Monday, November 29, 2010

All in the Family

My last post noted the Tea Party tendency to use any allegedly historical argument to make a political point.  David Frum on his blog recently criticized this comment from Sarah Palin's forthcoming book:

But from what I’ve read, family life at the time of the founding was a lot like family life for Americans today: full of challenges, sure, but also full of simple pleasures.

Frum's point is that Palin basically defines African-American slaves out of the picture. That's true enough, but I think the problem with Palin's statement goes far deeper.

Unless she means it in the most general sense possible (i.e., there were moms and dads and sons and daughters then, too!), this assertion is simply ridiculous.  It represents an utter failure to imagine any experience significantly different from one's own. That, by the way, is one of the most compelling reasons to study history—the past, as the saying goes, is another country.  Good historians teach their students that history is both continuity and change over time.  Certainly some things remain constant.  But we should never let those similarities blind us to how different the past was.

I have rather deep doubts that Palin has actually read any scholarly work on what everyday family life was like in the era of the revolution, but fortunately, such work does exist for those who take the trouble to consult it.  So what was life like?

At the time of the revolution, the entire white population of the colonies was about 2.5 million.  Today, more people than that live in Chicago, and more than 3 times that number live in New York City.  Much of the area of the original 13 states was unsettled:  most of Maine, New York, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Georgia had few if any white inhabitants.  Spartanburg, South Carolina, where I live, was the western-most frontier of the state.  The largest city, Philadelphia, had only 40,000 people; today, there are 50 American cities with over 350,000 people.

Population density matters in how we live our lives.  (The Spatial History Project has a map here showing how it has changed from 1790-2000.)  Raising a child in an urban environment is different from doing it on a farm. During the revolutionary era, about 90% of the American population lived in small villages of no more than 8,000 people, and most people lived on farms and in small hamlets, effectively isolated from significant numbers of other people.  This inevitably gave parents far greater control over the influences that reached their children, to cite just one obvious consequence.

There was, of course, no public school system, so whatever education children received would have been at home or in small, informal village schools.  Today, the average American high school has 750 students in it, meaning that the typical American student today might see more people her own age in a single day than a revolutionary era child might have seen in her entire childhood.

Most people then spent their days growing food—more than 90% of the people were involved in agriculture to make their living, as compared to fewer than 5% today.  A typical workday was sun-up to sun-down working on the land; for them, the workplace was the homestead.  A typical childhood likely meant doing chores and farm labor rather than going to school.

Not only were families more isolated, they were also larger.  In the early 1800s, a typical white American woman would give birth to 7 children; today the number is barely more than 2.  Due to the extremely high infant mortality rate, however, average life expectancy would have been anywhere between the mid-20s and the low-40s, depending on race and region.  As late as 1850, more than 1 in 5 white infants died, and it was 1 in 3 for black children.  Today, the number is less than 6 per thousand for whites, and 14 per thousand for blacks. 

Think about that for a moment.  Medical issues that today are often resolved with over-the-counter medicine or a quick trip to the doctor would then end in death.  The terrible trauma of a child's death was not an atypical experience for women in that era.  Neither was the death of a spouse or parent at a young age.  Both of those things must have had enormous effects on family dynamics.

Can any reasonable person know all of that and conclude, as Palin so blithely does, that it was all basically the same as today?  The answer is obvious.  So why do it?

Politics, of course.  The Tea Party has this obsession with returning to the ways of the founding generation, to the "original" Constitution.  The obvious response to this ignorant nostalgia is that we do not live in the late 18th century.  Times change, conditions change, society changes, and so government must change along with them.  Since the Tea Partiers reject that conclusion, it makes sense to also reject the premises.  So we end up with someone with aspirations to presidential power making the ridiculous claim that family life has not changed much in the last 230 years.

This is the epitome of indifference to historical reality.  We do not honor Americans of the founding generation when we reduce the travails and tragedies of their lives to characters playing dress-up on a modern-day movie set for the benefit of our amusement—and political agenda.  Palin may enjoy playing frontierswoman in the controlled environment of her "reality" show.  Somehow I suspect she wouldn't last long in the real America of 1780.  But I'd love to see her have to try.


  1. If someone needs to learn history from Palin, they are already beyond hope. Just a bunch of over grown kids playing in costumes.

  2. Nobody should *need* to learn from her, but these uninformed statements she makes, if not challenged, get accepted as true.