The past needs to be graded on its own curve

As a follow-up to the below post, I want to outline a bit more precisely how I view judgments of the nature of the Founding and Founders. The difficulty is due to the fact that:

1) The late 18th-century was a profoundly different time

2) Humans in the late 18th-century were also profoundly proto-modern in some ways

They were different. But not totally different.

To me, one way to judge the Founders is in the context of their times, which were different in some substantive ways. Below I alluded to the argument made by some modern American evangelical Protestants that the United States was founded as a Christian nation. What does this mean? Though not always explicit, what they mean is that the United States of America was founded as a Christian nation in an evangelical Protestant sense.

There are several issues with this. First, American evangelical Protestantism is hard to understand without the Second Great Awakening, which postdates the Founding by decades. Second, American evangelical Protestantism has to be seen in the context of the sorts of divisions within American Christianity that came to a head in the Fundamentalist–Modernist controversy. In other words, saying that the United States of America was founded as a Christian nation comes close to being “not even wrong” in the narrow reading. The Founders would not recognize Christianity in American evangelical megachurches, for example.

But, there is a broader reading, and that is that most of the Founders were self-identified Christians, and they assumed and took for granted that their republic was informed by their religion and that religion was Protestant Christianity. Though the Deism of many of the Founders is often emphasized, it is probably closest to the mark to assume that most Deist Founders conceived of their religious opinions as an extension, culmination, and rational perfection, of the Christian tradition.

And yet despite all this, the most interesting aspect of the Founding and religion is how detached the republic was from religion. As noted in Jay Winik’s The Great Upheaval the establishment of a federal government without an established religion was shocking, revolutionary, and controversial, at the time. The Founders may have seen themselves as Christian and assumed that the populace would be Christian indefinitely, but their decision to leave the federal government without attachment to a particular religious institution was what was particularly notable at the time. Similarly, today Elizabeth Cady Stanton would seem on the socially conservative side, but during her lifetime she was a firebrand radical, and her writings shifted the discussion in that direction.

Taken out of context, a sliver of a fact can be used to ‘prove’ anything. That’s the style of argumentation fitting a university English undergraduate. A thesis, and a few supporting facts. True understanding comes from appreciating context.

Albion’s seeds in Arkansas

A few days ago The New York Times had a piece up that stirred a lot of comment, In the Land of Self-Defeat: What a fight over the local library in my hometown in rural Arkansas taught me about my neighbors’ go-it-alone mythology — and Donald Trump’s unbeatable appeal. It profiles the fight over the funding of (or lack) a library in Van Buren County, Arkansas. The local conflict is situated in national politics, and the gulf between rural and urban, and white Red America and cosmopolitan Blue America.

This is all fine as far as it goes, but a lot of the values expressed among the citizens of Van Buren County make a lot more sense if you take a deeper historical perspective. Long-time readers know where I’m going with this. Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America, and The Cousins’ Wars: Religion, Politics, Civil Warfare, And The Triumph Of Anglo-America, all highlight the deep divergences of values and variation of culture which characterize the roots of Anglo-America. That is, the America that was here at the Founding in 1776 was already a variegated thing and America that was created in the 19th and 20th-centuries may have been inflected by waves of Irish, German, and Southern and Eastern European immigrants, but the broad outlines of regional difference predate the later waves.

What is seen cannot be unseen, and once you read one of the above books, you read and perceive the expression of American cultures differently. From Theodore Parker’s The great battle between slavery and freedom (1856):

In 1850…Arkansas had 97,402 white persons under twenty, and only 11,050 attending school; while of 210,831 whites of that age in Michigan, 112,175 were at school or college. Last year, Michigan had 132,234 scholars in her public common schools. In 1850, Arkansas contained 64,787 whites over twenty, – but 16,935 of these were unable to read and white; while, out of 184,240 of that age in Michigan, only 8,281 were thus ignorant, – of these, 3009 were foreigns; while, of the 16,935 illiterate persons of Arkansas, only 37 were born out of that State. The Slave State had only 47,852 persons over twenty who could read a word; while the free State had 175,959. Michigan had 107,943 volumes in “libraries other than private,” and Arkansas 420 volumes….

The reality is that many of the southern regions of the United States have long had a deeply rooted and traditional aversion to public communal investments. This has been to the detriment of the development of broad public education as well as institutions of higher learning. In contrast, investment in primary schools in “Yankee America” was a recurrent feature of town-life in areas settled by New Englanders. This tendency does not today always lean on ideological lines. Much of Utah was settled by Yankees, and its public culture is arguably much more communitarian today than that of the South.

The shadow of culture persists

A new working paper, Ancestry of the American Dream, presents some unsurprising results:

Income inequality and intergenerational mobility—the degree to which (dis)advantage is passed on from parents to children—are among the defining political challenges of our time. While some scholars claim that more unequal countries exhibit a stronger persistence of income across generations, others argue that mobility rates are unaffected by social equality and are equally low in most societies. We compare economic opportunity across U.S. areas populated by different European ancestral groups, and find a substantial variation that mirrors current differences across descendants’ countries of origin: mobility is highest in areas dominated by descendants to Scandinavian immigrants, lower in places where the Italian, French, or Germans settled, and lower still in areas with British ancestral origins. A similar pattern is observed for income equality, which gives rise to a gradient closely resembling the “Great Gatsby Curve” across European countries. We provide suggestive evidence that these differences arise mainly at the community level and that similar mobility patterns apply to the black minority population, so they are not simply a function of ancestral groups themselves being more or less mobile. A more plausible explanation is that cultural differences among immigrant groups gave rise to local economic and social institutions that are more or less conducive to mobility. Our findings suggest that present cross-country differences in inequality and intergenerational mobility are real and may have deeper historical origins than has hitherto been recognized.

Looking at county-level ethnicity data from the 1980 census as well as the income tax data that Raj Chetty uses, the authors found some interesting patterns in the “synthetic countries” within the USA:

The overall thesis that the culture immigrants brings persists for generations seems plausible.  In Not By Genes Alone Robert Boyd and Peter Richerson report data from Illinois where farmers of German-American background behave very differently from their neighbors of Anglo-American background when given the same conditions. Anglo-Americans behaved much more like homo economicus . They sold their farms when the market price was right. In contrast, the German-Americans would attempt to keep the farms within the family even through periods when it was not economically rational.

My point is that there are non-economic aspects of culture that may not be picked up by these analyses which have economic consequences.

1856 Republican vote as a proxy for Yankee dominance

The second issue is that not all Americans of “British” origin are the same culturally. Long-time readers know where I’m going with this. The argument in Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America is that English American New England Yankees are culturally very distinct from British Americans from the South, whose origins often range from southwest England to the borders with Scotland, as well as Ulster-Scots who arrived in the middle of the 18th century.

If you look at at the map within the preprint you see that Utah has a high fraction of British Americans, but its socio-demographic profile is more like the Upper Midwest, dominated by Scandinavians and Germans. The British Americans of Utah, of course, descend to a great extent from New England Yankees, as well as various Northern European immigrant groups converted to Mormonism by 19th-century missions. Though similarly socially and politically conservative, Utah Mormons are culturally very different from white Southerners. One way to describe it is that Utah Mormons have a lot of social cohesion and an orientation toward communalism. This is in line with their Yankee origins. Yankee migrants to the West organized their towns very differently from those from the South (to be frank, Southerners didn’t much organize their towns at all in comparison to Yankee rationalism and collectivism).

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Against Thomas Jefferson!

I was unexpectedly traveling on an airplane recently, so I had some time to read Michael Lind’s Land of Promise (I had just finished Peter Thiel’s Zero to One). Though with the subtitle “An Economic History of the United States,” it’s not a dispassionate, or frankly scholarly, take. Lind marshals a great deal of evidence, but it’s in the service of promoting a Hamiltonian or “developmentalist” view of American history, as opposed to a Jeffersonian or “producerist” perspective.

As such, Land of Promise steps into a debate that goes back to the early days of the republic, though modern interpretations are colored by own peculiar perspectives. One of the major problems with this debate is that it transcends contemporary political alignments. Today Lind is broadly to the Left (he was originally a neoconservative), but he stands strongly against the sort of arguments promoted by Matt Stoller in How Democrats Killed Their Populist Soul. Stoller is an heir to the populist tradition in the Democratic party which goes back to Thomas Jefferson, but famously crystalized under Andrew Jackson. In contrast, Michae Lind and the developmentalists are heirs to Henry Clay’s American System.

In What Hath God Wrought Daniel Walker Howe suggests that though Jacksonian populism was politically ascendant in the first half of the 19th century, with the battle over the Second Bank of the United States symbolic of the reputation of Alexander Hamilton’s vision, ultimately Hamilton and Clay’s ideas ultimately won the day. As Lind and others have pointed out Abraham Lincoln was explicitly an heir of Henry Clay, and the high-tariff Republican party of the 19th and early 20th century maintained the germ of developmentalism, even during the height of Gilded Age laissez-faire.

The “problem” is that today these differences between developmentalists and producerists are hard to map onto modern configurations, though the impulses remain with us. The post-World War II American consensus favored a gradual deemphasize on industrial policy and free trade, in line with producerist thinking, but also public investment in national projects, such as the interstate highway system or the internet, in line with developmentalist thinking.

I haven’t finished  Land of Promise, but it was written in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, and before the chaotic Trump revolution of 2016. Lind’s argument seems to be that government and large private actors should act in partnership, with the former restraining the worst impulses of the latter. In ways the method here is not that different from what “business Republicans”/”donor class Republicans” would prefer. In contrast, someone like Matt Stoller is suspicious of bigness, oligopoly, and concentration of power, in classic Jeffersonian fashion. In this manner he actually shares a rhetorical pose with some populist conservatives.

As a modern person, I don’t know where I fall. The America of my youth, the Reagan-Clinton era, was dominated by a Jeffersonian-producerist rhetoric, if not always action. On the other hand, history generally suggests to me that a Hamiltonian-developmentalist paradigm is friendly to the facts of how the world is, as opposed to how it should be.

Three books to understand the “Dark Matter” of American History

Grand theories of history often have less utility than the claims they make for themselves. Marxism is a classic example.

But that does not mean that theories of history are useless. And arguably, Marxism is a classic example in this case too. Material forces and class conflicts can’t explain all of history, but they do explain some of history. Chris Wickham’s magisterial Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800 suffers from its excessive materialist and economistic thesis, but it also benefits from this perspective, because it captures part of the answer.

Moderation in all things, and due consideration to the importance of viewpoints in coloring perceptions, are the keys to comprehension in my opinion..

Today in some quarters it is fashionable to reduce all of history to the interplay between white supremacy and nonwhite peoples, who are depicted implicitly as nearly supine “noble savages,” existing in an Edenic state of nature before the intrusion of European peoples. This is a silly viewpoint from a scholarly perspective, and some of the ideological implications are ones which I object to most strongly.

And yet that begs the question, how does one understand the forces of history? In the American context, I think it is critical to understand the elementary regional folkways which congealed into these United States, and whose “cultural DNA” echoes down through the generations. Much of this is implicit and invisible culture because it is the culture of white English -speaking peoples of British provenance (though not all were Anglo, such as the French Canadians or Hispanos of the southwest).

Recently, Colin Woodward’s American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America is the best example of this sort of work, which attempts to trace the historical dark matter the skeleton beneath the flesh. A more scholarly and narrow treatment can be found in David Hackett Fisher’s expansive Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America. Finally, perhaps the most underrated and overlooked offering in this genre is Kevin Phillips’ The Cousins’ Wars: Religion, Politics, Civil Warfare, And The Triumph Of Anglo-America.

While Woodward focuses on all of North America, and Fisher more narrowly on the four folkways which extend from New England to the Deep South, Phillips’ integrates an American history with a broader narrative that shows the connections to events and processes occurring in the British Isles, and in particular England. The peculiarities of New England culture and economics, and their love-hate relationship to the British elites of the late 18th and 19th century, are critical pieces of the puzzle in explaining how the United States diverged from the United Kingdom, and, how the United Kingdom diverged from the United States.

If an understanding of population genetics allows one to decompose evolution and broadly biological phenomena into tractable analytic units, so an understanding of the elementary units of American culture, and their historical antecedents, shines a whole new light upon contemporary developments.