Razib Khan One-stop-shopping for all of my content

December 14, 2017

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.

September 18, 2017

Black ancestry in white Americans of colonial background

Filed under: Admixture,American History,History,passing,slavery — Razib Khan @ 9:00 pm

I stumbled upon striking photographs of “white slaves” while reading The United States of the United Races: A Utopian History of Racial Mixing. The backstory here is that in the 19th century abolitionists realized that Northerners might be more horrified as to the nature of slavery if they could find children of mostly white ancestry, who nevertheless were born to slave mothers (and therefore were slaves themselves). So they found some children who had either been freed, or been emancipated, and dressed them up in more formal attire (a few more visibly black children were presented for contrast).

This illustrates that the media and elites have been using this ploy for a long time. I am talking about the Afghan girl photograph, or the foregrounding of blonde and blue-eyed Yezidi children. Recently I expressed some irritation on Twitter when there was a prominent photograph of a hazel-eyed Rohingya child refugee being passed around. Something like 1 in 500 people in that region of the world has hazel eyes! That couldn’t be a coincidence. Race matters when it comes to compassion.

But this post isn’t about that particular issue…rather, the images of enslaved white children brought me back to a tendency I’ve seen and wondered about: the old stock white Americans whose DNA results suggest ~1% or less Sub-Saharan ancestry. These are not uncommon, and I’ve looked at several of them (raw data). I’m pretty sure the vast majority at the 0.5% or more threshold are true positives, and probably many a bit below this (to my experience people from England and Ireland don’t get 0.3% African “noise” estimates with the modern high-density marker sets).

According to 23andMe’s database about 1 out of 10 white Southerners has African ancestry at the 1% threshold. It would be even more if you dropped to closer to 0.5%. And the DNA ancestry here understates the extent of what was going on: at about 10 generations back you are about 50% likely to inherit zero blocks of genomic ancestry from a given ancestor (assuming no inbreeding in the pedigree obviously). And this is exactly when a lot of the ancestry that is being detected seems to have “entered” the white population. In other words, for every person who is 1% African and 99% white American, they have a sibling who is 0% African and 100% white American, even though genealogically they share the same ancestors. Dropping the threshold to closer to 0.3%, and considering that even in the South there was migration from the North, and to a lesser extent Europe, after the Civil War, I wouldn’t be surprised models if admixture inferred from the distributions we see indicate that over half the lowland Southern white population likely had genealogical descent from a black slave.

This all comes to mind because there aren’t too many records of people “passing” during this period. Those who deal in genealogy and encounter these cases of low fractions, which are nevertheless likely not false positives, almost never find a “paper trail” when they go look. And they look really hard.

The reason is obvious in the context of American history. Thomas Jefferson’s slave Sally Hemings had three one white grandparents and one African slave grandparent. Several of her children are recorded to have been totally European in an appearance, and all except one passed into the white population (the two eldest married well into affluent white families in Washington D.C.). Passing as white was a way to escape the debilities of black status in the United States.

That being said, I think our Whig conception of the progressive nature of history sometimes misleads us in forgetting that the dynamics of race relations has had its ups and downs several times in the last few centuries in North America. If you read Daniel Walker Howe’s excellent What Hath God Wrought you observe that racial beliefs about the necessity and institutionalization of white supremacy in the early American republic evolved over time. Though the early republic would never be judged racially enlightened by modern lights, it was certainly far less explicitly racially conscious than what was the norm in the decades before the Civil War.

In particular, the rise of democratic populism during the tenure of Andrew Jackson was connected with much more muscular racial nationalism. To utilize a framework emphasized by David Cannadine in Ornamentalism, colonialism and Western civilization during the 19th and early 20th centuries can be viewed through the lens of race and class. Though the economic inequalities of American society persisted through the 19th century, men such as Andrew Jackson affected a more populist and rough-hewn persona than the aristocratic presidents of the early 19th century.* The white man’s republic had a leveling effect on the nature of elite culture.

But the attitudes toward racial segregation and mixing took decades to harden. Martin van Buren’s vice president, Richard Mentor Johnson, was well known to have had a common-law wife, Julia Chinn, who was a slave. He recognized his two daughters by her. He was vice president from 1837-1841 in the more racist of the two American political parties of the time. It is hard to imagine this being a viable “lifestyle” choice for someone of this prominence in later decades (after Julia Chinn’s death Johnson continued to enter into relationships with slaves).

Walter F. White, a black leader of the NAACP

Which brings us back to what was happening in the decades around 1800. Racism was a fact of life, necessitating the need for passing. But, beliefs about racial purity and the one drop rule had not hardened, so it would not be surprising to me that it was much easier for slave or ex-slave with mostly European ancestry to change their identity. Perhaps white Americans of that period were simply less vigilant about someone’s background because they were genuinely less concerned about the possibility that their partner may have had some black ancestry, so long as they looked white.

As the databases grow larger we’ll get a better sense of the demographic and genealogical dynamics. My suspicion is that we’ll see that there wasn’t much diminishment of gene flow into the black-identified community over the past 200 years, as much as the fact that hypo-descent, the one-drop rule, became so powerful in the between 1850 and 1950 that we can confirm that passing decline during this period, before rising again in the 1960s as whites became less vigilant due to decreased racism.

* As a middle class New Englander John Adams obviously was no aristocrat, but he was no populist either.

January 27, 2011

American history in broad strokes

A comment below inquired about “good books” on American history. Unfortunately I don’t know as much about American history as I do about Roman or Chinese history. But over the years there have been several books which I find to have been very value-add in terms of understanding where we are now. In other words, these are works which operate with a broader theoretical framework, and aren’t just a telescope putting a spotlight on a sequence of facts.

Albion’s Seed. I read this in 2004, and it was a page turner.

The Cousins’ Wars. I had thought of Kevin Phillips as a political writer, but this was a very engaging and deep cultural history. My prejudice resulted in my not reading this until 2009.

What Hath God Wrought. This book focuses on the resistance of the Whigs and Greater New England to the cultural ascendancy of the Democrats and their “big-tent” coalition which included most of the South, the Mid-Atlantic, and much of the “Lower North” (e.g., the “butternut” regions of the Midwest settled from the Border South).

The Rise of American Democracy. This is a good compliment to the previous book, in that it takes the “other side,” that of the Democrats. In many ways this is the heir to Arthur Schlesinger’s Age of Jackson.

Throes of Democracy. A somewhat “chattier” book than the previous ones, it is still an informative read. It covers a period of history with the Civil War as its hinge, and so gives one the tail end of the Age of Sectionalism.

Freedom Just Around the Corner. By the same author, but covering a period of history overlapping more with Albion’s Seed.

The Age of Lincoln. This is not a “Civil War book.” It is of broader scope, though since the the war is right in the middle of the period which the book covers it gets some treatment. I’d judge this the “easiest” read so far of the list.

Replenishing the Earth. This is about the Anglo world more generally, but it is nice to plug in America into a more general framework. North America is not sui generis.

The English Civil War. This is obviously not focused on America, but it is a nice complement to Albion’s Seed, as it shows the very deep roots of the division between two of America’s folkways. The Cousins’ Wars serves as a bridge between the two, shifting as it does between both shores of the Atlantic.

I’m game for recommendations! I had a relatively traditional education in American history, and did very well in my advanced courses, but I knew very little before I read books like this.

January 26, 2011

The American historical “dark matter”

Filed under: American History — Razib Khan @ 10:46 pm

1936 presidential election, blue = F.D.R.

Walter Russell Mead has a fascinating blog post up, The Birth of the Blues. In it, he traces the roots of modern American “Blue-state” liberalism back to the Puritans, the Yankees of New England. This is a plausible argument. I believe that many social-political coalitions and configurations in contemporary America do have deep historical roots. But assertions and models must be tested. It is for example absolutely correct that early New England was the redoubt of American statism. First the Federalists, and then later to a lesser extent the Whigs, took refuge in New England during the long phase of anti-government Democratic ascendancy which led up to the presidency of Abraham Lincoln. But New England statism has its limits; the map above shows that it is in Greater New England that resistence to FDR seems to have been deepest. I don’t necessarily chalk this up to “flinty Yankee” anti-government sentiment. Rather, I think we need to consider that the ideological content of social-political coalitions and configurations sometimes matter less than long persistent affinities across cultural networks and domains.

Very few Americans for example are aware today that in 1800 New England was the region with the strongest adherence in the United States to orthodox Protestant Christianity. In contrast, Deism was firmly rooted among the Southern planter aristocracy. As late as 1850, even after the Second Great Awakening transformed the religious landscape of the South, the conservative Carolina aristocrat John C. Calhoun remained a Unitarian. And it was in the South than support for Revolutionary France ran strongest, while New England favored the United Kingdom and its allies. I suspect most modern Americans would be taken aback by such affinities simply based on the substance of what New England and the American South represent in terms of ideology at any given moment.

Until a few years ago I was very ignorant of American history. And therefore I was totally innocent of many important patterns which span the generations in our nation. Scholars such as Walter Russell Mead would have impressed me with their erudition, but I didn’t have the data base to evaluate the plausibility of their claims. In everyday discourse we often bandy about history learned when we were teenagers as if they can serve as robust frames for the sorts of inferences we make. Alas, they can not. There is no substitute for genuine knowledge. Albion’s Seed is a good start, but many accessible books which cover the first period of American sectionalism are filled with much relevant insight.

January 6, 2011

The empires of American English

Filed under: American History,Culture,Greater New England,History — Razib Khan @ 1:03 am

Over the past few days a website which maps American English dialects has gone around the blogs (I found it via Kevin Zelnio). Michelle has some suggestions for improvements of the map in Ohio. Here’s a cropped and resized dialect map:

One thing that immediately stood out is the latitudinal banded pattern of the dialects. They seem to follow migrations from the east coast inland, and reflect sectional divisions which go back to the 19th century. Below is a county by county map of the results for the 1856 presidential election.


Notice how closely the votes for the Republican, John C. Frémont, align with the Northern dialects. In 1856 the Republicans lost the Lower North, and so the election, to the big-tent coalition of the Democrats who had been ascendant since Thomas Jefferson’s presidency. Frémont’s core was “Greater New England,” which consisted of New England and the regions of the North settled from New England and its outriders, such as western New York. This cultural pattern dates to the first half of the 19th century, and to some extent it has persisted even after the massive waves of German and Scandinavian immigration transformed the western portion of Greater New England so that it has one of the lowest proportions of English Americans in the United States. This may be a reflection of the “First Settler Effect” at the heart of David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed. But it also may be due to the cultural affinities between Scandinavians and Germans and Puritan Yankees (this certainly manifested in the anti-slavery sympathies of German social liberals who arrived after 1848 and the Yankees).

Here’s a map of settlement from The Expansion of New England: The Spread of New England Settlement and Institutions to the Mississippi River, 1620-1865:

Here are some books on American sectionalism and history which I’ve found very useful:

- Albion’s Seed
- What Hath God Wrought
- The Rise of American Democracy
- Clash of Extremes
- The Cousins’ Wars
- The Age of Lincoln
- Throes of Democracy
- American Colonies
- The Scotch-Irish

Any good books on the topic you’ve read?

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