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America by the Numbers

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By Robert J. Samuelson
Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Let us now praise the newest edition of "Historical Statistics of the United States," whose five volumes and 1,781 tables are about to hit libraries and universities all over the country. We study history for many reasons: (1) it's interesting; (2) it helps explain who we are and how we got this way; and (3) with luck, we may learn from the past. But the discovery of history is always an exhausting project -- part adventure, part ordeal -- because the past is shrouded in its own secrets of time, place, belief, motivation and personality. The new edition of "Historical Statistics," the first since 1975 and 11 years in gestation, makes the search a bit easier.

You may regard numbers as drab, but they can fascinate by illuminating the past in two ways. One is to confirm, qualify or contradict things we think we "know." For example, we all "know" that the Civil War was hugely murderous. But do we grasp how murderous? In 1860 the United States had 31.5 million people. In the next five years 364,511 Union soldiers and sailors died; Confederate deaths totaled at least 159,821. Now skip to World War II. By 1940 the population was 132.6 million; U.S. war deaths were 405,399. As a share of population, the Civil War's toll was more than five times worse.

The other way that numbers inform the past is to raise questions about it. We stumble across an intriguing statistic and ask: Why was that? Since World War II no president has outdone Dwight Eisenhower in successfully vetoing congressional legislation. He vetoed 181 bills and was overridden only twice. By contrast, Ronald Reagan vetoed 78 and was overridden nine times; Bill Clinton's numbers were 36 and two. What explains Eisenhower's record? (The champion was Franklin Roosevelt, with 635 vetoes, nine overridden. The current president hasn't vetoed any bill; if he never does, he'll be the first president with such a record since James Garfield in 1881.) If you peruse "Historical Statistics," you'll encounter many revealing numbers:

· During the past century, religion has become more organized in the sense that more people have joined a formal church. In 1890 only about 34 percent of Americans belonged; by 1989 that share was 60 percent, down slightly from its peak of 64 percent in 1970. This most recent decline may reflect the rise of small storefront congregations, which are missed by membership surveys.

· By some measures, Americans move from place to place as much as ever -- perhaps even a bit more. In 1870 about three-quarters of states' populations were born in that state; by 1990 the comparable share was two-thirds. One explanation is that longer-living Americans have more chances to move (it doesn't appear that we move more frequently during any one decade). Another is that more people move when they retire.

· Despite massive suburbanization since World War II, the United States remains a country of vast open spaces -- farms, forests, pastures and range. From 1945 to 1997, the amount of "urban land" (defined as places with at least 2,500 people) quadrupled to 65.5 million acres; still, that was less than 3 percent of the total of 2.26 billion acres. Cropland (455 million acres) and forests (642 million acres) had increased slightly since 1945. Reforestation has offset much woodland lost to subdivisions.

Perhaps you doubt you'll peruse "Historical Statistics," especially at a price of $825 from Cambridge University Press. Well, for numbers buffs, there's another choice. This "Historical Statistics" also comes in an online version that presumably will be purchased by most universities, colleges and many libraries and then made available to students and others. Almost anyone -- not just academics -- should be able to tap this treasure of figures.

We need to remember that these numbers depict subjects that are more than idle intellectual curiosities. They define our national character and condition. Consider voter turnout. It's said that we've become lazy citizens, and the figures seem to agree. In the 2000 election, turnout was 49 percent of eligible voters. In the late 1800s, the figures fluctuated between 70 percent and 80 percent. But are the figures reliable? Do they distort in favor of the past? We don't know. The new "Historical Statistics" includes essays about the shortcomings of the historical numbers. On voter turnout, uncertainties abound.

We always need to know more. History is an endless blending of fact and imagination. Since the last "Historical Statistics," the data on America's past (from obscure sources) have grown enormously. When the Census Bureau couldn't find the funds for a new edition, a group of academics -- guided by the husband-wife team of Richard Sutch and Susan Carter from the University of California at Riverside -- decided to fill the gap. The resulting compilation enlarges our rearview mirror and, perhaps, hints at where we're headed.


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