Bottled Scorpions: For Want of a Nail… by Robert Sobel

“What if the American War of Independence had failed?” is one of the great stock prompts for alternate history writers, but For Want of a Nail… If Burgoyne Had Won at Saratoga (1973) is undoubtedly one of the most unique takes on the question ever written. A large part of that is due to the format; rather than taking the form of a traditional novel, author Robert Sobel presents his text as a narrative history, surveying the course of events in North America from the 1760s to the present of the early 1970s. Filled with footnotes to nonexistent works, a bibliography of sources that never were, and with Sobel writing the work wholly in-character as an inhabitant of its world, For Want of a Nail… genuinely feels like a window onto another world. You could easily imagine this book being assigned to Australian undergraduates taking second-year survey courses in North American history, or being put on the syllabus in the corporate feeder colleges in Taiwan.

The book is also unique for the direction it takes the scenario. As the subtitle suggests, the point of divergence comes at the Battle of Saratoga in 1777 early in the Revolutionary War, a conflict the book records as “the North American Rebellion”. In this account, rebel general Horatio Gates fails to encircle British general John Burgoyne’s forces at a critical moment, leading to his own defeat at Burgoyne’s hands. The back of the rebellion is broken, the French decline to send any aid to a failing cause, and most organized resistance to the British ceases by 1778. London takes its pound of flesh; a number of senior Founding Fathers are executed, George Washington gets life in prison, while Ben Franklin, a man known for always keeping his options open, slinks away to exile in London. However, the war is over fast enough that the British authorities are inclined to show clemency, and spend the next several years working with their colonial subjects to properly organize government in North America. The end result is the “Britannic Design” of 1781, a program that reorganizes Britain’s North American territories – the Thirteen Colonies, as well as the former French territories to the north and to the west – into a series of confederations loosely bound into a single great Confederation of North America, or CNA. While the CNA as a whole is administered by a viceroy appointed by the Crown and seated in the new capital of Burgoyne (our universe’s Pittsburgh), the individual commonwealths have a fair amount of autonomy, as well as a veto on taxes levied by Parliament and the provision to send non-voting speakers to the House of Commons.

However, the ideals of the Rebellion die hard, and with the creation of the CNA in 1781 a few thousand former rebels, led by such younger Founding Fathers as James Mason, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton, pack up and move west to find a new home outside of British control. Their legendary “Wilderness Walk” takes them all the way into Spanish Texas, where they found Jefferson City somewhere far to the west of San Antonio in late 1782 in honor of the martyred Thomas. Fortunately the region of Texas they settle proves to be incredibly fertile for cotton, and with the settler’s knowledge of cotton cultivation (and with all the slaves the brought with them on the Walk), Jefferson is soon a going concern.

Naturally, without the American Revolution to inspire the radicals in France – and without an opportunity for King Louis XVI to flush what remains of France’s finances down the toilet to bankroll the insurgency – the French Revolution amounts to little more than a particularly nasty uprising in Paris in 1789. However, the “Trans-Oceanic War” of 1795-9 (Britain and Prussia vs. France and Austria with Spain in thrall) ends up having the same basic effects on North America the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars had in ours; France’s Louisiana territories become prizes for the locals, while Spain loses control of her New World colonies. The British take New Orleans and most of the Louisiana territories, later integrating them into the CNA as more confederations, while Jefferson consumes most of Spanish Texas. However, the real trial for Jefferson comes in the 1810s, when Jefferson’s decision to intervene in a Mexican civil war results in Andrew Jackson, leader of the Jeffersonian expedition, seizing power in Mexico City in 1817. As complicated and contradictory a figure in Sobel’s history as he was in the real one, Jackson and the leaders in Jefferson spend the next several years working out a political plan to integrate Jefferson and Mexico into a single state. In 1821, the United States of Mexico, or USM, is created, an unusual hybrid of American governmental forms and Mexican society. The new nation, stretching from California in the north to the Mississippi in the west to Chiapas in the south is a republic with three branches of government, a strong executive elected by a limited franchise, and explicit protections for slavery. Ethnically the white Anglo-Saxons of Jefferson take their place alongside the Iberian Hispanos of Mexico’s upper class, ruling over a vast population of mixed Mexicanos, Indians, and of course African slaves. Jackson takes his place as the first president of the USM, and much to everyone’s surprise the nation is able to keep itself from blowing up, at least for a few decades.

The chapters of For Want of a Nail… describing the 19th century are probably the strongest parts of the book from a speculative standpoint. Many of the same trends and forces that drove American history in the real world are still there, but the different political situation results in different outcomes. The CNA’s attempts to expand and industrialize are hampered in the first few decades by vicious wars with Tecumseh’s Indian confederacy in the northwest, Francophone rebellions in Quebec, strikes in the industrializing north, and a depression in the late 1830s. To deal with these issues, the Burgoyne Conference of 1842 hammers out a more unified central government for the commonwealth, with supreme executive power passing from the British-appointed viceroy to a governor-general elected by the citizens of the various confederations. 1842 is also notable for being the year slavery is peacefully outlawed in the Southern Confederation. With the cotton plantations in the south being pushed out of the market by the superior production of Jefferson’s fields and with the political structure of the CNA diffusing any sense of competition between the North and the South, there is less impetus for Southerners to cling to slavery as part of their cultural heritage. Of course “free” is not the same as “equal”, and the issue of how to integrate blacks into the whole of CNA society remains a persistent issue for decades.

While the USM spends the century making its own attempts to modernize, on some level the country always remains a resource-based economy. With surveyors in California kicking off a gold rush in the late 1830s (a decade earlier than in our history), the USM begins to turn from cotton production to mining as its bread and butter. The search for new deposits in the Rocky Mountains leads to disputes with CNA settlers along the hazily-defined border between the two. Matters between the two eventually escalate into the Rocky Mountain War of 1845-53, a lackadaisical conflict that meanders across the American Southwest only to end in a draw. Amazingly, it is the only war the two nations ever fight against one another.

In far worse economic shape after the war than the CNA, the USM pushes even hard to industrialize in the latter half of the 19th century, eventually adding petroleum to its bouquet of exports. However, it is in its drive to expand that the USM’s greatest enemy is formed. In 1865 the German immigrant Bernard Kramer forms Kramer Associates, a corporation initially focused on improving California’s transportation links with the USM. As its fortunes improve, KA continues to expand, gobbling up related businesses in California and the USM, getting involved in more new industries, sticking many fingers in many pies and buying out a lot of politicians. By 1870 KA is able to fund a coup in neighboring Guatemala in order to build a canal through Lake Hernandez (our Lake Nicaragua) to connect the Pacific and Atlantic and improve shipping. As ethnic tensions result in the usurpation of the USM’s republican government by the military strongman Benito Hermión, “El Jefe”, in 1881, KA stands by and makes use of the new boss. After waging wars in the 1880s and 1890s to turn Guatemala and New Granada into Mexican client states, he is enticed north to seize Russian Alaska in 1898 to secure the gold deposits recently discovered by KA geologists. After Hermión exceeds his mandate the following year by invading and seizing Siberia east of the Kolyma River the following year while making plans to crown himself emperor, KA arranges a palace coup in 1901 to hustle off into exile and restore the republican government.

While Sobel’s 20th century is as eventful as his 19th, the sheer distance from the initial point of divergence means that familiar historical trends have run their course, and that we are now in the realm of pure authorial invention. Unfortunately, Sobel is on shakier ground here. In the CNA, the final decades of the 19th century see the emergence of a social democratic government that begins to involve itself more in economic affairs, creating something that feels like an ersatz New Deal. However, this results in a rise of a new countercultural movement focusing on withdrawal from urban life, pastoralism, and pacifism, combining elements of hippiedom with things like the German Wandervogel movement. (This counterculture grew up out of organization dedicated to protesting slavery in the USM and expanding civil rights for blacks in the CNA, only to drop that focus as the movement’s founders were swamped out by white middle-class newcomers.) As a result CNA politics end up taking on a pacifistic, utopian cast for decades, causing no amount of frustration to the more hard-headed elements of CNA society. Meanwhile the USM spends the years after Hermión bouncing from crisis to crisis. While slavery is finally abolished in 1920, the nation still grapples with persistent ethnic tensions, a fragile government prone to bouts of authoritarianism and military adventurism, and above all the dominance of Kramer Associates in every aspect of economic and political life.

On top of all these troubles, the international system begins to break down in the 1930s. The book argues that the CNA’s decision to refrain from joining the alliance system in the name of pacifism helped kick off the Global War in 1939. A duel between the two alliance systems centered on the United British Commonwealth and the German Confederation, the war burns across southern and eastern Eurasia for years before sputtering to a halt in 1948 with no clear victor and about 200 million military and civilian casualties worldwide. The USM joins in with the Germans in an attempt to seize Japan and push into China, only to be pushed out of Asia entirely by the war’s end. After the war the CNA, ashamed at having stood aside during the conflict, adopts a politics of guilt and begins financing massive aid packages for all the war-torn nations of the world, regardless of allegiance. Through all this, Kramer Associates, massively rich and powerful and seeing the USM as a liability, abandons the country for the Philippines in 1936 before making its final move to Taiwan in 1948. As international relations begin to break down again in the later 1950s and the USM begins looking across the Pacific for some payback, Kramer Associates decides to play the Leviathan by building and detonating the world’s first atomic bomb in 1962, threatening to use the weapon against any nation that restarts the Global War. As the book closes in 1971, the CNA, Britain, and Germany have all joined the nuclear club while the USM, a dictatorship once again and trying to cope with the exodus of its skilled workers overseas to KA over the past decades, struggles to construct a working device.



The North America of For Want of a Nail circa 1971. Adapted from the sole map within the book.

Over the years I’ve grown to dislike discussions of “plausibility” in alternate history. There is a bad tendency among alternate history fans to conflate the question of how rigorous its historical invention is with the question of how the book functions as a work of art, often prizing the former far more than the latter. Still, these sorts of questions are inevitable, so I would like to express my thoughts on Sobel’s historical extrapolations by looking at something I am familiar with: the bundle of British colonies that in our world eventually became the nation of Canada.

In For Want of A Nail, the colonies that formed the core of Canada in our world were bundled into Nova Scotia, Quebec, and Manitoba. (British Columbia and the Yukon Territory were never part of the CNA and eventually became Mexican territory, so they won’t be discussed. Lo siento, Michal!) In Sobel’s world, the Commonwealth of Quebec retains a border that stretches to the eastern shore of the Great Lakes. With no mass immigration of British loyalists fleeing the newly independent United States to settle the land between the Great Lakes and the Ottawa River, there is never a need to divide the territory into an anglophone Upper Canada and a francophone Lower Canada, the nuclei for the provinces of Ontario and Quebec respectively. However, as the CNA is formed there is no special need to include unique protections for Quebec’s Catholic francophone population, since Quebec is only a small island in an ocean of anglophone Protestants. Despite the presence of the St. Laurence seaway, Quebec becomes a steadily more provincial backwater of the CNA, the home of numerous rebellions against Burgoyne’s authority. Some measure of stability is only achieved after a plebiscite is held in 1889 where a slim majority of the population votes to make Quebec an associated territory within the CNA rather than a commonwealth, free to manage its own affairs while still using CNA pounds and letting Burgoyne handle foreign affairs. Meanwhile, the Commonwealth of Manitoba to the west comprises a vast swath of land, incorporating what in our world would be the provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and western Ontario, as well as the Northwest Territories and Nunavut. It’s not really clear how the commonwealth ended up as part of the CNA; Sobel makes no mention of Rupert’s Land or how and when the CNA acquired the territory from the Hudson’s Bay Company. He does mention that by the end of the 19th century the commonwealth became a home for dreamers, misfits, utopians, and nonconformists, and that by 1930 the region has a population of around 30 million. While not knowing about settlement and immigration patterns that number is still surprising to see, considering how that equivalent bundle of provinces contains just under 5 million in our 1930, and even today barely scrapes 8 million. Finally, there is Nova Scotia. Never divided into New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island, it is briefly mentioned as becoming an associated territory with the creation of the CNA in 1781 and vanishes from the narrative thereafter. Taken together, these three territories sum up the allohistorical speculation of For Want of a Nail… Some parts are build out of reasonable extrapolation of historical facts and later events. Others seem to be drawn more from the authors fancies, and while they may be fascinating creations the exact historical provenance is unclear. Finally, there are parts where you’re not really sure what Sobel was going for.

Despite its flaws as a work of historical speculation, For Want of a Nail… still succeeds as a work of fiction. From what I gather Sobel wrote the book partly as a satire of trends in academic writing at the time, in particular the trend of adding footnotes to every point. However, the framing of the book as an academic text helps the reader suspend their disbelief in an unorthodox fashion. By looking at the list of footnotes referencing other books in its universe, the many tables of electoral breakdowns and economic statistics, by thumbing through the bibliography, you get a sense that For Want of a Nail… is just a small part of a much larger body of scholarly work. If something in the original text that is glossed over or doesn’t seem to make sense, it’s easy to imagine that the answer is in another book somewhere out there in the world of Sobel’s story that explains it all.

The reader’s ability to believe in the reality of Sobel’s world beyond the confines of the text is greatly helped by Sobel’s canny move by making the alternate version of himself writing the text in-universe blatantly biased. The narrative of For Want of a Nail starts at 1763 the end of the Seven Years’ War, giving the reader a decade and a half of actual history for the alternate Sobel to describe. Naturally, he comes out as highly prejudiced towards the CNA, describing how most of the colonists in British North America were accepting of British rule, how the great man of the era was the moderate royalist reformer John Dickinson while Sam Adams is depicted as a radical hothead. The actual Sobel drives the point home at the end of the book with a final chapter written by a USM historian offering his critical take on the alternate Sobel’s work. The historian blasts Sobel’s alternate self for his favoritism of both the CNA and Kramer Associates, pointing out the alternate Sobel’s own connection with universities and academics associated with the rogue megacorporation. (It’s also worth mentioning that while the alternate Sobel covers most of the events surrounding the history of KA, he curiously chooses to discuss the company’s decision to abandon the USM entirely in 1936 and re-establish themselves in the Philippines only in passing.) Given how KA comes across as the actual Sobel’s pet creation that can do no wrong, knowing that the account in For Want of a Nail… may not be entirely accurate does mollify some reader irritation at his creation’s seeming omnipotence.

Little of the world beyond North America is shown in For Want of a Nail… beyond brief snapshots of Europe. The Trans-Oceanic War of 1795-99 mentioned so long ago ends in the formation of a Prussian-dominated “German Confederation” about seventy years early, but in general the ancien régime endures across the continent. Imagining a Europe without the French Revolution or Napoleon is as big a task as imagining a world where the American Revolution failed, so Sobel wisely just leaves us with bits and pieces. Socialist theories appear in North America during the 19th century, and there is still a Karl Marx who is much as we know him, but Sobel’s world is one where ideology does not have the same commanding power it does in ours. It is a world of wholly-headed mystical utopians, not clear-eyed architects of human souls with schematics for the New Jerusalem in hand. Of course the tensions of an industrializing bourgeois social order trying to exist within a monarchical political system still exist in Sobel’s world, building up even a century after the failure of the French Revolution stuffed the cork back in the bottle. Said cork is well and truly popped in 1879, as the Parisian mob takes to the streets during another Franco-German War, puts the royal family to the sword, and radicalizes the German army. The following decade is remembered as “The Bloody Eighties” as all the old governments of Europe, save for Britain, the German Confederation, and Russia, are torn down in a spate of revolutionary insurrection that matches the ferocity of our French Revolution with the spread of the revolutions of 1848. Despite the ferocity of these uprisings, they do not seem to bring about the philosophical and cultural flowering that came with the revolutionary decades of our world. Sobel’s France even gets its own Napoleon, a Marshal Henri Fachon, who in 1909 becomes the first to reunify the country after 25 years of civil strife. However, the political environment of Sobel’s world does not afford him the same opportunities as Napoleon, and he is remembered chiefly for his failed invasion of the USM in 1914.

At the end of the day, I find myself asking the difficult question of intent. Why did Sobel want to write  For Want of a Nail… beyond the simple desire to entertain? I think a possible answer can be found in the late John J. Reilly’s discussion of the book, where he posited that Sobel took two strands of American nationalism – the utopian dream for social justice and the militaristic “give me liberty or give me death!” ethos – and spin them off into separate countries. I think John was on the right track, but I see For Want of a Nail… as a sort of imaginative sketchpad for Sobel to experiment with all sorts of historical and political ideas. Can reform substitute for revolution? Can a political system survive if it is removed from its original context and grafted onto another culture? Is there a way the tragedy of slavery in America could have been rectified without so much bloodshed? Could a corporation become a nation onto itself, if it emerged in a nation where it could gather all the resources and machinery it pleased without risk of legal oversight? Was the American Revolution a positive or negative for the world? These are questions that don’t have any clear answers, and in any case it is not possible for an alternate history story like For Want of a Nail… to “prove” them one way or the other. Still, we can guess, we can extrapolate, we can fantasize, and as we imagine we make more sense of the world around us and the choices that made it what it is.

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