What Might Have Happened, If That Which Did Happen, Had Not Happened, I Cannot Undertake To Say

Lord Palmerston? George Ward Nichols? John Moncure? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Describing a counterfactual world typically requires a comically twisted statement:

What would have happened if what did happen had not happened?

These words have been attributed to British statesman Lord Palmerston, but I have been unable to find a citation. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: In 1850 Lord Palmerston delivered a speech in the House of Commons in London. The original phrasing of the expression differed a bit from the modern version given by the questioner. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

We have been told, however, that if it had not been for the war in Lombardy, the indispensable interference of Russia in Hungary, would not have taken place. What might have happened, if that which did happen, had not happened, I cannot undertake to say. (Hear, and laughter.)

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1867 “Harpers New Monthly Magazine” published “The General’s Story” by George Ward Nichols which included a version of the expression: 2

It was late into the night, the family had retired, we lingered long over our pipes, rehearsing many an adventure by camp and field, discussing this and that campaign, of what would have been the result if things which happened had not happened, and things did not happen which had happened, and all that sort of thing.

In 1900 a newspaper in Winfield, Kansas printed the following as a filler item: 3

After election the democrats will again be relating what would have happened if what did happen had not happened.

People have long been fascinated by the notion of alternative histories as shown in the following excerpt from “The Sewanee Review” in 1907: 4

It is as bootless perhaps to speculate on what “would have been” as it is to lament over what “might have been,” and yet the student of history can scarcely refrain sometimes from allowing his imagination to chase the phantom of some possible variation of what actually occurred — of what would have happened if what did happen had not happened. What if Napoleon had won the battle of Waterloo? What if Stonewall Jackson had not been shot down by his own pickets? What if, in this or that great crisis, when the destiny of nations hung in the balance, and the whole current of the world’s history was to be determined, the scales had tipped the other way?

In 1927 the expression appeared in an Iola, Kansas newspaper as a wistful book title: 5

The answer to that question will make an interesting chapter in the book we are planning to write some time entitled: “What would have Happened if what Did Happen Hadn’t Happened!”

In conclusion, Lord Palmerston memorably employed the expression during a speech in 1850, and he can be credited with helping to popularize it. Yet, QI suspects that earlier instances exist because it is a natural statement to make. Also, others used the expression after 1850, and it has probably been crafted independently on many occasions.

(Great thanks to Peter Heffernan of Auckland, New Zealand whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. His inquiry appeared in the April 2015 issue of “The Quote…Unquote Newsletter”. Special thanks also to quotation expert Nigel Rees who publishes the newsletter.)


  1. 1850, Speech of Viscount Palmerston in the House of Commons, on Tuesday, The 25th of June, 1850, on Mr. Roebuck’s Motion on the Foreign Policy of the Government by Henry John Temple Palmerston (Viscount), Quote Page 73, John Ollivier, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1867 June, Harpers New Monthly Magazine, Volume 35, The General’s Story by George Ward Nichols, Start Page 60, Quote Page 60, Harper & Brothers Publisher’s, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1900 July 10, The Winfield Daily Courier, (Filler item), Quote Page 2, Column 1, Winfield, Kansas. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1907 July, The Sewanee Review, Volume 15, Number 3, John M. Daniel: The Editor of The Examiner by John Moncure of Louisville, Kentucky, Start Page 257, Quote Page 257, Longmans, Green & Company, New York. (Internet Archive at archive.org) link
  5. 1927 November 16, The Iola Daily Register, In the Day’s News, Quote Page 4, Column 2, Iola, Kansas. (Newspapers_com)