Robert Sobel, For Want of a Nail: If Burgoyne had won at Saratoga
In the autumn of 1777, British General John Burgoyne led an army from Canada through New York, intending to bisect the rebellious American. Had he succeeded in his goal of conquering Manhattan, Burgoyne would have split the Continental Army. Northern and Southern commands would have been unable to communicate, act in unison, or reinforce each other. But Burgoyne’s campaign ended when Horatio Gates and Benedict Arnold beat him at Saratoga.
In 1973, American historian Robert Sobel published his only novel, asking an important question: did history have to unfold that way? History is contingent, a fact historians know, but which remains largely unacknowledged in classrooms or popular discussions. Just because America won the Revolution doesn’t mean it had to. Burgoyne's victory would have ended the American Revolution after barely two years of largely disorganized fighting.
Multiple authors have written on the question of how an American loss, surrender, or aversion from war would have changed history. Would it mean Democracy’s crib death, or peaceful evolution of world power? Would Britain have treated American insurgents leniently, or meted harsh punishments? These and others remain important questions, because they influence how Americans, and other peoples, confront modern political rifts.
Sobel’s story, like a bicentennial textbook, examines a bifurcated American history. Many Revolutionary leaders, particularly Southern slaveholding capitalists, find themselves refugees from the land that made them wealthy. While British hegemony protects Northern intellectuals, Southern revolutionaries flee to an area nominally controlled by Spain. In their new nation of Jefferson, the American radicals plant the seed that flowers as the United States of Mexico
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Even flag-draped patriots admit America’s history reflects powerful conflicting forces. While Americans have advocated for growing freedoms at home and internationally, the bigotry that allowed slavery, racism, and the Three-Fifths Compromise survives like black mold in America’s corners. Sobel depicts North America colored by isolating our unpleasant impulses west of the Mississippi, and our most glamorous ideals east. Though somewhat Manichaean, Sobel’s narrative lets us examine divergent influences in isolation.
Britain reorganizes its colonies into the Confederation of North America, establishing a limited home government and incremental economic reforms. Over two centuries, the CNA, like Canada or Australia, gains independence by stages, evolving into a benevolent world superpower. It nurtures intellectualism, global industry, and democratic idealism; yet it doesn’t prize its military, and an increasingly polarized world often catches it by surprise.
When the Spanish crown loses its deteriorating global empire, but Mexicans aren’t prepared to govern themselves, Jefferson’s white militia fills the gap. The United States of Mexico honors Revolutionary principles, yet prefers strong military Presidents, and a central autocratic government. Its aggressive overseas adventurism rewrites the world map and makes Mexico a global player, at the cost of a powerful central government and diminished freedoms.
Unbeknownst to political heavyweights, who focus on conventional governments, this twofold North America produced a third player. The Kramer Associates start small in Mexico, but quickly become too large and powerful for any national borders. After the CNA and Mexico pick opposite sides in the Global War, Kramer halts hostilities using the strangest weapon ever controlled by a private corporation: they, not any state, perfect and deploy a thermonuclear bomb.
Written at a time when Alternative History hadn’t established its conventions, or its market as a science fiction subgenre, Sobel’s narrative doesn’t resemble the adventure-oriented dramas from authors like Harry Turtledove or Philip K. Dick. It’s clearly a historian’s work, and examines the themes of history, not the personalities or events. This makes it less marketable, yet vastly more complex. It’s not about famous historical others, or murky alien lands; Sobel writes, fundamentally, about us.
Despite his broad, sweeping sympathies, Sobel overlooks certain issues. His two swelling North American superpowers and their dualistic clash don’t include, say, Indians. And though he doesn’t treat the United States of Mexico as a mere white colony (after the first few American leaders, power shifts to Mexican hands), his dominionistic Mexican government sometimes dances perilously close to gringo stereotypes of mustachioed banditos. Readers must remember the blinders Americans wore in 1973.
Yet this “novel” isn’t supposed to reflect subtle, nuanced human details. It doesn’t have characters as such, or dialog, or other hallmarks of novel writing. It encompasses hundreds of years, thousands of personalities, and two nations whose entwined history quickly dominate world affairs. Moreover, it forces Americans to face directly the forces that have shaped our history, including the most unpleasant forces, broadcast larger than life. This is Sobel’s portrait of America’s strange binary history.