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Understanding History Through Cause-and-Effect Relationships

Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

Did you know that the seeds of the destruction of the Ming Dynasty were planted in 1492? Or an accidental suntan launched a multi-billion dollar industry? Cause and effect relationships are at the core of understanding history.

Nothing Is Random

Pick up a history book on any event that you're interested in, and chances are that it does not start by immediately discussing the event in question. Few books on the Allied Invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944 start without discussing at least the events of the first years of World War II. Likewise, someone interested in the history of women's fashion probably doesn't start discussing someone like Coco Chanel without understanding the Parisian high society that she inhabited. As a result, history is dependent on knowing what happened first.

In other words, cause and effect are vital to historians and are the central best explanations for the past. Sometimes, the writing is on the wall to clearly see what was the cause and what was the effect. Coco Chanel came back with a suntan, and suddenly being pale was out of fashion. Other times, the question can be harder to trace. What would have happened had the Allied landings been almost solely by paratroopers until a major port could have been secured? In any event, understanding the journey is indispensable to historians.

Examples Throughout History

If you've ever taken an American history course, then chances are that what you were studying probably started sometime around the year 1492. Sure, your course may have examined early Native American civilizations, but you really started examining history through the documents after this date. Of course, 1492 is the year Columbus introduced Europe to the Americas, but what led Columbus to sail in 1492?

In short, the end of a war. Earlier in 1492, the Spanish had finally defeated the Moors, pushing them out of Spain and back into Africa. Now, with many war debts to pay, the Spanish needed a fast way to the wealth of India and China, and Columbus promised such a route. As we know, Columbus ended up several thousand miles away from the Spice Islands, but he did bring incredible wealth to the Spanish.

What if we take it further? With the discovery of the Americas, especially of the Andes Mountains, massive amounts of silver were mined. This silver was sent to China, where it caused a major drop in the price of money. Remember, silver was chosen to back money due to its rarity, and suddenly it was no longer rare. China grew poorer and poorer, with the Ming Dynasty eventually falling 150 years later in part because its currency was so worthless.

With the Ming so weak, other Europeans were able to set up colonial ports in China, making them rich. All the while, China went from being the most powerful country on the planet to being bankrupt and weak. All of this happened because the Spanish needed more money in 1492 to pay war debts. If you wanted to, you could imagine all of this as a giant flow chart, moving from event to event. But what would happen if one of those prior events had turned out differently?

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