It’s been a while since I’ve done a proper TL showcase my dear readers, hasn’t it? So to make up for lost time, and get into the spirit of the upcoming Presidential election here in the US, up until election day, I will be showcasing Alternative Presidencies!
This has always been a popular topic in alternate history, largely because of the inherent nature of electoral politics, the core of which is different men with different visions for the country and its future. Like so many other things with AH, eventually people wonder – what would happen if the other candidate had one, and their vision had been the one that guided the country rather than that of our victor? Where would we be now? Would that place be better or worse? It really is a fascinating study of what a difference a different leader can make, and I am going to highlight some of my favorite TLs with an alternative President at their heart.
That said, given both I and the Alternate History Weekly Update do not wish to alienate people of differing political beliefs. I want to make it clear that any alternative Presidencies we do cover, we do so not as political commentators, but as alternate historians.
With that said, lets delve right into looking at some of the best timelines where the highest office in the land went to another man. First up: Story of a Party.
As any good history student knows, the Republican Party came to power as a political party riding on both the collapse of the Whig Party and the rising anti-slavery tide in the 1850s, finally cementing itself as the nation’s second political party when Abraham Lincoln won the Presidency in 1860, and led the nation through the American Civil War. The first Republican candidate however, was John C. Fremont, a popular figure back in his day for his exploits in the Mexican-American War, playing a key role in early American settlement of the west, as well as being both an outspoken militarist and abolitionist. He would be the Republican presidential candidate in 1856, losing to Democrat James Buchanan.
But what if he’d won? That is the central premise of Ares96’s timeline, Story of a Party, a reboot of an earlier timeline of the same name. The POD is, as you might expect, the 1856 election, where Fremont campaigns more vigorously, and Buchanan makes a serious faux-pax making a pro-slavery speech in Illinois, allowing Fremont to carry Illinois, Indiana, Pennsylvania and California, states that he failed to carry in OTL, giving him both the election and the Presidency.
Needless to say, this Territories Reorganization Act causes an uproar in the South, sparking a number of slave states to secede from the Union in 1859, with a number of key differences. Texas stays in the Union, following both Mexican border raids and impassioned arguments from Governor Sam Houston, both of which convince Texans that they are better served within the Union. In an additional difference from OTL, Tennessee remains in the Union, while Missouri leaves the Union. The ten seceding states band together to form the Confederacy of American States, with a capital in Montgomery and led by President John A. Quitman, who died in OTL after contracting a disease at Buchanan’s inauguration, sparking the beginning of TTL’s Civil War.
Almost immediately, you can see Fremont’s leadership differ from Lincoln’s, as he both issues a formal declaration of war and begins recruiting soldiers and forming the Union Army almost immediately, among their number are Robert E. Lee, who upon receiving a promotion to Major General, a field command and promise that he would not be sent to fight against Virginia, is put in command of Union forces in Tennessee, and Samuel Clemens, who helps crew a Union gunboat becoming something of a folk hero in the process. His more forceful presence and military experience will come into play more than once over the course of the war.
Forces clash on all fronts. The Union Army of Tennessee under General Lee fights many battles against Confederate forces under PGT Beauregard for control over Tennessee, and later over the heart of the Confederacy. The Union Army of the Potomac, under General Henry Halleck is quick to capture Fredericksburg and defend it from a number of Confederate assaults. A Union Army of Texas, under General Albert Sidney Johnson, drives into Louisiana, while General Grant is more than happy to reclaim his home state of Missouri for the Union.
The war finally turns in 1861, with Lee and the Army of Tennessee, along with the Army of Ohio under George McClellan finally plunging into the Confederacy, taking Atlanta, Milledgeville and Savanna, a campaign which cut the Confederacy in two and gave President Fremont the political capital to pass his own version of the Emancipation Proclamation. General Sherman, who replaced General Halleck as head of the Army of the Potomac, blitzes through Virginia and the Carolinas. While Generals Grant and Johnson take control of the Mississippi, and with Montgomery surrounded on all sides, the Confederacy surrenders in 1862, after three years of fighting in what would be a total victory for the Union.
War management is not the only difference under President Fremont, whose domestic policy is also very different than that of Lincoln. He proves far more willing to carve up new Unionist states from parts of the former Confederacy, including the state of Vandalia is from western Virginia, the Ozark region of Missouri and Arkansas is made into the state of Osage, and carving West Florida from the Gulf coast, as well as to keep the remainder of the former Confederacy until firm military occupation. He also takes a much more active role in defending the rights of freedman, including a better supported Freedman’s Bureau and the OTL 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments are given teeth to enforce them, and a 16th amendment prohibiting secession is also passed. William Seward, who is elected President in 1864, goes about peaceful expansion of the USA, gaining British Columbia, Baja California, Sonora and Alaska by both negotiation and purchase.
In addition to being a vivid look at all the myriad of ways things could have been different throughout the Civil War, and presenting one of the most unique takes on the American Civil War I've seen yet, it provides a fine example of what different leadership in that crucial moment of our nation’s history might have caused. So few works of AH focus on how a President other than Lincoln would have handled both the Civil War and the Reconstruction, and John Fremont allows a fascinating study of one such option. Fremont’s military background and devout support for abolition leads to both a shorter and smoother civil war and more support for equal rights, but in lacking Lincoln’s calm demeanor and mercy, he both crosses many lines that Lincoln shied away from in OTL, and it sparks a much more hostile backlash from the former Confederacy. While the future of this world remains uncertain at this point – the TL is only now moving into the 1870s – given what Ares96 has hinted at, Fremont may not have given us a more perfect union…
That said, even disregarding the political angle, if you want to see a Civil War that sees Union armies under General Lee and General McClellan fighting alongside each other marching through Georgia, a USA that has states including Osage and a So-Cal Colorado, and an interesting rising European balance of power, come give the Story of a Party a read, and see a USA forged by free soil, free men and Fremont!
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Soldier, scholar, writer and web-voyeur, Sean CW Korsgaard has been active in the alternate history community since 2006, and was recently elected to succeed Mitro as President of the Alternate History Online Facebook group. In addition to his contributions at the Alternate History Weekly Update, he writes for several websites, including his own, which can be found here.