In this the holiday season in a United States heavy on fear, anger and acrimony, could there be a better time to look at the data on how far we have come collectively since the Revolutionary War that is in one context so long ago and in another so recent.
Two-hundred-thirty-five-odd years is a blip in the life history of the planet, but measured by the average time people lived in colonial days, it was more than six-and-a-half human lifespans.
We can start right there with the changes for the better.
For those born in 1760, which by the standards of the time would have made them old enough to fight in the war that began 15 years later, the average lifespan was 36 years.
Today, life expectancy is more than twice that at 78.6 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Diseases like cholera, dysentery and tuberculous which once haunted the nation are now rare.
Dysentery was once almost as deadly as bullets. It killed an estimated 95,000 soldiers during the U.S. Civil War, according to the American Civil War Facts. Typhoid killed another 35,000.
“The reason diseases killed so many soldiers…was the lack of basic sanitary and hygiene practices,” the website notes. “…It is estimated that nearly 400,000 Civil War soldiers died from disease compared to 200,000 from other causes….Unfortunately doctors and nurses during the American Civil War just did not know that hygiene was important for health.”
The war itself, as everyone knows, was fought to end slavery. It ended that deplorable practice, but it didn’t fix America’s problems with racial discrimination. That issue lingers to this day, but it is a shadow of what it once was.
Less violent, not more
Part of this might simply be due to a general, overall decline in violence in America.
In a country where the media delivers the news of any mass shooting with such lightning speed that it seems as if it might have happened in your hometown if not your neighborhood, it is easy to lose sight of how safe the nation today.
Homicide rates in colonial America have been estimated at 100 to 500 per 100,000 population. They didn’t improve much as the country moved west.
“To appreciate how violent the West was, we need to consider not only the annual homicide rate, but the risk of being murdered over time,” the Criminal Justice Research Center at The Ohio State University notes. “For instance, the adult residents of Dodge City faced a homicide rate of at least 165 per 100,000 adults per year, meaning that 0.165 percent of the population was murdered each year—between a fifth and a tenth of a percent. That may sound small, but it is large to a criminologist or epidemiologist, because it means that an adult who lived in Dodge City from 1876 to 1885 faced at least a 1 in 61 chance of being murdered.
“An adult who lived in San Francisco, 1850-1865, faced at least a 1 in 203 chance of being murdered, and in the eight other counties in California that have been studied to date, at least a 1 in 72 chance. Even in Oregon, 1850-1865, which had the lowest minimum rate yet discovered in the American West (30 per 100,000 adults per year), an adult faced at least a 1 in 208 chance of being murdered.”
The murder rate in Oregon today is 1.96 per 100,000, according to the independent Death Penalty Information Center. That’s even lower than the national 2.5 per 100,000 rate the FBI reports for the countries peaceful “suburban cities.”
White Americans, in particular, live in a pretty safe world. As the CDC has noted, it is a different story for black Americans, many of whom live in economically distressed areas.
“In 2015, homicide rates were 5.7 deaths per 100,000 for the total population, 20.9 for non-Hispanic blacks, 4.9 for Hispanics, and 2.6 for non-Hispanic whites,” the CDC reported. “During 1999–2015, rates of deaths from homicide were highest for non-Hispanic blacks and lowest for non-Hispanic whites and declined the most for Hispanics.”
Some inner cities have come to resemble war zones. St. Louis is now considered the homicide capital of the country with a death rate of 60.9 per 100,000 focused on poor black neighborhoods. Baltimore is not far behind with a rate of 51 per 100,000, again focused on poverty zones.
“Last year in St. Louis, most killings were concentrated in neighborhoods like Greater Ville and the adjacent JeffVanderLou, which sit just a few miles from the city’s downtown, and each recorded a murder rate of 162,” The Trace reported.
The country is not perfect. That can’t be ignored.
“We continue to abandon generations of young people of color,” Justice Policy Center leaders observed in the Baltimore Sun just days ago. “They’ve grown up in neighborhoods with poor-performing schools, crumbling infrastructure, high rates of violence and the attendant trauma, and a lack of economic opportunity. They’ve learned since day 1 that we value their lives less. And they often have to grow up too quickly – supporting themselves and their families from a young age, forced into alternative, and often unsafe, economies. For many, that route ends up in the ‘cradle to jail’ pathway of violence and mass incarceration.”
But most of us don’t live in inner-city Baltimore or inner-city anywhere else. We live in the parts of the country that provide employment capable of supporting lifestyles that leave most people worrying most about mass shootings, healthcare, the 2020 Presidential election, climate change and immigration, according to a November Harris Poll.
Healthline calculated the risks on some of these.
“The lifetime risk of dying in a mass shooting is around 1 in 110,154 — about the same chance of dying from a dog attack or legal execution,” it reported. The healthcare worry is hard to calculate. It appears to be more about cost than death. The Presidential election worry?
It’s hard to even guess what that might be about. Liberal voters worrying wildman President Donald Trump gets re-elected? Conservative voters worrying wildman Trump doesn’t get re-elected?
Climate change? That’s certainly a cause for concern, but if you want to worry there are a lot of things that could kill you long before climate becomes a serious threat. Healthline declared U.S. fears “out of sync with the actual risks.”
That is true. But maybe it isn’t our fault.
It might be that after hundreds of thousands of years of evolution in an environment where we were constantly at risk of death we acquired an evolutionary drive to be fearful coupled to a necessary ability to rationalize away fear in order to function?
This would nicely explain our relationship with motor vehicles
The lifetime odds of dying in a motor-vehicle accident are 1 in 103, according to the National Safety Council (NSC), but nobody thinks about that because motor vehicles make our lives so much easier.
The odds of dying in a fall aren’t far behind, according to the NSC.
It makes those almost 1,000 times greater than the chances of dying in mass shooting, but almost no one gets up in the morning, gets out of bed and straps on a helmet in fear of suffering a deadly traumatic brain injury in a fall.
Maybe because we now lead such safe, comfortable lives compared to our ancestors of even 100 years ago that we need truly exotic dangers to drive our fears: mass shootings, diseases or injuries that might happen; a warmer climate to which we might not be able to adapt; a president who might do what?
Beyond heating up the nation’s political rhetoric and widening the partisan political divide, Trump really hasn’t done much at all. It’s hard for a president to do much while at war with one of the houses of Congress.
The reality is that the American political system is designed to protect the status quo. Trump lacks both the patience and the focus necessary to make fundamental, longterm changes in the federal bureaucracy.
Most Americans don’t really want change. They’re comfortable enough that what they want is increased security to satiate what they now fear. And most of us seem pretty hard-pressed to admit how comfortable life is – even for those of us hanging onto the lower middle – in this 21st Century.
So maybe it’s time to take a moment to say thanks for how lucky we are to live in these times.