Leah Boustan: What hundreds of thousands of census records can teach us about the Great Black Migration

In honor of Black History Month, we’re running a special blog series entitled, “Exploring the Black Experience.” Learn more about the Great Black Migration with this post by Leah Boustan, author of Competition in the Promised Land

BoustanIn 1920, Kernell and Royal Pleasant, two brothers aged 13 and 11, lived with their parents and younger sister Jennie in Assumption Parish, the heart of Louisiana’s sugarcane region, 80 miles west of New Orleans. The boys’ father, Thomas Pleasant, was a carpenter who reported working “by the job.” Even this middling profession placed Thomas one rung above their neighbors, most of whom were farm laborers in the sugarcane fields.

By 1940, Kernell and Royal’s lives had diverged. Kernell, the eldest brother, still lived in the same ward where he had been as a boy, following his father’s footsteps into carpentry and earning only $200 a year. Royal, although younger by two years, had moved up to Chicago, joining the millions of other southern black men and women who moved to northern cities during the twentieth century. By 1940, Royal was a college graduate and worked as a filing clerk in a municipal government office. He earned more than twice as much as his older brother, reporting $480 of annual earnings.

Although separated by region, educational status, and earnings, one feature drew the Pleasant brothers together: both Royal and Kernell lived in all-black neighborhoods in 1940. Back in Louisiana, Kernell’s closest neighbors were all still laborers in sugarcane fields. Up in Chicago, Royal, his wife Louise, and their lodger William lived down the street from railroad porters, barbers, and laborers at the stockyards. Most of their neighbors were fellow migrants, hailing from Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee.

Royal Pleasant was only one of the four million black southerners who moved North from 1940 to 1970. The Census rolls that document the Pleasant brothers’ lives offer one small glimpse into this mass movement. As it turns out, Royal’s success in the North was a highly typical migrant story.

Using newly-digitized Census records, I was able to trace nearly 250,000 black men who were living in their childhood households in 1920 to their adult location in the 1940 Census. Many of these records contained sets of brothers, one or more of whom had moved to the North. Just as Royal was earning more than double his brother’s pay, I found that the average black man who moved North or West during this early wave of the Great Black Migration earned more than twice as much as his brother(s) who remained in the South.

The bar chart shows earnings estimates of the economic return to moving to the North for both black and white migrants. The blue bars compare earnings between migrants and non-migrants in the full population, and the green bars depict the results of a similar analysis for sets of matched brothers. In both cases, I find that black migrants earned twice as much as their southern counterparts, and white migrants earning around 50 percent more (the bars are presented in log terms; 80 log points is the equivalent of around 130 percent higher earnings). Half of the nominal return to migration can be attributed to higher cost of living in northern cities, but the other half represents a real increase in purchasing power.

The goal of examining brother pairs, rather than simply comparing all migrants to all men who remained in the South, is to account for potential selection in who chooses to move. If migrants were drawn from well-off households, a portion of the estimated return to migration would reflect this positive selection. If, instead, men from poorer households were more likely to move to the North, the estimated return to migration might be too low. The similarity of the estimates suggests that southern migrants were not especially selected, either positively or negatively, a pattern that is consistent with a large mass migration.

The 1940 Census was the first to include questions about individual income levels; earlier censuses only asked about occupation. As it turns out, most of the return to migrating to the North was driven by shifts from lower-paid rural occupations into higher-paid industrial or white collar positions. It was rare for migrants to remain in the same line of work as their brothers in the South. (There are always a few exceptions; the Allison brothers, David and Winston, both worked as waiters in restaurants, but David made twice as much in Chicago as Winston did in Birmingham, Alabama).

My ability to compare men who participated in the Great Black Migration to their brothers who stayed home is only possible because of large-scale digitization projects of the historical Census records. The manuscripts were transcribed by more than 25,000 volunteers organized by FamilySearch, the genealogical arm the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  Data files were then made available to researchers through a partnership between Ancestry.com and the Minnesota Population Center. The digitized 1940 Census files include 134 million persons and 70 variables.

From the 1940 Census, we can see only one snapshot of how Royal fared in his new life in Chicago and how Kernell managed back home. As new Census waves are released to the public (72 years after the surveys were taken), we will be able to follow these men and their many counterparts forward in time. Did Kernell ever join his brother in the North? Did Royal return to Louisiana, or one of the South’s burgeoning metropolitan areas, when it became time to retire? And how did the lives of their children (if any, as neither brother yet had children in the 1940 Census) unfold in their disparate settings?

On the last question, a new paper (link here) by Trent Alexander and co-authors uses restricted-access data from the Census Bureau to follow young children living in migrant and non-migrant families in 1940 to their adult outcomes in the 2000 Census. The children of migrants enjoy modest income gains even 60 or more years after their parents first moved to the North. Just as the parental generation was able to double their income by moving North, their children continue to enjoy a 10 percent earnings boost. The Great Black Migration is not only an essential chapter in black history but is still a vital part of black economic fortunes today.

Leah Platt Boustan is professor of economics at Princeton University, and a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research. She is the author of Competition in the Promised Land: Black Migrants in Northern Cities and Labor Markets.


Exploring the Black Experience through Economics

For hundreds of years, the American and global economies have been built on the backs of Black people. In each era, new forms of marginalization—enslavement, segregation, exclusion—have been devised to limit Black economic success. Still, Black dreams and Black resilience have created space for Black people’s hard-won economic gains. As workers, scholars, migrants, and emissaries of empire, Black people have shaped the American and global economies in crucial ways.

From industrial migration to economic colonization, and from unfunded neighborhoods to elite business schools, these four books from PUP’s catalog highlight different aspects of Black Americans’ experiences at the center, the margins, and the cutting edge of the formal economy.

From 1940 to 1970, nearly four million black migrants left the American rural South to settle in the industrial cities of the North and West. Competition in the Promised Land provides a comprehensive account of the long-lasting effects of the influx of black workers on labor markets and urban space in receiving areas.

Employing historical census data and state-of-the-art econometric methods, Competition in the Promised Land revises our understanding of the Great Black Migration and its role in the transformation of American society.

In 1901, the Tuskegee Institute, founded by Booker T. Washington, sent an expedition to the German colony of Togo in West Africa, with the purpose of transforming the region into a cotton economy similar to that of the post-Reconstruction American South. Alabama in Africa explores the politics of labor, sexuality, and race behind this endeavor, and the economic, political, and intellectual links connecting Germany, Africa, and the southern United States. The cross-fertilization of histories and practices led to the emergence of a global South, reproduced social inequities on both sides of the Atlantic, and pushed the American South and the German Empire to the forefront of modern colonialism.

Tracking the intertwined histories of Europe, Africa, and the Americas at the turn of the century, Alabama in Africa shows how the politics and economics of the segregated American South significantly reshaped other areas of the world.

Baltimore was once a vibrant manufacturing town, but today, with factory closings and steady job loss since the 1970s, it is home to some of the most impoverished neighborhoods in America. The Hero’s Fight provides an intimate look at the effects of deindustrialization on the lives of Baltimore’s urban poor, and sheds critical light on the unintended consequences of welfare policy on our most vulnerable communities.

Blending compelling portraits with in-depth scholarly analysis, The Hero’s Fight explores how the welfare state contributes to the perpetuation of urban poverty in America.

For nearly three decades, English has been the lingua franca of cross-border organizations, yet studies on corporate language strategies and their importance for globalization have been scarce. In The Language of Global Success, Tsedal Neeley provides an in-depth look at a single organization—the high-tech giant Rakuten—in the five years following its English lingua franca mandate. Neeley’s behind-the-scenes account explores how language shapes the ways in which employees who work in global organizations communicate and negotiate linguistic and cultural differences.

Examining the strategic use of language by one international corporation, The Language of Global Success uncovers how all organizations might integrate language effectively to tap into the promise of globalization.

Blue: Ten Surprising Facts about the Color Blue

We all know the sky is blue, the ocean is blue, and the flag is (red, white, and) blue. Some of us have blue eyes, or blue blood, or are in a blue mood. And chances are you’re wearing something blue today. But how much do you know about the history of the color blue?

In Blue: The History of a Color, historian and symbologist Michel Pastoureau takes readers through the different meanings and uses of blue throughout Western history. Pastoureau’s fascinating anecdotes and lavish illustrations remind us that “color is first and foremost a social phenomenon.”

Originally published in 2000 as the first title in Pastoureau’s acclaimed series on the histories of colors, Blue is now back in print.

Here are ten surprising facts about blue:

1. In ancient Rome, blue was associated with barbarians. Wearing blue was looked down on as a sign of eccentricity or mourning, and blue eyes were considered a sign of bad character or a physical deformity.

2. The uses and meanings of blue in Europe shifted sharply when it became the color of Mary’s cloak during the development of the cult of the Virgin in the twelfth century. From depictions of Mary, blue spread to other religious imagery.

3. Because of the low usage of blue in ancient Greek and Rome, researchers in the 1800s wondered if the ancient Greeks and Romans could even see the color blue. (They could.)

4. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, merchants of woad (a blue plant-based dye) and madder (a red plant-based dye) competed fiercely and even violently to discredit each other’s colors.

5. During the Reformation, blue was classed with white, black, gray and brown as an “honest” color.

6. Blue was the symbolic color of the French Revolution, but France had trouble maintaining a large enough supply of indigo dye to keep its military dressed in blue. In 1829, infantrymen were ordered to wear red pants instead. They switched back to blue, however, in 1915, after the visibility of their bright red pants led to mass casualties in the first year of the Great War.

7. Goethe’s 1774 novel The Sorrows of Young Werther popularized blue coats for young men. The character Werther wears a “simple blue dress coat” with a yellow vest and trousers. Goethe saw blue and yellow as symbolic opposites, with blue being positive (active, warm, and bright) color and yellow being negative (passive, weak, and cold).

8. Between 1910 and 1950, black uniforms and clothing gave way to navy blue in one of the most important fashion events of the century.

9. Levi Strauss denim jeans were the first garments to have the brand name displayed on the outside. This was done to distinguish them from competing blue jeans brands Lee and Blue Bell (now Wrangler).

10. More than half of American adults today say blue is their favorite color. Pastoreau suggests that this statistic be taken with a grain of salt, even as he cites it as evidence of just how far blue has come since antiquity.


Exploring the Black Experience

In honor of Black History Month, PUP is running a special blog series aimed at Exploring the Black Experience. Each week, we’ll highlight titles from PUP’s catalog to highlight a different facet of Black Americans’ experiences and histories. There are as many understandings—not to mention experiences or mobilizations—of identity as there are individuals. Today we look at the role of Black identity in local neighborhood history, nonviolent religious activism, global liberation movements, and American historical memorialization.

These four books explore Black identities both local and transnational, through movements both religious and political, and conversations both current and historical.

American Prophets sheds critical new light on the lives and thought of seven major prophetic figures in twentieth-century America whose social activism was motivated by a deeply felt compassion for those suffering injustice. In this compelling and provocative book, acclaimed religious scholar Albert Raboteau tells the remarkable stories of Howard Thurman, Martin Luther King, Jr., Fannie Lou Hamer, and four other inspired individuals who succeeded in conveying their vision to the broader public through writing, speaking, demonstrating, and organizing.

Raboteau examines the influences that shaped their ideas, discusses their theological and ethical positions, and traces how their lives intertwined—creating a network of committed activists who significantly changed attitudes about contentious political issues such as war, racism, and poverty. A momentous scholarly achievement as well as a moving testimony to the human spirit, American Prophets represents a major contribution to the history of religion in American politics.

I Hear My People Singing shines a light on a small but historic black neighborhood at the heart of one of the most elite and world-renowned Ivy-League towns—Princeton, New Jersey. The vivid first-person accounts of more than fifty black residents detail aspects of their lives throughout the twentieth century. Their stories show that the roots of Princeton’s African American community are as deeply intertwined with the town and university as they are with the history of the United States, the legacies of slavery, and the nation’s current conversations on race.

An intimate testament of the black community’s resilience and ingenuity, I Hear My People Singing adds a never-before-compiled account of poignant black experience to an American narrative that needs to be heard now more than ever.

Jamaican activist Marcus Garvey (1887–1940) organized the Universal Negro Improvement Association in Harlem in 1917. By the early 1920s, his program of African liberation and racial uplift had attracted millions of supporters, both in the United States and abroad. The Age of Garvey presents an expansive global history of the movement that came to be known as Garveyism. Offering a groundbreaking new interpretation of global black politics between the First and Second World Wars, Adam Ewing charts Garveyism’s emergence, its remarkable global transmission, and its influence in the responses among African descendants to white supremacy and colonial rule in Africa, the Caribbean, and the United States.

The United States of America originated as a slave society, holding millions of Africans and their descendants in bondage, and remained so until a civil war took the lives of a half million soldiers, some once slaves themselves. Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves explores how that history of slavery and its violent end was told in public space—specifically in the sculptural monuments that increasingly came to dominate streets, parks, and town squares in nineteenth-century America. Here Kirk Savage shows how the greatest era of monument building in American history arose amidst struggles over race, gender, and collective memory. As men and women North and South fought to define the war’s legacy in monumental art, they reshaped the cultural landscape of American nationalism.

Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves, the first sustained investigation of monument building as a process of national and racial definition, probes a host of fascinating questions: How was slavery to be explained without exploding the myth of a “united” people? How did notions of heroism become racialized? And more generally, who is represented in and by monumental space? How are particular visions of history constructed by public monuments? As debates rage around the status of Civil War monuments in public spaces around the country, these questions have never been more relevant. An updated edition, forthcoming in fall 2018, will feature a new introduction from the author addressing these debates.

Christie Henry: Celebrating Black History Month

This month we celebrate the altruism and insights of the educator Carter Woodson, and his enduring legacy, which includes the creation of Black History Month. We are grateful for the opportunity as a publisher to underscore our commitment to promote work that informs and ignites conversations about the African American experience, and to honor PUP authors such as Edwidge Danticat, who encourages her readers to “Create dangerously, for people who read dangerously…. Writing, knowing in part that no matter how trivial your words may seem, someday, somewhere, someone may risk his or her life to read them.”

During this month’s reflection and celebration, we also take stock of our responsibility and aspirations as a publisher of a diverse and engaging library. We strive for inclusivity, as does the university community we inhabit. We can deploy, with intentionality, the power of books to encourage further growth and inquiry. Fellow publisher Chris Jackson eloquently remarked in an address to the Association of University Presses (and reprinted in What Editors Do):

“I believe in book publishing, in its capacity to help us all retrace our paths back into history, to see the present in all its complexity, and to imagine different futures. To do that we have to build a publishing industry—at all levels of publishing—that honors the potential, the complexity, and the fullness of the world itself.”

In sharing with you, our partners in this publishing endeavor, books of great pride and import that we have published in recent years about African and the African-American experience specifically, I also want to underscore, as PUP’s new director, born in the Cote D’Ivoire in a Baoule community, how vital it is to our mission to embrace this fullness of the world, and its every complexity. To further quote from Mr. Jackson, and in admiration of his publishing ethos,

“When we expand the range of the industry’s gatekeepers, we expand the range of our storytelling, which expands our ability to see each other, to talk and listen to each other, and to understand each other.”

This month, as we do throughout the year, we will invest our human and fiscal capital in cultivating books that lead to understanding and inspire smarter listening. We also invite your ideas; as Princeton University professor emerita Toni Morrison has elegantly challenged the writerly world,

“If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” 

Seneca on How to Die

Romm“It takes an entire lifetime to learn how to die,” preached Seneca, the famed Stoic philosopher of Ancient Rome. In other words, it’s never too early to begin your preparations for departing this life. Seneca wrote eloquently on the universality of death, its importance as life’s final and most defining rite of passage, its part in purely natural processes and cycles, and its ability to liberate us. In How to Die, James Romm has selected and translated excerpts relating to death and dying from eight different works of ethical thought by Seneca—let it be your handy companion on your journey toward reconciling with the inevitable. Here are five tips from How to Die to ponder as you prepare for what may be the most important task you will ever undertake.


Prepare Yourself

“Perhaps you think it is useless to learn something that must only be used once; but this is the very reason we ought to rehearse.”

Have No Fear

“What’s to be feared in returning where you came from? He lives badly who does not know how to die well…. [D]ying fearfully, often, is itself a cause of death…. He who fears death will never do anything to help the living. But he who knows that this was decreed the moment he was conceived will live by principle.”

Have No Regrets

“We consider this earth, with its cities, peoples, and rivers, enclosed by a circle of sea, as a tiny dot, if it’s compared with all of time…. What difference does it make to extend [life], if the amount of added time is little more than nothing?”

Set Yourself Free

“Each of us ought to seek a life that wins approval from others, but a death, from himself.”

Become Part of the Whole

“There are fixed seasons by which all things progress; they must be born, grow, and perish…. There is nothing that does not grow old. Nature disperses these things, all to the same end, though after different intervals. Whatever is, will no longer be; it won’t die, but will be undone.”


Jörg Rüpke on Pantheon: A New History of Roman Religion

In this ambitious and authoritative book, Jörg Rüpke provides a comprehensive and strikingly original narrative history of ancient Roman and Mediterranean religion over more than a millennium—from the late Bronze Age through the Roman imperial period and up to full-fledged Christianization. While focused primarily on the city of Rome, Pantheon fully integrates the many religious traditions found in the Mediterranean world, including Judaism and Christianity. This generously illustrated book is also distinguished by its unique emphasis on “lived religion,” a perspective that stresses how individuals’ experiences and practices transform religion into something different from its official form. The result is a radically new picture of both Roman religion and a crucial period in Western religion—one that influenced Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and even the modern idea of “religion” itself. With its unprecedented scope and innovative approach, Pantheon is anunparalleled account of ancient Roman and Mediterranean religion.

In a world where religion is changing its face in rapid and unexpected ways, how is Roman religion, two millennia older, similar?
Rome was perhaps the largest city of the world before the modern period. The religious practices and beliefs of a million people from all over Europe, West Asia, North Africa and occasionally beyond were as varied as religion is in today’s megacities. It is interesting to see how Roman lawmakers and judges dealt with such a situation. And it is even more interesting to see how ‘normal’ citizens understood and used such a religious pluralism. Different gods at every corner, shrines on walls, polemical graffiti, people earning their living by selling religious goods and services, shaven heads or loud music—there is more to discover and learn than the solemnity of the emperor having a bull killed on the Capitoline hill.

Why did you invent a fictitious figure at the start of your history?
Religion is about people claiming to have religious experiences and valuing religious knowledge. There is no religion if everybody thinks that their neighbors addressing a divine being is just ridiculous. But religious experiences or knowledge cannot be simply decreed. To understand the unbelievable dynamics of ancient religion—the invention of statues and monumental temples, to think that gods would enjoy horse races or self-mutilation, etc.—a historian needs to get an idea of what went on in people’s head. We will never know, but we can imagine. Rhea is an avatar to tell us what a woman at the beginning of the Iron Age might have thought. As the basis for these thoughts are archaeological traces of deposits, meals, tombs, hearths, etc. I thought it would be more honest to invent such a speaker and her reflections instead of crediting an attested person without evidence that can be firmly ascribed to them.

How do Judaism and Christianity figure in your book?
I tell the story of nearly a millennium, from the 8th and 7th centuries BCE to the middle of the fourth century CE. From the Roman point of view, Jews show up in the second half of that period only, people calling themselves “Christians” even later, and Muslims are beyond the horizon. Apart from occasional troubleshooting in Judaea or Alexandria, it was only at the very end of antiquity that Jews and in particular Christians are important on a large scale. Before that they were simply a small minority. I tried to balance this. In terms of pages they are overrepresented. In terms of their significance they are massively underrepresented.

What is your favorite god from this large ancient pantheon?
I write about ancient religion, I don’t participate in it! But this was fascinating: ancient polytheism is not about large number of gods or a clear division of labor. It was about empowering (nearly) everybody to arrange and sometimes create their own divine helpers and addressees. If I pray at the end of an interview to Mercury with his quick tongue, to violent Mars and to Silvanus, lord of the endless woods, the interviewer should be careful…

PantheonJörg Rüpke is vice-director and permanent fellow in religious studies at the Max Weber Center for Advanced Cultural and Sociological Studies at the University of Erfurt, Germany, and has been a visiting professor at the Collège de France, Princeton University, and the University of Chicago. His many books include On Roman Religion and From Jupiter to Christ.

Tim Rogan: What’s Wrong with the Critique of Capitalism Now

RoganWhat’s wrong with capitalism? Answers to that question today focus on material inequality. Led by economists and conducted in utilitarian terms, the critique of capitalism in the twenty-first century is primarily concerned with disparities in income and wealth. It was not always so. In The Moral Economists, Tim Rogan reconstructs another critical tradition, developed across the twentieth century in Britain, in which material deprivation was less important than moral or spiritual desolation. Examining the moral cornerstones of a twentieth-century critique of capitalism, The Moral Economists explains why this critique fell into disuse, and how it might be reformulated for the twenty-first century. Read on to learn more about these moral economists and their critiques of capitalism.

You begin by asking, ‘What’s wrong with capitalism?’ Shouldn’t we start by acknowledging capitalism’s great benefits?

Yes, absolutely. This was a plan for the reform of capitalism, not a prayer for its collapse or a pitch for its overthrow. These moral economists sought in some sense to save capitalism from certain of its enthusiasts—that has always been the project of the socialist tradition out of which these writers emerged. But our question about capitalism—as about every aspect of our social system, every means by which we reconcile individual preferences to arrive at collective decisions—should always be ‘What’s wrong with this?;’ ‘How can we improve this?;’ ‘What could we do better?’ And precisely how we ask those questions, the terms in which we conduct those debates, matters. My argument in this book is that our way of asking the question ‘What’s wrong with capitalism?’ has become too narrow, too focused on material inequality, insufficiently interested in some of the deeper problems of liberty and solidarity which the statistics recording disparities of wealth and income conceal.

Was this critique of capitalism also a critique of economics, and if so what do these critics add to the usual complaints against economics—about unrealistic assumptions, otherworldly models, indifference to historical developments such as financial crises, etc?

Yes, the moral economists were critical of economics. But although their criticisms might sound like variations on the familiar charge that economists make unreal assumptions about the capacities and proclivities of individual human beings, the moral economists’ challenge to mainstream economics was different. The most influential innovators in economics since the Second World War have been behavioral scientists pointing out that our capacity to make utilitarian calculations is not as high as economists once took it to be. Part of what the success of this series of innovations is that the ideal of reducing every decision to a calculation of utility retains its allure, even as we come to realize how fallible our real-time calculations are. Behavioral economists have found our capacity to think like rational utilitarian agents wanting. But when did the capacity to think like a rational utilitarian agent become the measure of our humanity? This is the question moral economists have been asking since the 1920s. Initiated by historians determined to open up means of thinking outside economic orthodoxy, since joined by mathematically-trained economists concerned to get a more realistic handle on the relationship between individual values and social choice, the moral economists’ enterprise promises a far more profound reconstitution of political economy than behavioral economics has ever contemplated.

Doesn’t the profile of these writers—dead, male, English, or Anglophile, writing about a variety of capitalism long since superseded—limit their contemporary relevance?

No. Their main concern was to discover and render articulate forms of social solidarity which the dominant economic discourse concealed. They found these on the outskirts of ‘Red Vienna’, on railroads under construction in post-war Yugoslavia, but most of all in the north of England. They believed that these inarticulate solidarities were what really held the country together—the secret ingredients of the English constitution. Though they belonged to a tradition of social thought in Britain that was skeptical towards Empire and supportive of the push for self-determination in India and elsewhere, they raised the prospect that the same dynamics had developed in countries to which British institutions had been exported—explaining the relative cohesion of Indian and Ghanaian democracies, for instance. More broadly E. P. Thompson in particular argued that factoring these incipient solidarities into constitutional thinking generated a more nuanced understanding of the rule of law than nineteenth-century liberalism entailed: in Thompson’s hand the rule of law became a more tensile creed, more capable of accommodating the personal particularities of the law’s subjects, more adept at mitigating the rigors of rational system to effect justice in specific cases. The profiles of the late-twentieth century commentators who continue the critical tradition Tawney, Polanyi and Thompson developed—especially Amartya Sen—underscore that tradition’s wider relevance.

Aren’t these writers simply nostalgists wishing we could return to a simpler way of life?

No. Tawney especially is often seen as remembering a time of social cohesion before the Reformation and before the advent of international trade and wishing for its return. This perception misunderstands his purpose.

Religion and the Rise of Capitalism draws sharp contrasts between two distinct iterations of European society – the late medieval and the modern. But this was a means of dramatizing a disparity between different societies developing in contemporary England—the society he encountered working at Toynbee Hall in London’s East End, where social atomization left people demoralized beyond relief, on the one hand; the society he encountered when he moved to Manchester to teach in provincial towns in Lancashire and Staffordshire, where life under capitalism was different, where the displacement of older solidarities was offset by the generation of new forms of cohesion, where many people were poor but where the social fabric was still intact.

The demoralized East End was the product of laissez faire capitalism—of the attempt to organize society on the basis that each individual was self-sufficient, profit-minded, unaffected by other human sentiments. The political crisis into which Britain was pitched in the late Edwardian period underlined how untenable this settlement was: without a sense of what more than the appetite for wealth motivated people, there could be no ‘background of mutual understanding’ against which to resolve disputes. At the same time the answer was not simply stronger government, a bigger state. The latent solidarities Tawney discovered in the north of England carried new possibilities: the facility of market exchange and the security of an effective state could be supplemented by informal solidarities making everyday life more human than the impersonal mechanisms of market and government allowed.

Polanyi and Thompson brought their historical settings forward into the nineteenth century, making their writings feel more contemporary. But they were both engaged in much the same exercise as Tawney—using history to dramatize disparities between different possibilities developing within contemporary society. They too had come into contact with forms of solidarity indicating that there was more than calculations of utility and the logic of state power at work in fostering social order.  Polanyi and then especially Thompson advanced their common project significantly when he found a new terminology with which to describe these incipient solidarities. Tawney had talked of ‘tradition’ and ‘convention’ and ‘custom,’ and Polanyi had followed Tawney in this—refusing to associate himself with Ferdinand Tonnies concept of Gemeinschaft and Henry Maine’s system of ‘status’ when pressed to, but offering no cogent concept through which to reckon with these forms of solidarity himself. Thompson’s concept of the ‘moral economy’ made the kinds of solidarities upon which they had all focused more compelling.

Does subscribing to a moral critique of capitalism mean buying into one of the prescriptive belief systems out of which that critique materialized? Do you need to believe in God or Karl Marx in order to advance a moral critique of capitalism without embarrassment?

No. Part of the reason that this critique of capitalism went out of commission was because the belief systems which underpinned it—which, more specifically, provided the conceptions of what a person is which falsified reductive concepts of ‘economic man’—went into decline. Neither Tawney nor Thompson was able to adapt to the attenuation of Christian belief and Marxian conviction respectively from which their iterations of the critique had drawn strength. Polanyi’s case was different: he was able to move beyond both God and Marx, envisaging a basis upon which a moral critique of capitalism could be sustained without relying on either belief system. That basis was furnished by the writings of Adam Smith, which adumbrated an account of political economy which never doubted but that economic transactions are embedded in moral worlds.

This was a very different understanding of Adam Smith’s significance to that with which most people to whom that name means something now have been inculcated. But it is an account of Adam Smith’s significance which grows increasingly recognizable to us now—thanks to the work of Donald Winch, Emma Rothschild and Istvan Hont, among others, facilitated by the end of Cold War hostilities and the renewal of interest in alternatives to state- or market-based principles of social order.

In other words there are ways of re-integrating economics into the wider moral matrices of human society without reverting to a Christian or Marxian belief system. There is nothing extreme or zealous about insisting that the moral significance of economic transactions be recognized. What was zealous and extreme was the determination to divorce economics from broader moral considerations. This moral critique of capitalism represented a recognition that the time for such extremity and zeal had passed. As the critique fell into disuse in the 1970s and 1980s, some of that zeal returned, and the last two decades now look to have been a period of especially pronounced ‘economism.’ The relevance of these writings now, then, is that they help us to put the last two decades and the last two centuries in perspective, revealing just how risky the experiment has been, urging us to settle back in now to a more sustainable pattern of economic thought.

You find that this moral critique of capitalism fell into disuse in the 1970s and 1980s. Bernie Sanders declared in April 2016 that instituting a ‘truly moral economy’ is ‘no longer beyond us.’ Was he right?

Yes and no. Sanders’ made this declaration at the Vatican, contemplating the great papal encyclicals of Rerum Novarum and Centesimus Annus. The discrepancies between what Sanders said and what Popes Leo XIII and Pope John Paul II before him said about capitalism is instructive. The encyclicals have always focussed on the ignominy of approaching a person as a bundle of economic appetites, on the apostasy of abstracting everything else that makes us human out of our economic thinking. Sanders sought to accede to that tradition of social thought—a tradition long since expanded to encompass perspectives at variance with Catholic theology, to include accounts of what a person is which originate outside the Christian tradition. But Sanders’s speech issued no challenge to the reduction of persons to economic actors. In designating material inequality the ‘great issue of our time,’ Sanders reinforced that reductive tendency: the implication is that all we care about is the satisfaction of our material needs, as if redistribution alone would solve all our problems.

The suggestion in Sanders speech was that his specific stance in the utilitarian debate over how best to organise the economy has now taken on moral force. There is an ‘individualist’ position which favors free enterprise and tolerates inequality as incidental to the enlargement of aggregate utility, and there is a ‘collectivist’ stance which enlists the state to limit freedom to ensure that inequality does not grow too wide, seeing inequality as inimical to the maximizing of aggregate utility. The ‘collectivists’ are claiming the moral high ground. But all they are really proposing is a different means to the agreed end of maximizing overall prosperity. The basis for their ‘moral’ claims seems to be that they have more people on their side—a development which would make Nietzsche smile, and should give all of us pause. There are similar overtones to the rallying of progressive forces around Jeremy Corbyn in the UK.

The kind of ‘moral economy’ Sanders had in mind—a big government geared towards maximizing utility—is not what these moral economists would have regarded as a ‘truly moral economy’. The kinds of checks upon economic license they had in mind were more spontaneous and informal—emanating out of everyday interactions, materializing as strictures against certain kinds of commercial practice in common law, inarticulate notions of what is done and what is not done, general conceptions of fairness, broad-based vigilance against excess of power. This kind of moral economy has never been beyond us. The solidarities out of which it arises were never eradicated, and are constantly regenerating.

Tim Rogan is a fellow of St. Catharine’s College, Cambridge, where he teaches history. He is the author of The Moral Economists: R. H. Tawney, Karl Polanyi, E. P. Thompson, and the Critique of Capitalism.

The Greatest Showman and the Deceptions of American Capitalism

by Edward J. Balleisen

BalleisenPerhaps unsurprisingly, The Greatest Showman, the new cinematic musical about the nineteenth-century American impresario of entertainment P. T. Barnum, unabashedly takes liberties with the historical record. As reviewers have already documented (Richard Brody in the New Yorker, Bruce Chadwick for History News Network), it fabricates matters large and small, as is the wont of Hollywood screenwriters and directors who work on biopics, while ignoring a host of truthful vignettes that cry out for cinematic treatment. As a historian of business fraud, I found myself especially disappointed that the musical steered clear of many aspects of Barnum’s career that speak powerfully to elements of our own moment, including the rise of a Barnum-esque publicity hound and conductor of media misdirection from the White House, and the constant turmoil swirling over allegations of fake news. And yet, The Greatest Showman does get some of the larger implications of Barnum’s life right—especially his injection of a democratic style of hullabaloo into American capitalism.

A full inventory of the film’s flights of fancy would require catalogue length. But a sampling conveys the minimal concern for fidelity to historical detail. The movie portrays the young Barnum as the poorly-clad son of an impoverished Connecticut tailor, rather than the child of a respectable proprietor who had a number of well-to-do relatives and also owned a store and inn. It gives Barnum experiences that he never had (begging and stealing food as an orphaned New York City street urchin; clerking for an insurance company). It depicts his move into the world of entertainment as occurring sometime well after the establishment of the railroad, perhaps even after the Civil War, rather than in the 1830s.

The Greatest Showman ignores Barnum’s earliest promotions of lotteries, curiosities and hoaxes, including his cruel exhibition of the elderly African-American slave woman Joice Heth as supposedly the 161-year old former wet-nurse of George Washington, and his willingness to profit further after her death through a public autopsy, experiences that laid the groundwork for his management of the American Museum. The screenwriters (Bill Condon and Jenny Bicks) have Barnum buy the museum on a wholly fictional mix of frustration, fantasy, and fraud, made possible by his fraudulent provision of fake collateral to a New York City bank that lends him the necessary $10,000. Instead of coming to grips with the actual Barnum’s vociferous advocacy of temperance, the film conjures up a hard-drinking man who makes deals over whiskeys in saloons. Rather than showing how Barnum consistently found new performers over the years, it brings together the midget Charles Stratton (known on stage as Tom Thumb), the Siamese twins Change and Eng, and the other members of the troupe within weeks of Barnum’s purchase of the American Museum.

The historical Barnum had a falling out with the famed Swedish singer Jenny Lind not because he refused her amorous advances in the middle of their American tour (the musical’s explanation), but because she tired of his relentless focus on maximizing the returns from her concerts. A key antagonist for Barnum in The Greatest Showman is one “Bennett,” portrayed as a stiff-collared, high-toned theatre critic of the New York Herald. The actual James Gordon Bennett was the publisher of that paper, who proved more than happy to go along with hoaxes and sensationalism himself, using both to help cement his newspaper’s position as the first penny newspaper that catered to the broad masses. The character of Barnum’s high society sidekick Philip Carlyle is entirely fictional, as in his relationship with Anne Wheeler, an African-American female trapeze artist. One last illustration—the film attributes the fire that destroyed Barnum’s New York City Museum to neighborhood toughs who did not like his business, rather than the actual arsonist, a Confederate sympathizer who wished toward the end of the Civil War to strike a blow against the Union.

Of course, by indulging a willingness to elide facts or push outright lies in the service of a hokey story, the makers of The Greatest Showman adopt Barnum’s own modus operandi as a purveyor of entertainment. And the movie does a creditable job of engaging with some of Barnum’s larger cultural significance—his recognition that publicity and HYPE of any kind was often a marketing asset; his understanding that the public would be forgiving of misrepresentations and humbug if they, on balance, enjoyed the eventual show; his embrace of difference and variation within the human condition as worthy of celebration (if also exploitation); his compulsion to expand operations to take advantage of new opportunities, even at the cost of incurring gargantuan debts; his relentless focus on the American mythos of democratic opportunity, whether through his own experience (as carefully narrated in his autobiographies) or those of the stars in his shows. As the film implies, there was indeed deep-seated antagonism to Barnum’s business practices and willingness to engage in fakery, though the complaints came overwhelmingly from pulpits and the pages of evangelical newspapers, rather than protesters who made their presence known outside the Museum. And Barnum did in fact seek to defuse those critiques through the promotion of respectable performers such as Jenny Lind, alongside his curiosities, penchant for misdirection, and outright fakery.

Nonetheless, The Greatest Showman also missed many opportunities to explore episodes in Barnum’s life that have renewed resonance in the early twenty-first century. One crucial theme here concerns Barnum’s engagement with American race relations, both as promoter and in his post-Civil War forays in Connecticut politics and public service. Barnum’s often dehumanizing treatment of people of color and his evolving political views on race will surely occasion much commentary amid the current dramatic growth in ethnocentric nationalism and racially-grounded politics, as in a recent Smithsonian Magazine piece by Jackie Mansky. Other contemporary developments that suggest the value of reconsidering Barnum’s historical significance, closer to my own expertise, include the reoccurrence of massive business frauds, the emergence of enduring conflict over the appropriate role of government in consumer and investor protection, and diminished faith in institutions of all sorts.

The musical, for example, overlooks Barnum’s own bankruptcy in 1855, brought about because of his misplaced faith in the promises of a clock manufacturer who was willing to relocate his operation to Barnum’s adopted home town of Bridgeport, Connecticut, as part of an industrial development scheme. Barnum freely endorsed the Jerome Clock Company’s loans, opening himself up to devastating losses when the company failed, losses made worse by the firm’s eventual forging of Barnum’s endorsement on many additional notes. Yet he also sidestepped the worst consequences of that failure by illegally transferring assets into his wife’s name, a move that greatly facilitated his ability to get back on his financial feet, and for which he never faced public condemnation or legal penalty. Barnum’s insolvency thus speaks to the reality that even the savviest operators can be victims of imposition; and that well-connected perpetrators of commercial deceit have often been able to sidestep the most damaging fallout from their actions.

Another fascinating episode that The Greatest Showman ignores is Barnum’s growing focus on debunking the deceit of other purveyors of rhetorical (or actual) snake oil. By the 1860s, the promoter sought to legitimize his own brand of hokum and bluster not only by adding unquestionably respectable acts to his museum and eventual circus, but also by exposing frauds in many sectors of American life.  Compiled in his 1866 volume, Humbugs of the World, these endeavors targeted misrepresentations in retail trade, medicine, and religion (especially in the realm of spiritualism). Here Barnum intuited the great power associated with well-constructed strategies of deflection—that one could gain trust in part by setting oneself up as an arbiter of untrustworthiness. Perhaps there is no greater contemporary practitioner of this particular form of showmanship than the current occupant of the White House. Donald Trump has rarely hesitated to get out ahead of critiques of his own business and political practices by casting the first stones, as through his allegations of malfeasance by political opponents (the pleas during the 2016 general election campaign to investigate Hillary Clinton and “Lock Her Up”) or representatives of the media (the incessant allegations of FAKE NEWS.) In addition to muddying factual waters, such strategies can shore up support among the faithful, sustaining the conviction that their champion is fighting the good fight, and could not possibly be engaging in duplicitous behavior of his own.

In the end, The Greatest Showman cares most about exploring fictionalized or wholly fictional romantic tensions—those between Barnum and his wife Charity and between the Philip Carlyle and Anne Wheeler—as well as the degree to which Barnum lives up to his purported insistence on an inclusive respect for his socially marginalized performers. These choices constrain the musical’s capacity to engage deeply with Barnum’s historical significance as an entrepreneur who played an outsized role in creating modern mass entertainment. And so a multitude of opportunities go begging. Barnum’s many legacies, however, continue to reverberate in contemporary America, whether one focuses on the the dynamics of social media saturation, the process of invented celebrity, the sources of abiding racial tensions,  the implications of pervasive commercial dissembling, or the nature of popular skepticism about expert appraisals of reality. And so the ground remains open for cultural reinterpretations of the Great Showman’s life and times.  If the twentieth-century is any guide, we won’t have to wait too long for another cinematic treatment—every generation or so, some movie-maker finds the resources to put Barnum back on the screen.[1]

[1] Previous films include “The Mighty Barnum” (1934), “The Greatest Show on Earth” (1952), “Barnum” (1986), and “P. T. Barnum” (1999).

Edward J. Balleisen is professor of history and public policy and vice provost for Interdisciplinary Studies at Duke University. He is the author of Fraud: An American History from Barnum to Madoff. He lives in Durham, North Carolina.

Browse Our 2018 Ancient World Catalog

Our new Ancient World catalog includes a major new history of archaeology—its sites, its discoveries, its practices, a unique anthology presenting the largest collection of legends and folktales from Ancient Greek and Roman life, an examination of the environmental factors that lead to the collapse of Rome’s power, and a new economic history of the Ancient Mediterranean world to name but a few of the many great titles published this year or forthcoming early next.

If you plan on attending AIA/SCS 2018 in Boston this weekend, stop by Booth 103 to see our full range of Ancient World titles and more.

Written by Eric Cline, an archaeologist with more than thirty seasons of excavation experience, Three Stones Make a Wall traces the history of archaeology from an amateur pursuit to the cutting-edge science it is today by taking the reader on a tour of major archaeological sites and discoveries, from Pompeii to Petra, Troy to the Terracotta Warriors, and Mycenae to Megiddo and Masada. Cline brings to life the personalities behind these digs, including Heinrich Schliemann, the former businessman who excavated Troy, and Mary Leakey, whose discoveries advanced our understanding of human origins. The discovery of the peoples and civilizations of the past is presented in vivid detail, from the Hittites and Minoans to the Inca, Aztec, and Moche. Along the way, the book addresses the questions archaeologists are asked most often: How do you know where to dig? How are excavations actually done? How do you know how old something is? Who gets to keep what is found?

Taking readers from the pioneering digs of the eighteenth century to the exciting new discoveries being made today, this is a lively and essential introduction to the story of archaeology.

This unique anthology presents the largest collection of these tales ever assembled. Featuring nearly four hundred stories in authoritative and highly readable translations, this is the first book to offer a representative selection of the entire range of traditional classical storytelling.

Here is the monumental retelling of one of the most consequential chapters of human history: the fall of the Roman Empire. This is the first book to examine the catastrophic role that climate change and infectious diseases played in the collapse of Rome’s power—a story of nature’s triumph over human ambition.

A poignant reflection on humanity’s intimate relationship with the environment, The Fate of Rome provides a sweeping account of how one of history’s greatest civilizations encountered and endured, yet ultimately succumbed to the cumulative burden of nature’s violence. The example of Rome is a timely reminder that climate change and germ evolution have shaped the world we inhabit—in ways that are surprising and profound.

Browse Our New History 2018 Catalog

Our 2018 History catalog includes a unique, multi-faceted account of Soviet Russia through the lens of a vast Moscow apartment building, the story of the rich and complex encounter between Enlightenment Europe and the civilizations to its east, and the unexpected roots of the science of heredity in nineteenth century insane asylums.

If you will be at AHA 2018 in Washington DC, please join us at our booth on Friday afternoon for a reception to celebrate our latest publications:

Booth 332
4:30pm, Friday, January 5th

Or stop by at any time to pick up a copy of this catalog, and see our full range of titles in history.

Our lead history title this Fall is Yuri Slezkine’s extraordinary and monumental House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution. One reviewer in the London Review of Books has rightfully called it “a Soviet War and Peace.” The book tells the chilling story of how the building’s residents lived in their apartments and ruled the Soviet state until some eight hundred of them were evicted from the House and led, one by one, to prison or to their deaths.

House of Government, by Yuri Slezkine

Jürgen Osterhammel’s Unfabling the East: The Enlightenment’s Encounter with Asia brings the sights and sounds of this tumultuous age vividly to life and demonstrates how Europe discovered its own identity anew by measuring itself against the great civilizations of the East, from the Ottoman Empire and India to China and Japan.

Unfabling the East, by Jurgen Osterhammel

In history of science, Theodore Porter’s Genetics in the Madhouse: The Unknown History of Human Heredity tells the unknown story of how the collection and sorting of hereditary data in mental hospitals gave rise to the new science of human heredity.

Genetics in the Madhouse, by Theodore M. Porter

Find these new titles and many more in our History 2018 catalog.

William A. P. Childs on Greek Art and Aesthetics in the Fourth Century B.C.

Greek Art and Aesthetics in the Fourth Century B.C. analyzes the broad character of art produced during this period, providing in-depth analysis of and commentary on many of its most notable examples of sculpture and painting. Taking into consideration developments in style and subject matter, and elucidating political, religious, and intellectual context, William A. P. Childs argues that Greek art in this era was a natural outgrowth of the high classical period and focused on developing the rudiments of individual expression that became the hallmark of the classical in the fifth century. Read on to learn more about fourth century B.C. Greek art:

Why the fourth century?

The fourth century BCE has been neglected in scholarly treatises with a  few recent exceptions: Blanch Brown, Anticlassicism in Greek Sculpture of the Fourth Century B.C.; Monographs on Archaeology and the Fine Arts sponsored by the Archaeological Institute of America and the College Art Association of America 26 (New York, 1976); and Brunilde Ridgway, Fourth-Century Styles in Greek Sculpture, Wisconsin Studies in Classics (Madison, WI, 1997).

One reason is simply that taste has been antithetical to the character of the century. Thus literary critics disparaged the wild reassessments of mythology by Euripides at the end of the fifth century as well as his supposedly colloquial language, and treated the sophists as morally dishonest.

Socially the century was marked by continuous warfare and the rise of  a new, rich elite. Individuals were as important, or more important, than society/community; artists were thought to have individual styles that reflected their personal vision. This was thought to debase the grandness of the high classic and replace it with cheap sensationalism and pluralism that defied straight-forward categorization.

The age-old hostility to Persia was revived, it seems largely for political reasons, while Persian artistic influence permeated much of the ornaments of the new, wealthy elite: mosaics, rich cloth, and metal work. At the same time Persia was constantly meddling in Greek affaires, which produced a certain hypocritical political atmosphere.

And, finally, Philip of Macedon brought the whole democratic adventure of the fifth century to a close with the establishment of monarchy as the default political system, and Alexander brought the East into the new Hellenic or Hellenistic culture out of which Roman culture was to arise.

Clearly most of the past criticism is true; it is our response that has totally changed, one assumes, because our own period is in many respects very similar to the character of the fourth century.

What is the character of the art of the fourth century?

On the surface there is little change from the high classical style of the fifth century—the subject of art is primarily religion in the form of votive reliefs and statues dedicated in sanctuaries. The art of vase-painting in Athens undergoes a slow decline in quality with notable exceptions, though it comes to an end as the century closes.

Though the function of art remains the same as previously, the physical appearance changes and changes again. At the end of the fifth century and into the first quarter of the fourth there is a nervous, linear style with strong erotic overtones. After about 370 the preference is for solidity and quiet poses. But what becomes apparent on closer examination is that there are multiple contemporary variations of the dominant stylistic structures. This has led to some difficulty in assigning convincing dates to individual works, though this is exaggerated. It is widely thought that the different stylistic variations are due to individual artists asserting their personal visions and interpretations of the human condition.

The literary sources, almost all of Roman date, do state that the famous artists, sculptors and painters, of the fourth century developed very individual styles that with training could be recognized in the works still extant. Since there are almost no original Greek statues preserved and no original panel paintings, it is difficult to evaluate these claims convincingly. But, since there are quite distinct groups of works that share broad stylistic similarities and these similarities agree to a large extent with the stylistic observations in the literary sources, it is at least possible to suggest that these styles are connected in some way with particular, named artists of the fourth century. However, rather than attributing works to the named artists, it seems wiser simply to identify the style and recognize that it conveys a particular character of the figure portrayed. This appears also applicable to vase-paintings that may reflect the styles of different panel painters. There are therefore Praxitelian and Skopaic sculptures and Parrhasian and Zeuxian paintings. Style conveys content.

The variety of styles as expressive tools indicates that there is a variety of content. A corollary of this fact is that the artist is presenting works that must be read by the viewer and therefore do not primarily represent social norms but are particular interpretations of both traditional and novel subjects: Aphrodite bathes, a satyr rests peacefully in the woods, and athletes clean themselves. In brief, the heroic and the divine are humanized and humans gain a psychological depth  that allows portraits to suggest character.

Was the cultural response to these developments purely negative as most modern commentaries suggest?

The question of the reception of art and poetry in the Greek world particularly of the archaic and classical periods has occupied scholars for at least the last two hundred years. It has been amply documented that artisans and people we consider artists were generally repudiated by the people composing the preserved texts of literature and historical commentary. For example, Plato is generally considered a conservative Philistine. Most modern commentators are appalled by his criticism of poetry and the plastic arts in all forms. Yet the English romantic poets of the late 18th and early 19th centuries thought Plato a kindred spirit. It was only in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that the negative assessment of Plato’s relation to poetry and art became authoritative.  However one wishes to assess Plato’s own appreciation of poetry and art, it is eminently clear that he had an intimate knowledge of contemporary art. Equally his criticism of people who praise art indicates that precisely what he criticizes is what Athenian society expected and praised. It does not require a large leap to surmise that Plato is the first art critic with a sophisticated approach though somewhat disorganized. His student, Aristotle, had the organization and perhaps a more nuanced view of art, but it is perhaps not an exaggeration to suggest that Aristotle was not as sensitive to art as was his teacher.

The fact of the matter is that from Homer on, the descriptions of objects, though very rare, are uniformly very appreciative. For Homer the wonder of life-likeness is paramount, a quality that endures down to the fourth century despite the changing styles and patent abstractions before the fourth century. At least in the fourth century artists also became wealthy and must have managed large workshops.  So the modern view that artisans/artists were considered inferior members of society appears to be a social evaluation by the wealthy and leisured.

In the fourth century BCE Greek artists embark on on an inquiry into individual expression of  profound insights into the human condition as well as social values. It is the conscious recognition of the varied expressive values of style that creates the modern concept of aesthetics and the artist.

ChildsWilliam A.P. Childs is professor emeritus of classical art and archaeology at Princeton University.