Misfit Places and Standard Deviations

Continuing yesterday’s theme, I want to use the 1790 census to look at misfit places. We can take some averages and say that a typical Northern state enslaved 2.04% of its population. Free black people constituted 1.37% of the population. White people made up the remaining 96.74%. Likewise a typical Southern state enslaved 27.81%, had a free remainder of 1.8%, and white people accounted for the other 70.93%. But individual place really fits the average. Nor does any fit the national averages. We can look at each region and see some clear trends: the North had a much whiter populace and far fewer slaves, both in absolute terms and as regional and state-level percentages, than the South did. But there’s a lot of heterogeneity within both regions even allowing for those trends.

I intended to just point at that in the table and comment on a few places that leaped out to me, a prospect which left me wondering if the post deserved writing since you can read the columns as well as I can, but in the course of writing this post ancient memories stirred. Back in high school I did briefly learn how to figure standard deviations and what they meant. Determining the standard deviation of a set of data lets you know how different from the mean it needs to be before that difference counts for more than just statistical noise. Crucially, my spreadsheet software also does the math for me.

The first census with standard deviations. (Click for a larger version.)

The first census with standard deviations. (Click for a larger version.)

What does all of that mean? Enslaving any percent of the population between 2.29% and 33.21% of the population counts as normal for 1790. Coming in beneath 2.29% or above 33.21% makes a territory notably free or enslaved, respectively. Of the Northern states and territories, only New York and New Jersey don’t fall into the notably free category.

I don’t know about New Jersey’s history to say, but colonial observers noted how Southern New York often seemed. Like the Chesapeake and the Carolina lowcountry, the colony had a bad case of the ubiquitous New World problem: too much land and not enough people to commercially exploit it. The Dutch, like the English further south, could find plenty of their countrymen who wanted to come over, strike it rich, and hurry home but few who wanted to stay for good. Faced with the same problem, both colonies turned to the same solution: bringing people who did not want to come and working them against their will. When the English took over New Amsterdam and renamed it New York, they saw little reason to change course.

On the other side of the probability curve, Georgia, South Carolina, and Virginia share the 33.21%+ enslaved club. We could call them a surrogate Deep South. Virginia tobacco plantations hardly require an introduction, even if the industry had seen much better days by 1790. South Carolina does deserve a bit more. The lowcountry, which extends down the Carolina coast and into Georgia, had the New World problem with an extra complication: few Europeans even wanted to try their hand in its coastal swamps. Precious few crops they knew grew in such terrain and tropical diseases gave them little inclination to experiment. But many of the early Carolinians did not come from Europe, but from overpopulated and deeply enslaved Barbados. They brought Barbadian slavery, already generations old, with them. Land that most white men did not want just meant land ideal for black men and women to work, whether they liked it or not. But what to grow there?

Here the slaves probably led the way. Europe knew few crops that thrived in swampy lowlands, but Africa had one: rice.  Cultivating rice required a lot of know-how, infrastructure, and constant maintenance to keep the fields flooded when they needed it and dry when the did not. All of that required a lot of labor, but they had a ready supply of cheap, unwilling labor. The low country had the perfect traits to become the most heavily enslaved section of the country in the years before the cotton gin.

Of course, that does not mean that 1860 simply recapitulates 1790. In 1790, no state or territory had a black or slave majority. South Carolina came closest, with Virginia a near second. Before the revolution, South Carolina did have a slave majority. In fact, South Carolina probably had that majority by the early 1700s. Between an upcountry frontier and a lowcountry most whites, save planters, wanted nothing to do with, one could expect little else. The colony lost an estimated 20,000 slaves during the Revolution and refused to ratify the Constitution unless it had twenty-five years to rebuild its economy with the brick and mortar of lives stolen from Africa.

The extremes have novelty to draw the eye, but the statistics don’t lie: while Northern areas tend to cluster toward freedom and Southern toward slavery, most places fit within one standard deviation of the mean.


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