Outside the Box
From the conclusion of Railroaded: the Transcontinentals and the Making ofModern America by Richard White,
Contingency--the idea that what happens in the world is often a result of the unexpected combination of quite particular circumstances--is the mark of history as a discipline, and, for me at least, the deep common ground of good history is that things did not have to be this way. To say that choices are not limitless, that we always act within constraints imposed by the past, is not the same thing as saying that there were, or are, no choices. A belief in contingency has as its corollary an obligation to imagine alternatives. To imagine a West where railroads were built according to demand is in not an exercise in second-guessing. Reformers like Henry Goerge and Charles Francis Adams, in his reform phase,and railroad men like J.M. Forbes advocated such a world . It was a policy the the Chicago roads sometimes, but not always, followed.This is what history is all about for me. History is not about memorizing facts or romanticizing myths. History is to inform, to add to our understanding of, well, everything in our present. To see history as simply what happened is to deny our own agency, to consent or surrender in to those who will claim agency. That those who claim agency often do so without merit or consent, and often for dubious ends, is all the more reason to assert our own agency.
A West where railroads were built according to demand is in part a counterfactual West. Only in the eastern half of South Dakota was that largely the case. And, unlike economic historians, most historians have, until relatively recently, been reluctant to engage in counterfactuals on the seemingly incontrovertible grounds that what did not happen is not history. But I have come to the think that the opposite is, in fact, true; we need to think about what did not happen in order think historically. Considering only what happened is ahistorial, because the past once contained larger possibilities, and part of the historian's job is to make those possibilities visible; otherwise all that is left for historians to do is to explain the inevitability of the present. The inevitability of the present violates the contingency of the past, which involves alternative choices and outcomes that could have produced alternative presents. To deny the contingency of the past deprives us of alternative futures, for the present is he future's past. Contingency, in turn demands hypotheticals about what might have happened. They are fictions, but necessary fictions. It is only by conceiving of the alternative world that people in the past themselves imagined that we can begin to think historically, to escape the inevitability of he present, and get another perspective on issues that concern us still. (emphasis added.)
There is always a choice, even after death.
--"Letter From the End of the 20th Century", Joy Harjo