If You Could Go Back in Time and Change One Thing, What Would It Be?

House on top of American flag
Graham Roumieu

William “Sandy” Darity Jr., economist and professor, Duke University

I wish that Radical Reconstruction had been made a reality after the end of the Civil War. This would have entailed the promised 40-acre land grants to the formerly enslaved, their right to full political participation, assurance of control over their children’s schooling, protection by the Union Army in the South, and the arming of the freedmen for self-defense.

Anna Della Subin, author, Not Dead but Sleeping

In 1937, a British colonialist in Kuwait was said to have dreamed of a gnarled, uprooted tree. A dream interpreter recognized the tree, and told him that the dream meant oil would be found at the site—leading to the discovery of one of the Earth’s largest oil reserves. One wishes he’d had insomnia instead!

Samantha Kelly, history professor, Rutgers

The invention of agriculture. Imagine: far less environmental degradation and income inequality, a shorter workday for all, a varied diet and possibly better health outcomes for certain communities, and a profound confidence that the future would provide. A world without industrial agriculture would pretty much be the Eden of the Bible. Hunter-gatherer life isn’t sounding so bad.

Marina Warner, historian and mythographer

I would have Ferdinand and Isabella tear up the Alhambra Decree, which drove out all the Jews from Spanish territories. History would look very different if the coexistence of Jews, Muslims, and Christians had continued in 1492 without this absolutist act of ethnic cleansing, religious nationalism, bigotry, and intolerance.

Reader Responses

Roger L. Albin, Ann Arbor, Mich.

The inception of the Eastern Gas Shales Program. This, and related Department of Energy research programs, played a large role in the development of fracking technology. The U.S. would be more likely to pursue renewable-energy sources and work to combat climate change if we didn’t have a commercially successful oil-and-gas industry.

Illustration of a man running and holding a burning scroll
Graham Roumieu

Charles Ryan, Napa, Calif.

The burning of the Library of Alexandria. Its destruction held back humanity at least a grade or two.

David Chill, Los Angeles, Calif.

Had President John F. Kennedy not been assassinated in 1963, it is unlikely that he would have escalated America’s involvement in Vietnam. That seminal moment in Dallas changed the trajectory of America—and its impact is still being felt today.

Bernard Seneway, Ellicott City, Md.

The creation of the Interstate Highway System, which killed train travel and enabled urban sprawl, pollution, and inequality.

Graham Roumieu

David Aalto, Etowah, N.C.

The assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. How much better the conditions in the country would be had Lincoln’s conciliatory approach to reunifying the country been allowed to play out over his second term and beyond.

Richard Dengate, Rochester Hills, Mich.

The Second Amendment. Without it, perhaps today we would not be struggling to adopt a rational firearms policy.

Jeffrey Miller, North Woodmere, N.Y.

I’d let Rocky Balboa beat Apollo Creed during their first match, thereby saving humanity from 43 years of sequels and spin-offs.

Gerry O’Keefe, Olympia, Wash.

The establishment of chattel slavery in the British colonies and its continuation after the American Revolution.