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Literature / For Want of a Nail

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The Confederation of North America versus the United States of Mexico

For Want of a Nail: If Burgoyne Had Won at Saratoga by economic historian Robert Sobel is a 1973 Alternate History textbook that details the counterfactual trials and tribulations of the North American continent from 1763 to 1971. It's considered a Trope Codifier, if not the Trope Maker, of more hard-nosed approaches to alternate history that move away from the outlandish geopolitical shenanigans in works like The Man in the High Castle note  or Bring the Jubilee note . The book eschews any conventional fictional story, and embraces alternate history for its own sake, serving as an inspiration for writing communities like (which is especially evident from the glowing review it received from Ian the Admin, the site's founder.) The book also won the Sidewise Award for Alternate History (Special Achievement category) in 1997.


The Point of Divergence is the arrival of reinforcements for British General John Burgoyne during the Battle of Saratoga, which turns the tide of the American Revolutionary War to the favor of the United Kingdom, which then stamps out the rebellion. Afterward, the colonies are reorganized into the more centralized and autonomous Confederation of North America (CNA), while thousands of revolutionaries that weren't executed or imprisoned sojourn westward, founding the nation of Jefferson in the place Texas would have been. Under the charismatic yet steady leadership of Andrew Jackson, it unifies with the neighboring Republic of Mexico to create the United States of Mexico (USM) in 1820. The new republic is soon embroiled in a continental power struggle with the Confederation of North America.


Although historical figures factor heavily in the beginning, such as Thomas Edison essentially inventing most modern technology, there are also new faces in the CNA and the USM, such as the idealistic automobile mogul Owen Galloway and the histrionic liberal governor Richard Mason, the nepotistic narcissist Benito Hermíon, as well as the bastardy Corrupt Corporate Executive Bernard Kramer who leads his company Kramer Associates in attaining dizzying heights of power. Throughout this entire book, one finds that two hundred years of history becomes a lot more interesting when you don't know what happens next.

This book provides examples of:

  • Allohistorical Allusion: Benito Hermíon, the first Mexican dictator, shares a first name with Benito Mussolini.
    • After conquering a country—New Granada—and making it a puppet state, a brilliant military mind and emperor (the aforementioned Benito) sends his brother to be a Puppet King, but the brother winds up being a benevolent ruler who adopts that country's culture. This directly parallels Napoléon Bonaparte sending his brother Louis to the Netherlands.
  • Alternate History: A Trope Codifier work of the genre, see below.
  • Alternate Techline: Before 1903, the people of this world have cars; however, they don't develop nuclear weapons until 1962.
  • Alternative Character Interpretation: In-Universe, the American "rebels", George Washington especially, who has his character and competency lambasted by the unsympathetic (alternate persona) of the author.
  • Ambition Is Evil: Subverted, as some of the ambitious characters merely go onto become pragmatic and competent leaders. Although there are shades of this with Bernard Kramer.
  • America Is Still a Colony: The point of divergence is the Battle of Saratoga, which ends in a British victory. Shortly thereafter a peace faction gets control of Congress and ends the war with Great Britain. Some revolutionaries escape to form a new nation in Texas, while Britain's North American colonies are given dominion status in the 1830s.
  • America Saves the Day: Subverted. Neither the Confederation of North America nor the United States of Mexico does anything akin to the United States of America's entry into World War I or World War II, as the former mostly stays neutral and the latter is merely prone to opportunistic land grabs.
  • America Takes Over the World: Although the book is centered on this region, it seems as though the equivalent of the Cold War for this timeline takes place between two superpowers on the North American continent, perhaps even three if one counts Kramer Associates due to their Mexican origins.
  • Anyone Can Die: And not just because it covers so much history. Among them Governor of the North Confederation Daniel Webster, Indianan Grand Council member Dudley Graves, and two Mexican presidents: Pedro Hermión and Omar Kinkaid.
  • Artistic License – Geography: The settlements described for Mexico fail to accord to what they were in our timeline
  • Artistic License – Statistics: Averted for the most part, but the population of Manitoba is pegged at 31.5 million in 1930, which is way more than the 4 million it sustained in our timeline at the same period.
  • Author Appeal: Precise economic details and systems, appropriate because this is the field that the author is a professional in, both In-Universe and out.
  • Author Avatar: Robert Sobel, who is also an economic historian in this timeline as well.
  • Balkanize Me: Quito and Rio Negro both secede from Brazil when it gained independence following the Trans-Oceanic War.
  • Banana Republic: The United States of Mexico becomes one: Populist dictator? Check. Latin American? Check. Controlled by a multinational corporation? Double check.
  • Bomb-Throwing Anarchists: Vaguely alluded to during the 1880s, where revolutionaries are essentially looters and pillagers that cause considerable turbulence in Europe during the “Bloody Eighties”.
  • Call a Rabbit a "Smeerp": “Vitavision” for television, “locomobile” for the automobile, and so on.
  • Cheese-Eating Surrender Monkeys: France easily capitulates to German invasion during the Global War.
  • City of Spies: Michigan City was crawling with Mexican spies out to steal nuclear secrets until they were busted in 1969.
  • Climax: The Rocky Mountain War is one of sorts, as it occurs about midway in the book and is the only time in the story where the CNA and USM are in an actual shooting war between each other.
  • Coattail-Riding Relative: Benito Hermíon in relation to his father, Pedro Hermíon.
  • Cold War: Has an analog in the "War Without War", which pits the CNA against the USM.
  • Commie Land: Averted entirely as far as we know, which implies that in our timeline, the United States indirectly contributed to the creation of the Soviet Union.
  • Conspicuously Public Assassination: Pedro Hermíon is subject to one in 1851.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: Some of the actions taken by Kramer Associates leaders are somewhat shady.
  • Cult Colony: Manitoba is a beacon for Utopian philosophers and radicals of all stripes... yet remains the land without politics.
  • Cult of Personality: One springs up around Pedro Hermíon following his death.
  • Decided by One Vote: In the CNA, the People's Coalition only won a majority in the Grand Council by two seats in the 1938 elections.
  • Deep South: The Southern Confederation in the CNA, appropriately enough.
  • Divided States of America: The continental United States of America never comes to be, and thus what would have been its territory is divided between the Confederation of North America and the United States of Mexico.
  • Doomed Moral Victor: Washington and his revolutionaries, from an American point of view.
  • Downer Beginning: From an American point of view, as John Adams, Sam Adams, John Hancock, Thomas Jefferson, Richard Henry Lee, Robert Paine and Roger Sherman are all executed, while George Washington is sentenced to life in prison.
  • Draco in Leather Pants: In-Universe, Robert Sobel is accused of doing this to Kramer Associates (and the CNA) as a whole.
  • Dystopia: The United States of Mexico has shades of it. For instance, slavery doesn't get abolished there until 1920 and it was a Police State with the backing of a Mega-Corp in the intervening years.
  • Eagleland: The Confederation of North America is mostly a Type 1, while the United States of Mexico falls hard into a Type 2.
  • Easily Conquered World: The Russian Empire during the Great Northern War, which has Alaska and Siberia taken from it in the course of two years by the increasingly powerful United States of Mexico. France also falls into this trope during the Global War.
  • Ethnic Menial Labor: A staple of the United States of Mexico.
  • Equal-Opportunity Evil: It's subtle, but the Mexican dictatorship is led by Benito Hermíon, a part of the Hispano minority, and Bernard Kramer, a German immigrant.
  • False Flag Operation: Features into many of the political machinations in the book.
  • Fan Fiction: Primarily embodied in the For Want of All Nails web project. (Found here: )
  • Fantasy Conflict Counterpart: The Global War for World War II and conditions similar to the Cold War are present in the rivalry between the CNA and the USM.
  • Fantasy World Map: There's a map in the frontispiece of the book, which makes it reminiscent in purpose and placement of this trope. Some fans regard it as dubious because a few details contradict those in the the book; at least one fan has gone to the trouble of making their own version.
  • Fiction500: Kramer Associates' executives.
  • Fictional Counterpart: The United Workers of the World, compared to the Real Life Industrial Workers of the World. The same also applies to the Confederation Bureau of Investigation.
  • Fictional Document: All over the place, with extensive footnotes to dozens upon dozens of (fictitious) works.
  • Fictional Political Party: For the CNA there was or is the (Unified) Liberals, the (National) Conservatives, the People's Coalition, and the Peace and Justice Party. Meanwhile the USM has the Continentalist, Liberty, United Mexican and Progressive parties (and very briefly, the Worker's Coalition, which turned guerrilla), with divergent periods of mainstream establishment due to the chaotic politics of the country.
  • Flyover Country: In the CNA, the Confederations of Indiana, Northern and Southern Vandalia (and Manitoba) all qualify as this.
  • For Want of a Nail: Without the success of the American Revolution, there is no French Revolution, and it's thus implied that the edge of radical revolutionary politics was dulled in this world. Socialism has marginal influence, fascism seems to have never come to be, and there is no analog to the Soviet Union.
  • Footnote Fever: An important part of its verisimilitude and flavor.
  • Founder of the Kingdom: Republic, more like, but Andrew Jackson is this for Mexico.
  • Full-Circle Revolution: The United States of Mexico escapes from the yoke of British oppression... to later become one of the most oppressive regimes on the face of the planet.
  • Framing Device: An undergraduate history book... from a world where history went a little bit differently.
  • From Nobody to Nightmare: Bernard Kramer went from an immigrant miner to a Corrupt Corporate Executive who is responsible for installing a dictator in Mexico.
  • Government Agency of Fiction: The Confederation Bureau of Investigation, among others.
  • Government in Exile: The Revolutionaries, who go onto found the Republic of Jefferson (which becomes the USM).
  • Grey-and-Gray Morality: Part of what gives this book verisimilitude is its restrained portrayal of the morality of both sides despite some In-Universe Author Appeal.
  • Guilt Complex: Governor-General Richard Mason has a big one for the CNA's sidestepping of the Global War, which informs his foreign policy.
  • Hegemonic Empire: The British Empire, naturally.
  • Hero with Bad Publicity: The CNA under the governorship of Richard Mason donated tons of money abroad, for which they get almost no appreciation.
  • Historical Domain Character: There are some mostly in the earlier part of the book that get prominent roles, but this tapers off towards the end.
  • Historical Hero Upgrade: Thomas Edison develops this world's versions of television, the automobile and “airmobile” before 1903.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: In-Universe accusations are lodged at the author for making the leaders of the United States of Mexico slightly more incompetent and immoral in contrast to the Confederation of North America.
  • Hitler's Time Travel Exemption Act: Yet another notable aversion, because nothing like the Holocaust ever takes place and there is never anyone even remotely as bad as Hitler described in the book.
  • Honest Corporate Executive: Owen Galloway is portrayed as one to some extent.
  • Insistent Terminology: It's the "North American Rebellion", not The American Revolution.
  • In Spite of a Nail: Andrew Jackson still becomes president of a United States, Karl Marx has the same economic philosophy and Thomas Edison is an inventor. Germany still unifies in some fashion and bests France in a war that takes place in the late 19th Century, before the Russian Empire collapses in the early 20th Century.
  • Istanbul (Not Constantinople): New Grenada remains, in lieu of Colombia, Ecuador, Panama and Venezuela.
  • Kangaroo Court: The Constabulary in trying alleged Moralistas, who would be detained in internment camps after being found guilty.
  • Karl Marx: Appears with a largely identical worldview, but with less influence in comparison to other philosophers.
  • Karma Houdini: Bernard Kramer and his successors.
  • King Incognito: Deposed Emperor Hermíon when he flees the palace after its surrounded with Kramer Associates' sponsored soldiers.
  • La Résistance: The perpetrators of the American Revolution, who don't see their goals achieved.
  • Landslide Election: The CNA's 1933 Grand Council elections featured the Liberal Party snatching up 104 seats, and the People's Coalition only taking the 46 that remained.
  • Literary Allusion Title: In addition to the title of the Real Life book, the In-Universe name for it (Scorpions in a Bottle) is a reference to a speech made by Pedro Hermión about the continental rivalry between the Confederation of North America and the United States of Mexico.
  • Loads and Loads of Characters: Dozens of characters come in and out of focus, which is understandable considering it covers approximately two centuries of history.
  • Malcolm Xerox: Philip Harrison, founder of Black Justice, who wanted to wage war against the other races and found a separate state for black people, before dying in a gun battle in 1948.
  • The Man Behind the Man: Bernard Kramer, who set up Benito Hermíon as dictator, and his successor, Diego Cortez y Catalán, who has the real power during Benito Hermíon's reign, and later ousts him.
  • Meaningful Name: Benito Hermíon.
  • Mega-Corp: Kramer Associates.
  • Men Don't Cry: Averted by Governor-General Richard Mason.
  • Middle Eastern Coalition: Following the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire as well as the Global War, the Middle East remains unified under the German protectorate of Arabia.
  • Military Coup: Happens in the United States of Mexico.
  • Name's the Same: The Great Depression, only it takes place from 1880 to 1882, corresponding more with the economic downturn experienced in our timeline during the 1890s.
  • Naturalized Name: Bernard Kramer, a German immigrant who became a world-class Mexican industrialist, can be inferred to have this.
  • N.G.O. Superpower: Kramer Associates, which is treated as its own world-class power later on in the book and even develops nuclear weapons before anyone else in the world.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Granted, this is alternate history, but Owen Galloway has many parallels with Henry Ford in particular as an innovative industrialist in the automobile business with a large public platform.
  • No Hugging, No Kissing: Justified because this is essentially an overview of history, but one could plausibly assume almost all of the main characters are bachelors.
  • Nouveau Riche: Bernard Kramer and his successors qualify as this.
  • One-Book Author: Of a sort, as Robert Sobel never revisited this world or the Alternate History genre in his career as an economic historian before he died in 1999.
  • One-Federation Limit: The Confederation of North America and the United States of Mexico.
  • One-Man Industrial Revolution: Thomas Edison.
  • One Nation Under Copyright: Kramer Associates have de facto control over Taiwan, the Philippines, Brazil, Argentina and likely other nations; Mexico was also this for a while.
  • Oppressive States of America: The United States of Mexico turns into a Police State.
  • Perfect Pacifist People: Downplayed, but the Confederation of North America only fights one notable war in the two centuries of its existence.
  • Please Select New City Name: Fort Pitt (and possibly all of Pittsburgh) is renamed Burgoyne, and becomes the capital of the Confederation of North America.
  • Point of Divergence: As it's printed on the cover, "if Burgoyne had won at Saratoga".
  • Police State: A type of governance that the USM finds hard to shake away.
  • Politically Correct History: In addition to the questionable nature of Andrew Jackson championing a multiethnic Mexican republic, James Billington serves as the black governor-general of the CNA from 1950 to 1953, and the author notes that he heard no substantive criticism based on his race.
  • Pragmatic Villainy: Kramer Associates, whose support of the Benito Hermíon dictatorship fluctuates according to how much it benefits them.
  • President Evil: Benito Hermíon is a (dubiously) elected leader of the USM, and his goal soon escalates into a plot to Take Over the World.
  • Proud Warrior Race Guy: Again, downplayed, nonetheless the United States of Mexico is frequently bellicose and prone to foreign interventionism.
  • Quebec: Becomes a more or less self-ruling associated state of the CNA in 1889.
  • Rags to Riches: Bernard Kramer goes from being a miner immigrant to founding one of the most successful corporations in all of this world's history.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: When they aren't being overly idealistic, the leaders of the Confederation of North America tend to be this.
  • Recursive Canon: The book exists within its own world as “Scorpions in a Bottle”, by the same author.
  • Rebel Leader: George Washington is chief among them.
  • Richard Nixon, the Used Car Salesman: Abraham Lincoln appears briefly as a railroad lawyer.
  • Ron the Death Eater: The author does this to the United States of Mexico, as well as the American revolutionaries, according to In-Universe critique of the author.
  • Schizo Tech: A subtle example, but one reviewer noted that there are televisions before there are nuclear weapons, despite the interdependent nature of these technologies' development.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Money!: Kramer Associates, frequently.
  • Secret Police: The Constabulary in the United States of Mexico.
  • Self-Made Man: Bernard Kramer (see Rags to Riches above).
  • Shown Their Work: Much of the statistics and descriptions of economic processes in the book clearly show the author's professional background in the subject, especially when it comes to innovative programs like the National Financial Administration in the CNA.
  • Slave Liberation: Is delayed in Mexico until 1920.
  • Sliding Scale of Alternate History Plausibility: A Type 1, with no obvious Alternate History Wank or clear instances of Alien Space Bats.
  • Sliding Scaleof Gender Inequality: Level 1, as there are very scarce mentions to women at all in the work.
  • Space-Filling Empire: Germany could be considered an example of this, having most of continental Europe and the former Ottoman Empire under its rule after the Global War.
  • Strawman Political: Erich Neiderhoffer describes his plan for workers to buy out their own plants like this: “no one would be an exploiter, everyone would be an exploiter”.
    • Governor-General Richard Mason is a Liberal who describes his aid to other countries as motivated by guilt, while being prone to breaking down and crying. His critics are described as "the only sober people at a drunken orgy, trying to discuss serious matters with individuals in a state of advanced inebriation."
  • Take Over the World: The aim of Mexican Emperor Benito Hermíon.
  • The Alliance: Subverted, because the CNA avoids entering the Global War in arms with the United Kingdom (likewise with Spain, who declares neutrality despite a pre-existing alliance).
  • The Bad Guy Wins: Not necessarily the 'bad guy', but more of the 'antagonist' in the perspective of Americans, as the British Empire succeeds in crushing the American Revolution.
  • The Commonwealth Of Nations: A parallel to it arises in the United British Commonwealth of Nations.
  • The Empire: Mexico becomes this under Benito Hermíon.
    • Imperial Germany succeeds in conquering most of continental Europe during the Global War, although they've been met with some widespread opposition a few decades into their rule.
  • The Emperor: Benito Hermíon declares himself this over Mexico.
  • The Federation: The British Empire, primarily through the Confederation of North America, is portrayed like this. It becomes only more so with the 1906 foundation of the United British Commonwealth of Nations.
  • The Generalissimo: Benito Hermíon fits this trope to a T.
  • The Migration: The Wilderness Walk qualifies as one, which is a mass exodus of American revolutionaries to Mexico who founded what would become the USM.
    • The Galloway Plan also counts, wherein the disaffected peoples of the CNA were urged to migrate westward with generous financial backing.
  • The Plague: An influenza epidemic occurs during the Global War, piling onto the misery.
  • The Republic: The CNA acts like this throughout the story, generally favoring more progressive policies than their westward counterpart.
  • The Smurfette Principle: There are only three named female characters in the entire book, none of which have very significant roles. Women's suffrage within the CNA, given in 1908, is also only addressed in a footnote.
  • The Theocracy: From what we know, this is averted like it is with "communist" or fascist nations.
  • The Wild West: The United States of Mexico takes on a wild west character for most of its history due to its location and founding ideology.
  • The Revolution Will Not Be Civilized: Much of the action described in the Bloody Eighties.
  • Trope Codifier: For hard-nosed Alternate History written like a non-fiction work, with extensive enumeration of a truly divergent timeline.
  • Unexpected Successor: James Billington to Bruce Hogg for the General-Governorship of the CNA, not only because Billington was black, but because Perry Jay was seemingly groomed for the succession by Hogg before he suffered his massive stroke.
  • United Europe: With the exception of the United Kingdom, Spain and a few others, Germany has successfully unified Europe after the Global War.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Frank Dana, in his In-Universe critique of the book, implies that Robert Sobel may be one. He claims the history we just read is quite biased and omits several key "historical details" that indicates this is a skewed account of this world.
  • Villain with Good Publicity: The executives of Kramer Associates, implied to be In-Universe Author Appeal.
  • You Have Outlived Your Usefulness: Diego Cortez y Catalán to “Emperor” Hermíon.
  • Your Terrorists Are Our Freedom Fighters: One of the draws of the book is how the author views the American Revolution in a society where it failed, as he is obviously more critical of them.
  • We All Live in America: The Real Life American author Robert Sobel depicts a parliamentary system... that draws up impeachment measures in lieu of a vote of no confidence.
  • Wham Episode: The assassination of Pedro Hermíon.
    • The assumption of power by his son could count as well.
  • Wide-Eyed Idealist: Many of the CNA's politicians fall into this trope.
  • The Wiki Rule: Can be found here:
  • Witch Hunt: See Kangaroo Court above.
  • Writer on Board: An In-Universe example, as the alternate Robert Sobel is an Australian that resides in Taiwan; the latter is essentially a Kramer Associates protectorate and the former is party to the United British Commonwealth of Nations. As such he frames Kramer Associates and the CNA in a rosy light, in comparison to the United States of Mexico.
  • Written by the Winners: The Confederation of North America, as noted above, doesn't see the United States' founding fathers in a particularly favorable light.

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