Over my lifetime in the United States there has been a shift toward a set of values which emphasize diversity, understood as being expressed along a few particular parameters: racial, sexual and ethnic. Part of the project is obviously concrete: increased representation of various segments within American society at the commanding heights of institutions and in positions to operate levers of power. But part of the project is intellectual and didactic. In the domain of history the past is reshaped and mined to create myths which serve as foundations for our understanding of how we got here, and why we value what we value. It is true that some reject the Founding Fathers as “Dead White Males,” and repudiate the history of the United States, and damn America. But others see in aspects of the founding project, and in the lives of the founders of the American republic, the roots of the modern liberal democratic order. Even the progenitors of multiculturalism. I would say that the latter position, of reappropriation and reinterpretation, is the dominant mode. But it is clearly myth-making. Those who repudiate the foundation of the American republic as a project of white supremacy, Eurocentrism, and ethnocentrism, have a great deal of reality to draw upon. The personal correspondence of men who were self-identified and perceived radical liberals for their time, such as Thomas Jefferson, attest to this reality.
And yet one can go too far in emphasizing this component of 18th century America. One hundred years ago, in 1910, the Zeitgeist was very different from that of today. The American founding was seen as a project of the unfolding arc of evolution, the fruition of the genius of the Nordic race. In this reading America was a fundamentally white Protestant republic rooted in the supremacy and domination of the white race over the colored races. Again, this goes too far, and reframes the late 18th century American elite as proponents of a scientific view of racial competition which derives in part from a post-Origin of Species inflected perception of the nature of things, and the rising tide of white supremacy which peaked in the years after 1900 with the apogee of colonialism. Certainly the American founders would have been understood to be racist today, but as outlined in works such as What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848, the reality is that an explicitly race-based republic crystallized in the first half the 19th century in North America with the rise of democratic populism. As states removed property qualifications for voting, they enacted racial bars which had not existed prior. It is an interesting comment on the complexity of changing norms in this period that Martin van Buren’s vice president, Richard Mentor Johnson, was known to have had a common-in-law wife who was mixed-race (and two daughters by her whom he acknowledged). Van Buren’s Democratic party was the primary driver of “white male suffrage,” which expanded voting rights to those males who were without means, but barred voting rights in many states from non-whites. It helped transform the self-conception of the American republic to that of the American democracy. These two dynamics, the broadening of suffrage to most American males, combined with a more explicit and legally sanctioned commitment to white supremacy, causes interpretive tensions for 20th century American liberal historians. This seems clear in works such as Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s The Age of Jackson, which attempted to trace American liberalism back to this period. So it is somewhat uncomfortable for him that it was among some of the older aristocratic conservative Federalists that one could find objection to a binary republic where color was one’s passport to equality. This is not because the conservatives favored racial equality as such, but rather preferred a more complex hierarchy and a set of values which included race, class, education and breeding, as the judge of a man. Such old republic conservatives may not have accepted a black man as an equal on the grounds of race, but they may not have acceded to the contention that all white men were superior in nature to all black men. They would not have necessarily fallen under the class of whites which Malcolm X referred to in regards to their attitudes toward blacks with education. David Cannadine covers the same attitude on race among the British masses in Ornamentalism, but in this instance the aristocracy managed to retain more cultural influence, and race did not overwhelm class. The maharajahs of India may have been black, but they were still aristocrats who were of a particular elevated station which demanded respect, if not necessarily deference.
All this is to highlight the fact that what we perceive of history is filtered through the light of our normative frameworks, and in the process we miss much of what once was. Modern perceptions of white American racism are so strong that I suspect Richard Mentor Johnson’s private life would surprise us. As would the fact that Herbert Hoover’s vice president was nearly half Native American in ancestry. This is the sort of thing which I refer to as the “dark matter” or “dark history,” dynamics and phenomena which echo down to our age, but are forgotten because of the presuppositions which we promote today because of ideological preferences.* In the context of the United States of America one of the most important and overlooked threads of dark history are the separate Anglo-Saxon streams of settlement in the American colonies prior to independence. As outlined in Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America they were the Puritans of New England, the southwest British gentry and their retainers in the lowland South, the Scots-Irish in the American uplands, and finally, the polyglot mix of Midlanders and other Europeans in the Middle Colonies. The thesis is that these patterns can explain much of the details of American history after the Revolution, and down to the present day. I have suggested that differences between Mormon and Southern white political conservatism can be traced back to different attitudes toward communitarianism on the part of New Englanders and Southerners. Mormonism was at its root a Yankee religion, with most of its early acolytes and followers derived from New England or Greater New England (western New York and the Western Reserve of Ohio).
This sort of detail of distinction is lost in our discussion of American ethnicity. The idea that whites, or at least “non-ethnic” whites, “have no culture,” gets at the root of it. What is assumed, what is background, what is default, is not deemed worthy of history. When it comes to Anglo history and culture the commanding heights remain of interest, William Shakespeare, the King James Bible, the Magna Carta, etc. But much of the more mundane detail is of little general interest compared to the more salient identities of race, religion, and such. I believe this causes real pragmatic problems. White Angl-Americans from the North may find Southern whites of an alien kind, lacking community spirit, belligerent, but they have no essentialist explanation which can explain this as a product of a different historical experience, because this aspect is not emphasized in our minds. But the greater propensity to violence by Southern whites was noted by Northerners as far back as the 1840 Census, where the data were fertile fields from which Northern polemicists drew in frame their attacks on the morals and character of the Southern states. Northern whites may seem to be liberals driven to bizarre and irrational flights of fancy to Southerners, but this is nothing new, as far back as the early 19th century Southern observers noted the Northern fascination with “-isms.” Many of the deep chasms in American history go far back indeed, and impact those of us whose families arrived far later. As a South Asian whose formative understanding of American history was derived from a Northern perspective, it is peculiar to talk to South Asians who grew up in the Deep South who have a more “nuanced” view of the Civil War (taking my hat off of objectivity, the descendants of those who arrived in the South after the Civil War, and are not black, do not always understand that the Southerners were traitors, and that the side wearing blue were the Good Guys).
But why be Americo-centric? We can widen the canvass out far more. America was not the only settler society. Canada, Australia and New Zealand were also settled by British. South Africa and the highlands of Kenya were also settled by the British. The differences and similarities between the British settler societies can tell us a great deal about the history of the English-speaking people, and therefore the history of the world up to this point. That is the subject matter of Replenishing the Earth: The Settler Revolution and the Rise of the Anglo-World, 1783-1939. This is a history of migration, of migrants, and of the rise of the Anglo-Saxon civilization. Numerically in 1780 there were 12 million English speakers. In 1930 there were 200 million! Obviously not all of that was due to demographic growth, but much of it was. In New England we know that the vast majority of the ancestry of the hundreds of thousands who were alive on the eve of the Revolutionary War were descended from the 20,000 or so who arrived in the 1630s. The fecundity of New Englanders was legendary in the 19th century, as they spilled out of the east and overran western New York, and later the Great Lakes region. This was the long boom of the Anglo peoples. But it was also the era of the busts. And it was the era of unstable equilibria.
The core thesis of Replenishing the Earth is that the rise of the Anglo societies has been characterized by a series of booms, busts, and often-times recoveries from those busts as regions and populations settle into a quiescent phase. In this the author, James Belich, suggests that the Anglo people prefigure the dynamics which are operative in the world today, the post-Malthusian reality of presumed & expected economic growth, of sunny futures, and a Whiggish sense of the possibilities of what could be, what will be. He describes nothing less than a revolution of imagination, which subsequently drove the material changes we see around us.
A bigger context which hangs over this are debates about the economic lift-off (sometimes termed the “Industrial Revolution”) which has characterized much of the world over the past 200 years. The noncontroversial part is this: some societies over the last 200 years have developed to the point where they are not characterized by uniform subsistence, and have a modicum of mass affluence. Before 1800 no society had mass affluence, and all societies were Malthusian. Yes, wealthy people existed, but generally they lived off the labor and output of the productive masses, who managed to barely get by. In Replenishing the Earth the author notes that some economic historians believe that all of Europe as a whole engaged in this lift-off simultaneously, while others suggest that Britain was first, with Belgium second. He favors the idea that Britain was first, and that other European societies were later additions to the club of wealthy nations. Like Greg Clark in A Farewell to Alms James Belich indicates that there was something special about Britain, and England in particular, and like Clark he rejects purely institutional explanations. Additionally, he also seems skeptical of the idea that England’s position near North America (resources and land) along with its strategic coal reserves can be the total explanation for its lift-off. Though the description of the phenomena which led to the Anglo-world is crisp, a series of booms, busts and static phases in sequence, the root of the historical dynamic seems rather vague. The best I can come up with is that the English were the first society to reconceptualization the possibilities of the future, and engage in settlement activities which might seem irrational or foolhardy in the past.
The extent of the booms shocked even me, in part because I was only aware of the American experience. In Replenishing the Earth there is a distinction between incremental endogenous growth (e.g., New England in the 17th and 18th century), and explosive booms driven by exogenous migration (e.g., New England in the 1840s and 1850s). I had not thought in detail about the difference between these two, but the distinction is important in hindsight. One of the more surprising things to me about American history before the independence of the colonies and the emergence of the United States of America is that it was not always easy to draw migrants to the New World. Now, one might not be surprised during the initial decades, but throughout the 17th century the flow of migration was halting, and generally low. The massive burst into New England in the early 17th century was famously driven by religious conflict in England, as an anti-Puritan faction was ascendant. Much of the migration actually reversed with Oliver Cromwell’s victory, as many Puritans removed themselves back to the motherland, but enough remained to serve as the core of a growing set of colonies who slowly pushed themselves into the frontier through native population growth. The situation in Canada was famously more difficult, as attracting settlers was nearly impossible. Part of the reason was probably that unlike Great Britain the French banned the emigration of religious dissenters. The large enterprising French Protestant minority in the 17th century probably would have left for the New World if they had had liberty to do so, but settlement in Canada was limited to Roman Catholics. As it is, many French Protestants settled in the British colonies. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s mother was from such a French Protestant family. They had settled in Calvinist New Netherlands early on.
After independence, and to a lesser extent in the decades before independence, many immigrants did come to the United States. But note how variant the numbers were by year.
Many of these variations correlate with economic booms & booms. But one of the most fascinating hypotheses proffered in Replenishing the Earth is that migration and population growth often preceded economic booms we read about. An example of this is the California Gold Rush. The author asserts that migration had already increased in the years before, and that the resource driven attraction only emerged after the initial stream had become established. It seems here that he’s positing a sort of positive feedback loop: more people results in more opportunities and perceived opportunities. In the case of asset speculative bubbles these gains may be illusory, but when it comes to concrete natural resources the increased population naturally has a better prospect of detecting or utilizing them. Once mines are discovered a chain reaction can occur whereby word gets back, and a massive wave of migration ensues. But even here quite often the migration will continue after resource exhaustion. California may have run out of gold, but its climate and population was such that other economic activities filled the vacuum. California firms raised fruit and created a demand for orange juice in the rest of the United States once transportation and preservation were up to snuff through a proactive marketing campaign.
It is here that the rise of an Anglo international order is critical. The colonies in North America, Australia, New Zealand, and lesser extent South Africa, were dependent on the motherland to buffer them during the collapse, and support their faltering economies through export oriented growth. The United States was an empire in itself, so that California could look to New York and the east as its own motherland. There is a fair amount of economic literature that in reality colonies do not usually pay for the home country. Rather, quite often the colonials depend on the military power, and economic demand pull, of the motherland. Prominent colonial lobbies emerge and engage in an ideological, nationalistic, appeal to the tax-payers of the motherland. It is often said that much foreign aid today is a transfer from the middle classes of developed nations to the elites of developing nations, and in some ways this is analogous to what is argued for colonies. Speculators, promoters, and incipient elites are strongly invested in as much transfer of wealth from the mature motherland to the frontier. During the first age of globalization around 1900 the United States was a debtor nation which absorbed a great deal of cash from the United Kingdom. This illustrates that even despite the fact that the USA was no colony, ties and affinities of nationality, combined with the idea of explosive returns during boom times, attracted British investors. Apparently the econometric literature indicates that in fact British investors would have done better investing in the home country, rather than in the USA or the colonies.
In Replenishing the Earth the argument is repeatedly made that these national affinities, ramping up of pre-industrial technologies and industrialization, and a particular shift toward an expansive, dominionist ideology, all aligned together to produce an Anglo breakout. Other nations had had extensive colonies, and even non-trivial settlement, such as Spain. But all had stabilized at a far lower, less explosive stationary state. It may be that England’s growth was a matter of happenstance, that the technological and ideological conditions were not ripe during the age of Spanish colonial expansion for them to transform their domains into anything more than a pre-modern empire, such as the Romans, Arabs, and Chinese had had. Incremental, ideologically dominant, but not explosive and revolutionary.
But revolutions come to ends. The most surprising fact I encountered in Replenishing the Earth was that in 1890 Melbourne was the second largest city in the British Empire, after London, with 500,000 people! This was at the peak of a massive speculative boom, right before a bust. Over the next 50 years Melbourne grew only another ~50% in population! During boom-times prognosticators asserted that Australia was destined to have 100 million by 1950. That New Zealand was destined to match the mother country in population within two generations. These hopes were dashed by reality. It seems clear that Australia had ecological limits which were reached, as agriculture could only be so productive in the Murray-Darling basin. Britain’s own demographic expansion abated, so it could no longer provide so many migrants. And so forth. Linear projections fail more often than not. The future is full of surprises.
For me one of the interesting points was reading about past manias and bubbles, engendered in part by more efficient information technology, expectations of constant future growth, etc. It is likely that much of the Replenishing the Earth was written years ago, but many of the English-speaking nations went through irrational property bubbles in the 2000s. The USA and Britain predictably shared home-related television shows. James Belich warns repeatedly about excessive reliance on rational choice theory, and the assumption that the market price is an accurate reflection of all information. History repeats itself over and over, the information is clear in the record, and yet human optimism overcomes. To some extent this optimism, Whiggish, may have been necessary to sustain the economic productivity growth. But in some sense it was profoundly irrational, as all of human history teaches that one can never escape the iron laws of natural constraint.** Once the first boom-bust cycle occurred, the pattern was set in motion. Fortunes were to be made and lost, and those who had relocated, migrated, and uprooted themselves, were far more likely to do so in the future, or inculcate in their offspring the ideology whereby such migration was acceptable, expected, and meritorious.
Finally, the rapid change, and the stasis, in culture, economics and political order, makes me think of biological analogs, in particular evolutionary ones. We hold it as a matter of faith that nature is real, that in some sense the laws of the cosmos are bound as one, with each specific instantiation a reflection of some underlying principle. The peculiar similarities which a macroeconomist may feel when reading R. A. Fisher’s The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection is one case. The rise and fall of frontiers, with epidemics of manias, the cycles of enthusiasm, migration, and population growth, remind one of the shape of Lotka-Volterra equation. Replenishing the Earth may be a dense work of economic and cultural history, but in some very important ways it gives us a window into general phenomena which percolate through the order of things.
* Here’s a case of inversion: in the early 20th century ideologues turned the roots of all civilizations into examples of Aryan/Nordic superiority. Today from what I can tell the mainstream sentiment is to not comment or inquire too deeply into the Afrocentrist fiction that St. Augustine, Hannibal or Cleopatra were black. A fiction which from what I can tell has spread widely within the African American community. How the pendulum has swung!
** I understand that some readers feel we are facing those laws now, fair enough. The point is that much of humanity had nearly a 200 year respite, which is not trivial.
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