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October 28, 2018

The shadow of culture persists

Filed under: Albion's Seed,American historical "dark matter",American History — Razib Khan @ 12:40 pm

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).

Going back to the Upper Midwest, it is important to recall that this was once termed  the “Yankee Empire”. Before 1850 the whites of New England were the most fecund subculture in the United States, and they overflowed to upstate New York, and then the northern swath of Ohio, Illinois, as well as dominated Michigan and the Upper Midwest.

Today the Upper Midwest states of Minnesota and Wisconsin are among the least “Anglo-American” predominantly white states because of the high fraction of Northern Europeans. The rise of socialist politics and the persistence of German-speaking communities deep into the 20th century attest to this density of immigrant ethnicities. But, there were cultural affinities between the natives and the immigrant groups, in particular, Protestant Germans and Scandinavians and Yankees. Unlike in old New England, the developers of the Yankee Empire welcomed migration to settle the farms of the Midwest. Though a plain economistic reading works (there was a deficit of labor and surplus of land), I suspect that conflicts between Irish Catholics and Yankees in New England, as opposed to Scandinavians and Germans (many of whom were Catholics) and older Yankees in the Midwest, were functions of contrasts in complementarity and cultural affinity.

An opposing case to Northern European complementary with the ethos of the Yankee Midwest is that of Germans (and Swedes and Czechs) in Texas. These immigrant groups were settled in the uplands of central Texas because these were the least fertile lands. In short, the white Anglo-Texans often cheated the European ethnics because they could. These Northern European Texan groups were much of the source for the progressive and Left-wing populist tradition in the politics of this state in the 20th century. But over time they have by and large assimilated to white Anglo-Texan norms and folkways. That is, they are not much different than the descendants of white British Texans.

This goes to show you that numbers matter. Where in the Midwest the original Yankees were overwhelmed demographically, that did not happen in Texas. Where in the Midwest the Northern Europeans amplified the collective populist moralism of the Yankees, making it more institutional robust with explicit socialism, in the South the Northern Europeans were eventually absorbed into the region’s customary hierarchal individualism.

Addendum: The authors of the above paper showed that the mobility impacted blacks as well as whites, indicating that the dominant ethos had policy implications which shaped society on the macroscale.

July 5, 2018

Give me liberty or give me alternative history!

Filed under: Alternative history,American History,History — David Hume @ 9:33 pm

For Want of a Nail: If Burgoyne Had Won at Saratoga is one of the best alternative history science fiction novels written in the 20th century. It is literally encyclopedic. A fully realized alternative timeline, the novel takes the form of a narrative history!  I don’t know if one can say that the world depicted is better or worse than ours…it is simply different.

I think of it whenever I see pieces such as one in Vox, 3 reasons the American Revolution was a mistake. There are some people offended by the timing of the piece, July 3rd. And I can see that.

But what about the premise? The author makes three assertions:

  • Slavery would have ended sooner
  • The Native Americans would have done better under the British
  • The British system of parliamentary democracy with a constitutional monarchy is superior to the presidential republican one

The last point really isn’t about the American Revolution. It’s an argument about a presidential system vs. that of a constitutional monarchy. The second point seems the simplest and most straightforwardly defensible. The reality is that there is a consistent pattern of monarchs and authorities being more benevolent to marginalized subjects than those nearer to those subjects. The Spanish who settled the New World were brutal to the native peoples, and though the rulers of Spain could not ultimately stop them, it is clear that they did not condone or encourage the brutality. Similarly, the white settlers of Australia treated the native peoples brutally and genocidally, but this occurred because of the relatively free hand that the British Empire gave the white settler colonies. And finally, even in the United States, in the 19th century, the most pro-Native sentiment was often found in places like New England, where the local Native population was mostly gone due to earlier wars (during which Congregationalist ministers had justified the tossing of Indian children into rivers to drown).

Though it is likely that the Native Americans would have been marginalized and decimated by white settlers in North America no matter what timeline you look at, it seems plausible that if the American settlers had not taken over their government the British crown probably would have suppressed some of the more overt brutality. It is likely, for example, that the Cherokee would never have been relocated to Oklahoma, at great human cost.

But the phenomenon of slavery brings to mind a major issue when weighing the cost vs. benefit of American independence: as tacitly acknowledged in the Vox piece the very secession of the American colonies from the British Empire likely had an impact on the British themselves.

In Kevin Phillips’ The Cousins’ Wars: Religion, Politics, Civil Warfare, And The Triumph Of Anglo-America he points out that the removal of the American colonies (or the majority at least) in the late 18th century, and the mass exodus of the Catholic Irish in the 1840s, transformed the white population of the British Empire. In 1800 the population of England and Wales was about 10 million and the population of Ireland was 5 million. By 1900 there 30 million people living in England, and 3 million living in Ireland. In 1850 there were about 15 million people in England and 25 million people in the United States of America.

The removal of the Catholic Irish from the United Kingdom, often to the United States, shifted the cultural and ethnic balance in the United Kingdom to one where people who adhered to the established Anglican Church were numerically dominant. The United States itself when it had been the American colonies were dominated by dissenter Protestants. With the Second Great Awakening in the early 19th century, only a small minority of the population was affiliated with the Episcopal Church. Arguably the only part of the British Empire which could ever compete with the metropole as producers of manufactured goods would have been the New England colonies and the northern Mid-Atlantic region. The American exit probably had fortuitous long-term consequences for British cohesion and singular purpose in terms of imperial policy.

Overall I think considering the morality of the American Revolution is a good thing. In the year 2000, the film The Patriot depicted the British as proto-Nazis, committing heinous acts against the American populace. One reason that this was not plausible is that a substantial minority of the American population was pro-British, and a large number were ambivalent or neutral. By all estimates, the hardcore revolutionaries were a minority, though this varied by region and period (e.g., New England was a hotbed of revolt, while New York City and much of the Mid-Atlantic remained loyalist). And the reality is that the British treated white Americans colonials with kid gloves in part because those American colonials were seen as part of the British people in a way that nonwhites never were. The issue for the Americans is that the metropole did not see them as exact equals.

I was taught history in the United States, and so it was written and presented in a way which did depict the British as villains who were imposing unjust demands on the American colonists. As I got older I realized that though the revolutionaries had cause to be angry, the British also had a rationale for their behavior. 1776 was not 1986.

But even aside from that, the Vox piece suffers from not acknowledging the fact that history is nonlinear and the knock-on effects of a British victory may have been much more drastic and unpredictable than the movement of a few parameters here and there (e.g., slavery abolished in the USA in 1830 rather than 1860). Jay Winik’s The Great Upheaval documents just how radical the American regime was in its time. The American republic was an exotic and strange experiment and served as a model and beacon. It is quite possible that without its model of revolutionary success the French Revolution may never have occurred. As a conservative, I think that would be a good thing, but I’m not sure many progressives would agree.

Additionally, the democratic republican model of government was shown to work in the modern world at large political scale by the United States. Most Europeans were skeptical of its feasibility, as ancient republics and democracies had never been able to sustain themselves beyond a certain size. And, unlike most every other nation at the time the United States also had a federal government which eschewed the mixing of religion and state, so that the republic was not sanctified by a divine or supernatural principle.

As an exercise in historical analysis, or entertaining alternative history, wondering about the consequences of a British victory over the rebels in the war in the American colonies is interesting, and possibly important. But I’m not sure there are truly deep moral lessons across the full arc of history, because the success of the rebellion itself had consequences far outside of the American colonies.

July 4, 2018

American folkways & American pedigrees

Filed under: American History,Genealogy,Genetics,History — Razib Khan @ 11:35 am
St. Augustine Historic district

Over ten thousand years after the first Americans settled the New World, from the Arctic to Patagonia, a new people arrived on these shores. From “deep history” to colonial history. Before Plymouth, before Jamestown, even before Santa Fe, there was St. Augustine, facing the Atlantic on the Florida coast. Occupied continuously since 1565, St. Augustine is the oldest current city in the continental United States.

This small and obscure town has witnessed massive culture, political, and demographic changes wrought over the continent of North America across 450 years from the fringes. Its existence reflects a tentative and tenuous phase in the exploration of North America by Europeans. Though inauspicious, the fact that St. Augustine sustained itself on the edge of North America for centuries is a testament to something different that was looming on the horizon.

Sir Walter Raleigh

Of course the dominant culture and people in the continental United States by 1800 was not that of the Spaniards of Florida or New Mexico. Rather, it was from the British Isles. The two primary early zones of British settlement were in the Chesapeake and Massachusetts Bay areas. These were the core regions around which the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and Commonwealth of Virginia developed.

By the last quarter of the 18th century the entire eastern seaboard of North America was dominated by settler colonies of diverse European provenance.

In New England, Massachusetts had been joined by colonies which were offshoots in various ways from the founding stock that coalesced around Boston. The 50,000 or so English settlers of the middle of the 17th century were now 750,000 New Englanders, due to natural increase driven by the fecundity of its people. Similarly, to the north in Canada the original small number of French who settled on the margins of the vast coniferous forests in search of furs and other riches had flourished and grown into a fully-fledged society, which even maintained itself in the face of British conquest and domination, strong their Roman Catholicism and fiercely devoted to their language.

In Virginia the younger sons of English nobility and the descendants of indentured servants had recreated an aristocratic society characterized by hierarchy and inequality typical of southern England on American shores. While the settlers of New England brought their Reformed Calvinist faith and its sectarian offshoots to the New World, seeking freedom to worship as they wished, the grandees of the Tidewater adhered nominally to the Anglican Church, and focused their energies on increasing their wealth and prestige. The kingdom which they wished to inherit was in this world, not the next!

Slaves cultivating tobacco in Virginia

Much of the wealth of the kingdom which the planters were building unfortunately consisted of slaves. The ancestors of black Americans arrived mostly in the 17th and 18th centuries. Though importation of slaves was legal almost into the 19th century, the reality is that the vast majority of the ancestors of black Americans date to a far earlier period. Because slave fertility was above replacement, the American trade in humans quickly become independent of international sources. The first person killed in the Boston Massacre was Crispus Attucks, a man of African and Native American ancestry, who was as American as American can be.

Along with Puritans, and the Southern planters and the slaves, on the eve of the Founding of the United States of America numerous other societies had developed organically from very different seeds. Dutch New Amsterdam had become New York by the Revolution, but the entrepreneurial spirit of the Dutch republic persisted, as the great port remained an ethnic melange driven by commerce, not the whims of aristocrats or the will of God. Further south, the great city of Philadelphia was founded by industrious English Quakers, but these were joined by German Protestants and people from Ulster and the border region between Scotland and England, the “Scots-Irish.”

Wyckoff House in Brooklyn dates to the Dutch period

Though Philadelphia was the destination for the hundreds of thousands of Scots-Irish fleeing deprivation in their homeland, they did not tarry long, pushing deep into the back-country of Pennsylvania, and then migrating south along the ridges of the Appalachians. Where planter class established an aristocratic society of elites whose privileges were built on the backs of poor whites and black slaves, the rugged uplands of the vast southern stretches of the English colonies were populated by an individualistic and egalitarian people whose wealth was measured in their pride.

President Andrew Jackson, the son of Ulster migrants

These were the people caught up in the American Revolution, on both sides, rebel and loyalist. Despite their Northern European origins, with the exception of the black slaves, they were still a diverse motley. Thirteen separate and distinct colonies with many local subcultures. Not a single nation.

There were numerous waves of people who arrived after the British colonies became the United States of America. Irish and Germans in the decades before the Civil War transformed the culture of the United States of America, with their Catholicism and their beer, not to mention triggering an anti-immigrant populist movement which has resonances down to the present day.

After the traumatic conflict between the North and South, immigrants arrived in large numbers as industry began to demand labor in the cities and the vast open expanses of West needed to be settled. Scandinavians, Southern and Eastern Europeans in the decades around 1900 congregated in the cities of the East and Midwest and worked in factories and planted farms deep on the Great Plains. From the Far East there even arrived Chinese to build the railroads and operate the mines across the Pacific coast. The racial resentment of these Chinese led to explicit bans on immigration from Asian countries for decades.

Despite all this immigration, even as late as 1990 50% of the ancestry of the population of the United States of America was derived from those who were present and counted by the Census of 1790.

Though there are numerous interpretations and debates about American history, one thing that is clear is that it is a history of which we have copious records and documentation. The Founding Fathers are not dead names, but people who come alive in their correspondence. By the middle of the 19th century the immigrants who came to these shores are also visible in all the realism of their features through the magic of photography. Documents at Ellis Island mean that genealogical detective work can yield insights which illuminate the understanding of many a family’s past.

Irish immigrants

And yet genetics can shed light on historical patterns. Unlike written text genetics is neutral. It does not present a particular narrative or agenda. Though the tale genetics tells is that of the winners, there is no hiding this truth. In genetics the future belongs to those who procreate, and that is the foundation on which its logic is built.

Modern genetic technology surveying hundreds of thousands of markers in the human genome allow researchers to reconstruct pedigrees, family trees, and mark the history of peoples through their descent. While ancestry tests usually focus on deep history and ancient evolutionary and population events, modern genomic techniques allow for the exploration of events even within the last few hundred years.

Several years ago the genetics arm of Ancestry looked in their database, and selected 770,000 individuals of American heritage to analyze.

By surveying the patterns and clusters of relatedness, the researchers constructed a map which shows that most genetic variation in the United States is between the north and the south. That is, people from New England tend to be more different from people from the Deep South, than they are from those from neighboring states. In fact, the largest component of variation tracks geography very well, from northern New England, down to the Mid-Atlantic, then to the South.

The second component of variation tracks east to west, the direction of the migration of settlers. Very few people left Massachusetts for Mississippi. Many did leave Massachusetts for Michigan.

Those who pulled up stakes were not always the same sort of people who stayed home. So over time Westerners became somewhat distinct from Easterners. Those who left married others who left. Those who stayed continued to marry others who stayed.

Citation: Clustering of 770,000 genomes reveals post-colonial population structure of North America
And yet the reality is that different regions of the West were settled from different regions of the East.

The genetic clusters present some interesting results which are comprehensible only through the lens of history. Hawaii and Utah are two states which are a bit skewed to the north. But as it happens these are states which were heavily settled by New England Yankees. In contrast, though states such as California might be dominated by cosmopolitan cities such as San Francisco and Los Angeles, in the hinterland are many people whose roots are in the uplands of the South. Scots-Irish who traveled west in search of greener pastures, who brought their music, twang, and kinfolk.

Geographic patterns of genetic clusters

While Indiana was settled mostly from the South, there were far more Yankees who founded towns in Michigan and Wisconsin. Meanwhile, Ohio and Illinois were both divided between a northern portion settled from New England, and a southern expanse dominated by Scots-Irish “Butternuts.”

All this seems clear in the genetic results. Now we can quantify the differences. Illinois is tilted a bit to the northern migrants. Ohio somewhat to the southern ones. Historical debates can be resolved through genetic analyses!

Over the next few years tens of millions of more Americans will obtain direct to consumer genetic tests. The database will grow larger and larger. Many demographic questions related to the history of this country will not need to be explored through reconstruction of texts and laborious perusal of letters and court documents. Rather, scientists will simply scan through the pedigrees they construct from human genomes, and synthesize their results with the rich assortment of resources already available from the fields of genealogy and history.

A nation of immigrants and settlers will become an open book to all who wish to read their incredible stories.

Interested in learning where your ancestors came from? Check out Regional Ancestry by Insitome to discover various regional migration stories and more!


American folkways & American pedigrees was originally published in Insitome on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

December 28, 2017

Against Thomas Jefferson!

Filed under: American History — Razib Khan @ 11:01 pm

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.

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.

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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