It doesn't always get "better"

By Razib Khan | May 15, 2012 10:28 pm

The History News Network has a post up, Now It’s Obama Who’s Our First Gay President!, which hammers home points which I’ve been making implicitly and explicitly about historical processes, especially in the United States:

Today, I know no historian who has studied the matter and thinks Buchanan was heterosexual. Fifteen years ago, historian John Howard, author of Men Like That, a pioneering study of queer culture in Mississippi, shared with me the key documents, including Buchanan’s May 13, 1844, letter to a Mrs. Roosevelt. Describing his deteriorating social life after his great love, William Rufus King, senator from Alabama, had moved to Paris to become our ambassador to France, Buchanan wrote

This ideology of progress amounts to a chronological form of ethnocentrism. Thus chronological ethnocentrism is the belief that we now live in a better society, compared to past societies. Of course, ethnocentrism is the anthropological term for the attitude that our society is better than any other society now existing, and theirs are OK to the degree that they are like ours.

The specific aspect of James Buchanan’s sexuality is not particularly interesting to me. Rather, the bigger picture is that the social milieu of the 1850s is not totally explicable in categories which we in 2012 are capable of considering. As implied in the article this linear ascending ladder of historical progress is most clear in the area of race in the United States. Though American history books taught to elementary and secondary school children acknowledge the turmoil and shock of the Civil War, emancipation, and then Reconstruction, in general the arc of history flows from the Constitution which enshrined slavery, to the Civil Rights movement, to our modern “enlightened” era. This narrative becomes less and less adequate the further you go back in time. It is of particular curiosity, and likely no coincidence, that almost no one alive after World War II had adult memories before he “nadir of American race relations”. Because of this fact the model of eternal progress seemed eminently plausible; that was the experience of almost all Americans who could speak about this dimension of American history in a first person sense.

But this model does not explain Vice President Richard Mentor Johnson. When I first encountered this moderately obscure figure it was in the context of becoming more fully aware of the racial-populist origins of a segment of the Democratic party of the era, the ancestors of the modern Democrats. The populist Democrats succeeded in changing state laws so that property barriers to voting were removed, resulting in universal white male suffrage. A racial qualification is necessary because in some northern states the Democrats simultaneously enfranchised white males of modest means, and explicitly disenfranchised the small number of non-whites who had obtained enough property so as to vote in earlier elections. In this manner the Northern Democrats of the early 19th century were prefiguring the strategy of the Southern Democrats of the late 19th century, arguing for a solidarity of race over that of class, though in this case the Northern Democrats were genuine back-country populists who were tearing down the pretensions of the remaining Federalists to an American aristocracy of lineage, wealth, and learning. In an overwhelmingly white North race was more a symbolic issue than a genuine one.

What does this have to do with Richard Mentor Johnson? Because this politician from the Border South had had a common-law wife of mixed race, and, he acknowledged his two daughters from this relationship (one of whom was alive during his tenure as Vice President). Remember, this was the 1830s, and, this politician was from the political party most closely associated with the concept that the United States of America was fundamentally a white man’s republic, a racial nationalist vision which would bear full fruit in the early 20th century. The incongruity of this all to us today reminds us that we can’t always frame the past in current terms, but rather have to swim in the context of the times.

But all things in good measure. Consider world population estimates. Below is a log-scale plot.

There is an overall trend. But one shouldn’t ignore the deviations from the trend. The Black Death is not trivial. But to say that there is no trend is also churlish.


Comments (8)

  1. chris y

    This ideology of progress amounts to a chronological form of ethnocentrism. Thus chronological ethnocentrism is the belief that we now live in a better society, compared to past societies. Of course, ethnocentrism is the anthropological term for the attitude that our society is better than any other society now existing, and theirs are OK to the degree that they are like ours.

    Not that it’s a bad thing in itself, but this is simply redescribing the “Whig interpretation of history“, which historians reacted against in the early 20th century, and which has not been regarded as a respectable approach within that discipline, including among liberal historians, for 70 years.

    It’s great if anthropologists are arriving at the same conclusions, but one is tempted to ask, what took them so long?

  2. Chris

    Was there some plague ~500 BC responsible for the population dip?

  3. #2, i assume it was china.

  4. Onur

    What is the source of the plot?

  5. entry on historical demography in wikipedia.

  6. Onur

    Its sources as listed in Wikipedia:

    Biraben, Jean-Noel, 1980, An Essay Concerning Mankind’s Evolution, Population, Selected Papers, December, table 2.
    Durand, John D., 1974, “Historical Estimates of World Population: An Evaluation,” University of Pennsylvania, Population Center, Analytical and Technical Reports, Number 10, table 2.
    Haub, Carl, 1995, “How Many People Have Ever Lived on Earth?” Population Today, February, p. 5.
    McEvedy, Colin and Richard Jones, 1978, “Atlas of World Population History,” Facts on File, New York, pp. 342-351.
    Thomlinson, Ralph, 1975, “Demographic Problems, Controversy Over Population Control,” Second Edition, Table 1.
    United Nations (UN), 1973, The Determinants and Consequences ofPopulation Trends, Population Studies, No. 50., p.10.
    United Nations, 1999, The World at Six Billion, Table 1, “World Population From” Year 0 to Stabilization, p. 5,
    U.S. Census Bureau (USCB), 2008, “Total Midyear Population for the World: 1950-2050”, Data updated 12-15-2008,

  7. What did newspapers say about Buchanan at the time?

  8. ackbark

    The way that’s edited it looks like that second paragraph was written by Buchanan.

    The quote from Buchanan that actually comes in at that point is,

    ‘I am now “solitary and alone,” having no companion in the house with me. I have gone a wooing to several gentlemen, but have not succeeded with any one of them. I feel that it is not good for man to be alone; and should not be astonished to find myself married to some old maid who can nurse me when I am sick, provide good dinners for me when I am well, and not expect from me any very ardent or romantic affection.’


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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