reconstruction would have been similar (and, again, is the basis for an entire Turtledove series).Report

              • Avatar Kim in reply to Kim says:

                *nods* okay. you win. thanks for the check.
                Still not seeing anything near salted ground.

                My friend who did the research would simply say
                Turtledove is wrong. But I doubt he’s had time to
                write a book about it…(try looking up the discussions around the civil war anniversary, might find some interesting reading…)Report

            • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Kim says:

              Lincoln gave us Jim Crow and the Southern Strategy — and possibly, just possibly, the loss of the American Empire.

              This is so wrong, and so embarrassing, and so disgraceful that just I’d give up on writing if I were you.

              Lincoln gave us the Freedmen’s Bureau and Reconstruction, which — in just a few short years after his death — would also gave us the first black representative, the first black senator, and the first black governor. Under Reconstruction, which was Lincoln’s project and done essentially by his design, blacks all across the South were brought into the American political process.

              It was the disputed election of 1876 that caused the Republicans to give up on Reconstruction, which in turn allowed Jim Crow to take hold. Prior to that, they fought it with great determination and much success.

              As to the “Southern Strategy,” that would be Nixon and Goldwater.

              And as to the loss of American empire, we didn’t have one in Lincoln’s day. It wouldn’t be until after the American Civil War that we acquired significant extraterritorial possessions. (Unless you count Alaska, which Lincoln acquired rather than losing.)

              Good lord that’s a lot of bullshit, even by your standards.Report

              • Avatar Kim in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

                I didn’t say he meant to.
                I’d guess it takes a certain mindset to be able to find the turning points in history.
                I outlined one, and I consider it to be fairly significant, if not precisely worldshattering.
                Mike disagrees with my point, in substance.
                You look at a counterintuitive point, and rather than asking, “how could this possibly be right?” instead advise the other person to stop talking.

                It rankles so because I see much of myself reflected in you. Unlike Blaise, I do not have the perspective of long years and hard-earned wisdom, to allow me to pronounce from lofty heights.Report

              • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Kim says:

                No, I’m just looking at someone who is so fast and loose with her facts that she doesn’t know when she’s stopped relying on them entirely.

                One might (just barely) blame Lincoln for fatally poisoning Reconstruction from the getgo. It’s a hypothesis I’ve heard before, even if it is rather rich to blame him for something that happened 12 years after his death, and to deny in the process 12 years of very meaningful civil rights progress. (Which, I’d add, is just what the southern nationalists would like you to do!)

                Anyway. That’s just barely within the realm of plausibility. But to blame Lincoln for losing an empire we didn’t have yet is loony. And to blame him for the Southern Strategy — which happened roughly 100 years after his death — is to verge out of history, out of speculative fiction, and straight into word salad.Report

              • Avatar Kim in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

                In this thread we talked about the Yongle Emperor, did we not? His turning away from the world is something that had extraordinary ramifications, and for many years.
                I can make a decent argument that the Meiji Restoration led to the Japanese embassy serving corn-on-the-cob. (and I doubt Nob would have any problem with it).
                It’s not terribly unusual for big events to have consequences.

                There’s money still around from that time, paying for Lee’s legacy and Longstreet’s disrepute. Given that, is it really such a stretch to say that Lincoln could have ended the whole “worship the Old South” by being a bit harsher to the South?

                Life is an endless stream of choices, some are large, some are small. I do not blame Lincoln, so much as see his choices there as looming large.Report

              • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Kim says:

                Wrong, wrong, wrong.

                The United States did not begin to acquire an empire until after (or at best, during) Lincoln’s administration. There was no “turning away” from the world, ever, after that. Alaska. Hawaii. The Philippines. Cuba. The whole history of the second half of the nineteenth century for the United States was one of assembling an empire.

                The U.S. Civil War debt was substantially retired by the 1890s. The Confederate debt was repudiated in the postwar amendments.

                I’ve already said it’s reasonable to second-guess Lincoln’s choices, in some places. But to deny that there was some immediate civil rights progress is dishonest, and to blame Lincoln for the “Southern Strategy” is just goofy. Might as well blame him for the sinking of the Titanic. At least it’s closer in time.Report

              • Avatar Kim in reply to Kim says:

                Now it seems as if you are deliberately misreading me (that’s probably my mistake! I’m far too often unclear).
                His meant the Yongle Emperor, not Lincoln.

                I was not speaking of public funds.

                I did not deny that there was immediate civil rights progress.
                If you’ll reread, you might understand me writing in a rather melancholy humor.Report

              • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Kim says:

                You said “Lincoln gave us Jim Crow and the Southern Strategy — and possibly, just possibly, the loss of the American Empire.”

                No mention of the Yongle Emperor in that quote. And so on and so forth. Not difficult for anyone to figure out what’s going on here.

                I’m done with you. It’s not my misreading. It’s your making up facts. I’ve refuted all of them. As if it were either my responsibility to do so, or somehow otherwise worth my time. (Hey, it’s a slow day today…)Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Kim says:

                Lincoln visited Richmond on the 4th of April, 1865 after it had fallen to the Federals. On April 9, Lincoln was asked how the Union Army should treat the conquered South. Lincoln replied “If I were you, I would let them up easy.”

                Lincoln’s Second Inaugural “with malice toward none..”

                We don’t know how Reconstruction might have gone had Lincoln lived. We do know it was horribly managed. An entire economic system based on slavery had crashed into the brick wall of history. Even if everything had gone as well as could be managed, it would have been a wrench. But to attribute the Southern Strategy to Lincoln is a howler.Report

              • Avatar Kim in reply to Kim says:

                Pick a point and defend it, Blaise.
                All right to say you don’t like mine.
                Just step up to the line and shoot.
                What caused the Southern Strategy, then?
                Pointing to an ultimate cause?
                {or not, you might make the case that it’s just racism and that racism is inherent in the human condition. I’ve got precious little to defend against that.}Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Kim says:

                Kim, I find facts don’t take sides. Lincoln didn’t give us Jim Crow. Jim Crow doesn’t appear until the 1890s.Report

              • Avatar Kim in reply to Kim says:

                Ahh! I see the problem. I say that Lincoln’s decisions led to the formation of Jim Crow, in that he was way too soft on the South. I’m not so ignorant of history as to say that he engineered something forty years after his death!!
                “Abraham lincoln may walk at midnight” but that’s a bit much for a ghost!Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Kim says:

                Keep on digging, Kim. The Civil War wasn’t even over when Lincoln was assassinated on April 14, 1865. The last battle of the Civil War was fought on May 12, 1865.

                So how did Lincoln go easy on the South? He hadn’t gone easy on New Orleans, which the Union had occupied under Butler since April of 1862, a occupation so tactless and ferocious he looted even the silverware from the kitchens, leading to his nickname of “Spoons” Butler. The very goddamn idea that the Union had treated the occupied with any sort of Softness is just nonsense.Report

              • Avatar Kim in reply to Kim says:

                I cited Sherman upthread, Blaise. I know very little about the occupation of new orleans, I’m afraid.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Kim says:

                Your problem, Kim, and I mean this as kindly as I can possibly phrase it, is this: when you make a claim of this sort, you might want to go from A to Z via B and C and the rest of that sequence.

                That’s always more interesting, anyway.Report

  10. Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto says:

    Alexander the Great.

    His conquest of the Persian Empire and the eastward expansion of Hellenic culture had enormous implications for European and Central Asian culture. Zoroastrianism and Roman Pantheonism would have been substantially different basises for civilizations if the Greeks hadn’t expanded from Iberia to Bactria.Report

    • Avatar Plinko in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

      I dunno, if Alexander is never born, does someone else pick up where Philip left off and more or less conquer the same area? I’ve never studied that late a period in Greek history so I honestly don’t know, but that’s kinda what I keep thinking about with the discussion of Mules.Report

      • Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto in reply to Plinko says:

        Alexander’s vision and grandeur were quite unique. It was Aristotle serving as his tutor and his own sense of fusing Hellenic culture with Persian Imperial rule that was so extraordinary. Given the fact that the Diadochi weren’t able to actively maintain the conquests, and worse, eventually succumbed to the Latins, I think it’s pretty hard to argue there was anyone capable of replicating Alexander’s exploits was actually in the wings.Report

        • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

          I agree with this. Alexander brought a unique suite of talents to the table and it was far from inevitable that the Macedonians would do more than dominate Achaea, much less conquer everything from Siwa to Sagala.Report

  11. Avatar KatherineMW says:

    Substantive contact between the Americas and Europe was a big deal (although I’m quite interested in the theory that the Chinese actually got to the Americas first).

    Columbus himself wasn’t. If it wasn’t him, it would have been someone else within a similar time frame. Contact occurring a few decades later wouldn’t have had a major impact on history. So, Columbus himself: not important.Report

  12. Avatar Roger says:

    I would nominate the following as “the biggest and most important things that have ever happened in recorded human history:
    Writing itself
    The evolved institution of free markets
    The scientific method, and
    The discovery of three plus continents for western colonization

    Note that four of these flourished in a very specific era in Western History which coincided with the advent of modernity.

    We have ten thousand years and ten thousand societies all leading to exactly the same result. The median person lived thirty or forty years of illiteracy making an average of $2 or $3 per day. In other words we always and everywhere lived on the edge of subsistence. Then we started decentralized printing, discovered the Americas, and perfected the scientific method and the institutions of free enterprise. Now we can sustain 10 times as many people at living standards ten or twenty times as high. We got the breakthrough to the modern world.Report

    • Avatar Kolohe in reply to Roger says:

      This presumes that the Enlightenment (i.e. ‘the scientific method’) is a necessary condition to gain the ability to harness steam power for useful work. That’s how it happened,( and I’ve seen a lot of related stuff lately that makes the Industrial Revolution a uniquely British enterprise), but I’m not entirely convinced this is the case.

      We completely stumbled into free markets, and only recently – very recently – have realized anything close to their ideal. (or rather, even thought about moving things toward that ideal). Most of the history of Industrial revolution (and American history) would not be at all what we today would consider ‘free markets’

      (tldr: I’m a big fan of both, but we can do without free markets, we can’t do without steam)Report

      • Avatar James K in reply to Kolohe says:

        Without the scientific method we don’t get synthetic urea, which means we don’t get nitrate fertiliser. Without that the world’s population would be a fraction of what it is today.

        Steam got us some of the way to modernity, but the Enlightenment was necessary for modernity.Report

        • Avatar Roger in reply to James K says:

          Yeah, without free enterprise and science we have about four billion less humans including none of us, most likely. These built up fom the printing press and due to the potential for new startup colonies and the freedom to move west for 500 years.Report

          • Avatar Kolohe in reply to Roger says:

            But as said elsewhere in the thread, the Chinese had the same stuff in 1500. There’s a lot of space and potential detours between the printing press, the Enlightenment, and McDonald’s. I just think we’re being a tad too Whiggish here (a tendency I fall into myself, truth be told)Report

            • Avatar Roger in reply to Kolohe says:

              There was no inevitable historic tendency toward liberalism or progress. Just the possibility. That said, the modern breakthrough from the way all prior societies were to the way they are now, led through a particular place and era. That was Western Europe.

              The roots of science and free markets go back into pre history. The technology of printing came out of China. And the Americas and Australia were just sitting there waiting to be discovered by anyone in Eurasia.

              However, the Chinese gave up exploration just as the Europeans dove in. They were able to give it up in total because they were a centralized empire where top down decisions applied to all. Some states in Europe sought to explore and some didn’t. They were decentralized and states both competed and cooperated with each other. This ended up driving an arms race of discovery.

              The Chinese invented printing. What they did not have is hundreds of independent states and cities where people were free to escape the inevitable tendency to control the process. In Europe, printing became a decentralized process innately woven into markets that improved the flow, efficiency and the preservation of knowledge. Printing in Europe became a totally different beat than printing in the centralized empires of the East.

              The Chinese had limited degrees of free trade, as did most states since the advent of history, including socialist states. What they did not have is hundreds of states competing and cooperating with each other thus leading to institutions of private property, rule of law, and the cultural concept written in 1776 about how division of labor and exchange can lead to prosperity when allowed to.

              The Chinese attempted to explain natural phenomena just as our ancestors did back in the Paleolithic. What they were missing was a system which rewarded the publishing of natural knowledge via a system of reputation. Where scientists competed and cooperated in a constructive way to be the first to transmit knowledge to others rather than horde it for personal gain. This creates a system or algorithm to gain reputation by gathering data, explaining phenomena, finding holes in explanations and so forth. Before the Academie Royale and the Royal Society of the 17th century, nobody really had the full algorithm for the scientific method.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Roger says:

                This is one of those points that I feel cannot be made enough.

                Our great-grand-children will see us as backwards as we see our great-grand-parents. If we are lucky, we will have whatever they will see as morally abhorrent as something to blame on the Conservatives rather than on enlightened people like us but they’ll ask questions like “how could they not have known that eating animals is wrong?” or “did they really think it was a good idea to throw people in jail for years at a time for smoking a plant that provided a mild euphoria? Did they learn nothing from alcohol prohibition?”

                There is some comfort provided by the fact that their great-grand-children will look at them the exact same way and ask questions about their backwards ancestors that I don’t have the context to wrap my head around.Report

              • Avatar Mike Dwyer in reply to Jaybird says:

                In general people are also getting smarter. There was an article recently in the WSJ about the subject.


              • Avatar Kim in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

                1) the rise of autism
                2) IQ is largely predictable by long-term social class (this is why certain ethnicities have predictably different IQs from “normal”)
                3) Lower class people are having more babies.

                Alpha males are in general having fewer children.Report

              • Avatar bookdragon in reply to Kim says:

                (1) Autism =!=lower intelligence

                Quite a number of people with Aspergers syndrome are very intelligent, often well above average intelligence.

                (2/3) IQ is a poor test of intelligence in that so many of the questions are heavily biased by cultural/social conditioning. Children rescued from the Holocaust were thought to be mentally deficient due to starvation because their IQ scores were so low – until a psychologist realized that their experience meant that they simply had no context for answering many of the questions. A more tailored approach showed many of those children to be exceptionally bright, and indeed, a number of them went on to be doctors, scientists, etc.Report

              • Avatar Kim in reply to Kim says:

                Autism as opposed to “The asparagus disease” is perhaps potentially brought on by modernity. At least that’s why we diagnose it as an illness. Darl didn’t get diagnosed with Autism, after all. Nor would an especially quiet, systematic farmer in general.

                Yeah, I decided not to go there, but you’re absolutely right. I know someone who got less than 25 on an IQ test. He’s the brightest man I know.Report

    • Avatar Liberty60 in reply to Roger says:

      “perfected the scientific method and the institutions of free enterprise. ”

      I’m not about either one of those. The first thrives by not being perfectable, and the second has no example, living or dead.Report

      • Avatar Roger in reply to Liberty60 says:

        No perfect circles either. Perhaps there is no such thing as a circle either.

        The reason free enterprise and science are so important — as ideals– is that they are constantly striving to solve problems in their domains. In science there is a constructive, competitive cooperative arms race to explain natural phenomenon. Free enterprise is a constructive, competitive cooperative system than solves consumer problems. They are meta solutions that evolved culturally and which once making their appearance lead to infinite strings of problem solving.Report

      • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Liberty60 says:

        “[Free enterprise] has no example, living or dead.”

        If you would require a perfect, peaceful anarchy to call something free, then yes. But that’s a level of purism that even most libertarians don’t embrace. I wonder, and have never been able to understand, why you find that point so telling that you feel you must repeat it over and over.Report

        • Avatar Liberty60 in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

          I was actually referring to the idea of a “perfected free enterprise” which I think could not exist, even in theory.

          But don’t I keep hearing variations of this argument, right here in this blog?
          “If we only had a Free Market, shorn of all these bastardizing distortions in [health care/schools/energy/barbering/taxis] then things would be ever so much better.”

          If you want to define Free Enterprise as what we have now, fine. Then Free Enterprise can coexist with subsidies, tariffs, taxes, regulation, interventions, the individual mandate and all the rest.

          If you want Free Enterprise to mean something else, define it. Then either show us where it exists, or lets all agree it doesn’t.Report

          • Avatar Roger in reply to Liberty60 says:


            An economy is not a single thing, it is made up of billions of decentralized interactions — of individual acts of buying and selling, employment and investment. I think you would be the first person to argue that there are shades of grey in how free each of these interactions are.  Some are pretty much overwhelmingly free, and some are extremely coercive or limited, and some are in between. 

            By free enterprise, we are not suggesting every one of those billions of daily interactions was 100% free and unconstrained. Free markets are an ideal, with similar shades of grey. No market is totally free, but it is possible to compare markets based upon their variances to the ideal. 

            And yes, economics implies that the more variance from the ideal, the more human prosperity is damaged or suppressed.Report

            • Avatar Kim in reply to Roger says:

              So, I guess now we ought to talk about economies of scale, and where we strike the balance between “monopolies” and free markets.
              After all, there are five companies that make capacitors that are in common use. Five. And there are TONS of different uses for ’em, enough that each company can have its own niche…Report

  13. Avatar Kolohe says:

    Overall, my list of ‘mules’ is necessarily overwhelmed by ‘conquerors’ – Muhammad, Alexander, Charlemagne, etc Particularly with the first two, redrawing the cultural-linguistic map single-handedly in way that would last for centuries.

    I just think all discoveries and inventions are inevitable – is that wrong? *When* they happened is indeed important to the story, but it’s hard to imagine just about any of them happening at vastly different point in time (“shoulders of giants”, and all that)Report

    • Avatar Mopey Duns in reply to Kolohe says:

      I disagree. Inventions, like everything else that has actually happened, only seem inevitable with hindsight.

      History is messy and contingent. The problem is that we can go back and say, yes, these conditions were necessary for such and such development, but it gets confusing when you try to say it happened now, and not earlier.

      It is like explaining why the Enlightenment began in Europe. Any list of causes is usually a list of symptoms.Report

  14. Avatar Tom Van Dyke says:

    George Washington. No George, no USA. No USA, the Americas are at best boring like Canada and Costa Rica or irrelevant banana republics like Hugoland where constitutions are as toilet paper.

    I’ll also go with MikeS’ nomination of Paul of Tarsus if I’m wearing my historian’s hat. Mohammad too, although his progeny were and are pretty irrelevant after the Golden Age ended in the early Second Millennium CE.

    As for Constantine, Christianity’s victory was a parade he stood in front of—his nephew Emperor Julian the Apostate [361-363] tried and failed to restore the pagan ways, and that was the last gasp for that.

    “These impious Galileans not only feed their own, but ours also; welcoming them with their agape, they attract them, as children are attracted with cakes… Whilst the pagan priests neglect the poor, the hated Galileans devote themselves to works of charity, and by a display of false compassion have established and given effect to their pernicious errors. Such practice is common among them, and causes contempt for our gods…”

    ‘Twas not Christian politics but Christian charity what changed the world. For that you have to credit that Jesus fellow.Report

    • Avatar Chris in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

      It wasn’t just Christian charity. It was also Christian brutality, Christian ruthlessness, the Christian sense of entitlement and superiority, and the Christian ability to concentrate power in a way that, for a very long time, mirrored the King/Emperor worship of ancient Egypt or Rome. Christianity dominated Europe and the Americas through just about everything but charity. It may be that, later, charity played a role in the formation of Enlightenment ideals, but for most of its history, Christianity got where it got by force, political, military, and economic.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Chris says:

        Those first hundred or so years, however, were the boy that became the man, if you will.Report

        • Avatar Chris in reply to Jaybird says:

          Yeah, I find the early years of Christianity fascinating, and I wish I knew more about it. Do you (or anyone here) know of a good book on historical research on Paul specifically?Report

        • Avatar MikeSchilling in reply to Jaybird says:

          Christianity spent its first century and a half being persecuted and the next millenium and a half being the persecutors, and thinks it still has moral capital left over from the former.Report

          • Avatar bookdragon in reply to MikeSchilling says:

            Sadly, Rome conquered the church more than the other way around.Report

            • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to bookdragon says:

              Without presuming to say you’re wrong, the story’s a little more complex than Rome conquering the church. In many ways, Constantine created the church. When he first encountered Christianity, it was by no means a single thing. There were all sorts of internecine squabbles going on at the time and Constantine was constantly having to deal with their bickering, especially over the Arian Heresy.

              To make matters even more complicated, it seems clear enough Constantine wasn’t exclusively Christian. He was also fairly antisemitic and set in motion much that would follow along those lines.Report

  15. Avatar DRS says:

    The advent of the printing press. For the first time, mass media was possible, with everything that implies about the distribution of ideas to a continental and beyond audience.Report

  16. Avatar Mike Dwyer says:

    Everyone has suggested some good alternatives but I am going to agree with Burt. Of course, Columbus represents something much larger i.e. European conquest of the Americas but he is important as the one that began the process. We saw conquest before and after on various scales and in various geographic locales. All were important in their own right. The conquest of the Americas was different in several ways:

    1) It was sustained. Roughly 400 years of forward movement with only very brief periods of inactivity.

    2) It was complete. There isn’t a single corner of North America that escaped conquest and there are only a few pockets of South America that did.

    3) It was a grass roots movement. While various governments (first European and later European American) did support European conquest, in almost every case the civillians went first. They were the tip of the spear. That is much different than other conquests.

    These things all make this much different than what happened with the Romans or any other empire. Keep in mind this is also the conquest of two continents. That dwarfs anything Alexander or anyone else accomplished.Report

  17. Avatar Kazzy says:

    I’d be curious to hear what Murali or Nob, folks from the other side of the globe, think. And my apologies in advance if they’ve weighed in and I missed them.Report

    • Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto in reply to Kazzy says:

      I’m not a fan of Columbus, and think the myth making involved is all a bunch of bullshit…

      ..that said, the European contact with the Americas was a vital development in the world and helped shift the balance of power decisively from Asia (including Central Asia/Anatolia) to Europe by giving resources and some important crops (such as maize and potatoes) to the European powers.Report

  18. Avatar Liberty60 says:

    All well and good, but if Eckels hadn’t stepped off the levitating path and crushed that butterfly, none of this would matter.Report

  19. The biggest game-changer in history: the Canada’s Anti-Combines Law of 1889. It made possible half of my (alas, still in progress) dissertation, which itself is the greatest cure for insomnia the western world has ever seen.Report