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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 85/August 1914/The Geographical Distribution of American Genius

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 85‎ | August 1914

THE GEOGRAPHICAL DISTRIBUTION OF AMERICAN GENIUS
By Dr. SCOTT NEARING

UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA

THE last few years have witnessed a friendly controversy between the champions of nature and the champions of nurture, over the forces that are responsible for greatness. The nature advocates have insisted upon the importance of heredity in shaping men's lives. The nurture advocates have laid equal emphasis upon environment. Each of these groups has relied upon New England as one proof of the contention.

Both parties to the controversy are willing to admit that New England has produced a considerable proportion of the great men of America. Those scientists who throw emphasis on the importance of heredity hold that New England, having made a contribution to the number of distinguished men in the United States wholly out of proportion to its population, stands as a substantial proof of the importance of race qualities. Those scientists who adhere to the opposing view maintain with equal positiveness that the supremacy of New England has long been exaggerated. There was no time, these men insist, at which New England had an immense lead in the production of greatness over the other sections of the country, if its percentage of population at that time was taken into consideration. Furthermore, so the argument continues, the supremacy of New England in the production of distinguished men is being rapidly taken over by the middle west. It is in that section that the leaders of the next generation are being born.

The contention is, in its nature, both interesting and endless, unless some facts can be obtained which will throw some light upon the questions at issue. These, I take it, are three:

1. Was there ever a time when the number of distinguished men born in New England was greater in proportion to its population than the proportion for other sections of the United States?
2. Has there been any change in the proportion of distinguished persons contributed by New England?
3. What contributions of distinguished persons are now being made by the various sections of the United States?

These questions can not be answered with certainty. The available facts make unimpeachable conclusions impossible. Nevertheless, approximations may be made which should throw some light on the questions.

The volume entitled "Who's Who in America" for 1912-13 contains 18,794 names.[1] This list purports to include the distinguished men from every walk of life in the United States. The compilation is necessarily incomplete. There are, of course, omissions; while the mere classification of a name in "Who's Who in America" is no guarantee of distinction. On the whole, however, it may justly be said th.at the proportion of distinguished men whose names are inserted in "Who's Who in America" is about the same for the various professions. Furthermore, there is no reason to suppose that the proportion secured from different sections of the country would show any material variation. All things considered, these 18,794 names seem to offer the most available basis for a study that would answer the questions regarding the supremacy of New England in its production of distinguished persons.

A study of the data in "Who's Who" was made in the following manner. A schedule was arranged to show, first, the profession; second, the decade of birth; and third, the place of birth of the consecutive names, beginning with the first page of the volume. In order to make the information as usable as possible, the returns for each state were separately tabulated, as were the returns for those cities which reported a population of more than 20,000 in 1850. These items of information were secured for the first 10,000 native-born persons. The generalization from the first 10,000 names can safely be applied to the remainder of the volume.

The first point of interest arises in connection with the number and per cent, of distinguished persons from each section of the United States and the per cent, of the total population of the United States in the respective sections. These figures (Table I.) show at a glance the proportion of distinguished persons born in the various localities.

These returns, on their face, accord to New England a lead in the total number of distinguished persons produced that is little short of phenomenal. With less than a fourteenth of the population, New England has been the birthplace of almost a quarter of the total number of distinguished persons whose names appear in "Who's Who." The Middle Atlantic States, with a fifth of the population, report somewhat less than a third of the distinguished men; the East North Central States report almost equal proportions of distinguished persons and of population; while the other sections show a proportion of population considerably above the proportion of distinguished persons born. There are

 

Table I

Number and Per Cent, of Eminent Persons born in the Various Geographical Divisions of the United States with the Per Cent, of the Total Population of the United States in Each Division in 1910[2]

Geographical Division Eminent Persons Per Cent, of the
Total Population
of the United
States, 1910
Number Per Cent.
United States 10,000 100 100
New England 2,311 23 7 .1
Middle Atlantic 2,974 30 21 .0
East North Central 2,225 22 19 .8
West North Central 542 5 12 .7
South Atlantic 1,091 11 13 .3
East South Central 546 6 9 .1
West South Central 161 2 9 .6
Mountain 28 2 .9
Pacific 122 1 4 .6

therefore three sections of the United States—New England, the Middle Atlantic States, and the East North Central States—in which a comparatively large number of distinguished persons were born. These three groups of states lie in a contiguous territory, in the northeastern section of the United States. Of the three groups, New England, in proportion to its population, has by far the largest proportion of distinguished persons.

The figures in Table I. are manifestly incomplete. Changes in population have been rapid during the past few decades. The tide of westward movement has materially altered the population center. No final conclusion regarding the position of New England as a contributor of distinguished persons can be reached unless the gross result is corroborated by the facts showing the time at which the distinguished persons were born, and the proportion of the population in the various sections of the country at that time.

Table II

Number and Per Cent, of Eminent Persons Who Were Born at Certain Times

Time of Birth Number Per Cent.
Before 1850 2,818 28
1850-1859 2,715 27
1860-1869 2,717 27
1870-1879 1,304 13
1880-1889 95 1
1890-1899 2
Unknown 349 4
——— ——
Total 10,000 100

A surprisingly large number of the eminent persons whose names appear in "Who's Who in America" were born before 1850. Table II. gives the time of birth by decades.

The eminent persons who were alive in 1912-13 are, for the most part, well along in life. Only one in a hundred was born since 1880; only fourteen in a hundred were born since 1870. Men born before 1870 were at least forty-two years old in 1912. In so far as time records are concerned, this study must deal with the period prior to 1870, since the great body of eminent persons was born before that date. More than a quarter of the total eminent persons was born before 1850, making them at least sixty-two years old. More than four fifths of the entire number were born before 1870; that is, they are at least forty-four years of age. In so far as time is a factor, interest centers in the periods before 1850, 1850-1859, and 1860-69.

The total returns give New England a material lead in the production of eminent persons. Is that lead maintained when the totals are broken up into time periods? The relation between the decade of birth, the place of birth, and the proportion of population in each section at the time of birth appears in Table III. The proportion of eminent persons born before 1850 is compared with the population in 1850. The proportion born between 1850 and 1859 is compared with the population of 1860. The population figures, in each case, refer, not to the time of birth—such a comparison is manifestly impossible. The total born in each decade is compared with the population at the end of that decade. This method should militate slightly in favor of New England, whose population in each decade constitutes a slightly smaller proportion of the total population of the United States.

 

Table III

Geographical
Division
Per
Cent.
Born
Be-
fore
1850
Per
Cent.
of
Pop.
1850
Per Cent. Per Cent. Per Cent Per Cent.
Born
1850-
1859
Total
Pop.
1860
Born
1860-
1869
Total
Pop.
1870
Born
1870-
1879
Total
Pop.
1880
Born
1880-
1889
Total
Pop.
1890
United States 100 100 100 100 100 100
New England 30 11 .8 23 10 .1 19 9 .1 19 8 .1 12 7 .5
Middle Atlantic 33 25 .54 32 23 .8 26 22 .9 25 20 .9 37 20 .2
East North Central 17 18 .5 23 22 .1 27 23 .7 23 22 .3 25 21 .4
West North Central 2 3 .8 4 6 .9 8 10 .0 10 12 .2 6 14 .2
South Atlantic 12 20 .2 10 17 .2 11 15 .2 12 15 .1 11 14 .1
East South Central 5 14 .5 5 12 .3 5 11 .4 5 11 .1 4 10 .2
West South Central 1 4 .1 2 5 .6 2 5 .3 2 6 .7 2 7 .5
Mountain .3 .6 .8 1 1 .3 1 .9
Pacific .5 1 1 .4 2 1 .6 3 2 .3 3 3 .0

A perusal of Table III. reveals several very evident situations. The first three groups of States—New England, the Middle Atlantic States and the East North Central States—are plainly in a class by themselves. Among these states, in every instance except one (the East North Central States, 1850), the proportion of eminent persons born in those groups of states is higher than the proportion of the total population found in those states at the same time. Among the other groups of states, in every case except two (Pacific States, 1870 and 1880), the proportion of eminent persons born is lower than the proportion of the total population found in the states. It therefore appears that of the eminent persons born up to 1890, the vast proportion were in that northeastern section of the United States bounded by the Mason and Dixon line on the south, and the line of the Mississippi-Missouri River on the west.

Among these northeastern groups of states New England holds a unique position. Throughout the entire period she appears as the birthplace of a far larger proportion of eminent persons, in proportion to her population, than either of the other groups. During the early years her lead was little short of remarkable. Of the distinguished persons born before 1850, she produced almost one third, while her population in 1850 was but one ninth of the total population of the United States. The Middle Atlantic States, with a quarter of the population, produced only a little more than a quarter of the eminent persons. The same relation between the two sections holds true of the decade from 1850 to 1859. In this period New England has one tenth of the population, and one fourth of the distinguished persons, while the Middle Atlantic States have a quarter of the population, and about a third of the distinguished persons. Even as late as 1880 the ratio between the proportion of eminent men and of population is higher in New England than in any other section except the Middle Atlantic States. At the same time, the East North Central States, with the single exception of the years before 1850, report a proportion of distinguished persons born only a little higher than their proportion of the population. During the first three periods the relative proportions of eminent persons born and of population are fairly similar in the Middle Atlantic and the East North Central States, but at the same time very markedly below the standard set by New England.

The considerable lead of New England and the marked lead of the Middle Atlantic States and the East North Central States over the other sections of the country may be tested in various ways. Instead of comparing the proportion of eminent persons in the various sections with the total population, a comparison may be made with the native white population. This seems particularly fitting in view of the large negro population in the south, which has contributed so little to the number of eminent persons in the country. Such a comparison is likewise desirable in those states of the north where there is a large proportion of foreign-born persons. A comparison appears in Table IV., where the number of eminent persons per one hundred thousand of total population and of native white population is given.

Table IV

The Geographical Areas in which Unusually High Proportions of Distinguished Persons were born

Geographical Area Total
Distinguished
Persons
Distinguished Persons
Per 100,000
Total
Population
1880
Per 100,000
Native White
Population
1880
United States 10,000 19.9 27.1
New England 2,311 57.6 72.4
Middle Atlantic 2,974 28.4 35.9
East North Central 2,225 19.9 24.4
West North Central 542 8.6 10.9
South Atlantic 1,091 14.2 24.3
East South Central 546 9.8 15.3
West South Central 161 4.9 7.8
Mountain 28 4.3 6.0
Pacific 122 10.9 16.3
 
Vermont 219 65.9 75.5
Massachusetts 1,123 62.9 85.8
New Hampshire 189 54.5 63.1
Connecticut 334 53.6 69.2
Maine 319 49.2 54.3
Rhode Island 127 45.8 64.8
 
New York 1,778 34.9 46.6
Pennsylvania 941 21.9 26.1
 
Ohio 859 26.8 31.5
 
Delaware 41 27.8 37.0
Maryland 218 23.3 33.9
Virginia 266 17.5 30.7
 

The facts appearing in Table IV. do not in any material way change the apparent status of New England with respect to the other sections of the United States. As regards both the number of eminent persons per 100,000 of total population, and of native-born population, New England appears far in the lead among the other sections of the country. New England's lead is even more marked when the situation is studied in the individual states. The individual states appearing in Table IV. are those which showed a proportion of eminent persons higher than that for the United States at large. Without a single exception, these states are in the northeastern portion of the United States. The list contains every one of the New England States, a portion of the Middle Atlantic and the East North Central States, and no other state. Furthermore, each of the New England States, taken individually, shows a higher proportion of eminent persons than any other single state, or than any other group of states. The supremacy of New England lies, not in any one state, or in any one locality. Vermont leads the list; Rhode Island brings up the rear; yet the proportion of eminent persons born in Rhode Island per 100,000 of total, and of native-white population, is 30 per cent, above New York, the state outside of New England coming next in rank.

There is another test to which the figures may he subjected. There may conceivably be some relation between the educational advantages offered in cities and the proportion of eminent men developed in any population. The champions of environment as the modifying factor in life insist that the influences of city life go far to outweigh heredity qualities. Therefore, since the northeastern portion of the United States was the original center of educational activity, and since it now contains the largest proportion of city population, it might well be expected to produce the largest proportion of eminent persons.

There were twenty-seven cities which reported a population of more than 20,000 in 1850. A separate tabulation for these gives an excellent idea of the proportion of eminent persons born in city and rural districts. In passing, it is interesting to note that of these twenty-seven cities,

4 were in New England,
10 were in the Middle Atlantic States,
4 were in the East North Central States.

The other six geographical divisions of states have but nine of the twenty-seven cities.

Table V

Eminent Persons who were Born in the Cities of the United States which had a Population of 20,000 or over in 1850, with the Per Cent, of the Total Population of the United States living in those Cities in 1850 and in 1880
 
Time of Birth Total Eminent Persons Eminent Per-
sons Born in 27
Leading Cities
Per Cent.
Before 1850 2,818 599 21.2
1850-1859 2,715 610 22.5
1860-1869 2,717 591 21.7
1870-1879 1,304 363 27.8
1880-1889 95 38 40.0
No age 351 123 ———
Totals 10,000 2,324 23.2

During the entire period under consideration, these twenty-seven cities contained from one twelfth to one eighth of the population of the United States. The proportion of the total population of the United States living in these twenty-seven cities was,

In 1850 8.7 per cent.
In 1860 11.2 per cent.
In 1870 12.8 per cent.
In 1880 13.1 per cent.

These percentages afford a striking contrast to those in Table V. The percentage of population living in these twenty-seven cities was never more than one seventh of the total population of the United States. During this time they reported never less than one fifth of the eminent persons born. Whatever the cause of this preponderance of eminent persons who come from a city environment, the facts are certainly remarkable. The cities appear to be far in the lead as producers of eminence.

There is no absolute correspondence between the proportion of urban population and the proportion of eminent persons born.3 An analysis of the per cent, of population which is urban shows that while New England is far in the lead of the other sections of the country, there are a number of states which report a large proportion of eminent persons born and a comparatively small proportion of urban population. The reverse condition is also true. Rhode Island, with the lowest proportion of eminent persons reported by any New England State, has the highest percentage of urban population (93.5 per cent.) of any state in the union. New Hampshire, with the highest proportion of any New England state, has only 38.9 per cent, of the population urban. New Jersey, with a percentage of 53.7 urban, reports the lowest proportion of eminent persons of any state in the Middle Atlantic group.

Any tendency to attribute the supremacy of New England in the proportion of distinguished persons which it has contributed to the presence of large urban populations is offset by an examination of the figures for the cities themselves. The New England States are in the lead of the other states, but the New England cities are not in the lead of cities from other sections of the country. Indeed, an examination of Table VI., which contains a statement of the total eminent persons per 100,000 of the population in 1870 for the various cities, as well as the total born in each of the specified decades, shows very clearly that the cities in other sections of the country are decidedly in the lead. Boston and Providence alone, among the New England cities, have a proportion of eminent persons higher than that for the United States at large.

Whatever the cause of New England's position as the undisputed

3 Per Cent, of Population (180) which is Urban in Those Sections and States Having the Highest Percentage of Eminent Persons
Division Per Cent.
Urban Population
United States 29.5
New England 68.7
Middle Atlantic 49.9
East North Central 27.5
West North Central 18.1
South Atlantic 15.1
East South Central 8.4
West South Central 12.2
Mountain 23.6
Pacific 36.2

mother of American greatness, it apparently is not due to the presence of a large percentage of urban population. The facts showing urban and rural population point in no conclusive direction.

Table VI

Ratio between the Number of Eminent Persons born in Certain Cities and the Population of those Cities
Geographical Area Decade
1850-1859
Decade
1860-1869.
Decade
1870-1879.
United States 8.9 7.0 2.6
New England 19.6 15.0 6.2
Middle Atlantic 11.4 8.1 3.1
East North Central 9.1 7.8 2.7
 
Boston 39.5 23.9 8.3
Cleveland 41.2 23.9 8.3
Providence 35.6 17.4 9.5
Washington 31.2 21.9 13.6
Syracuse 28.6 11.6 7.7
Milwaukee 24.4 14.1 3.6
Detroit 24.1 20.2 6.1
San Francisco 21.1 11.4 5.6
Chicago 18.3 14.4 6.3
Baltimore 12.4 14.2 6.0
Cincinnati 15.5 10.6 5.9
Philadelphia 14.5 10.8 5.6
St. Louis 14.3 6.4 3.7
Brooklyn 13.2 10.7 4.2
Richmond 13.2 9.8 4.7
Portland 11.4 25.8 8.7
Troy 17.9 10.9 7.1

To guard against the objection that the supremacy of New England was due to the inclusion of an undue number of preachers and school teachers in the "Who's Who" figures, an analysis was prepared of the statistics by professions. The 10,000 persons are divided rather evenly over the different professions, with the two exceptions of educators and lawyers. Table VII. contains the figures for the professions at large.

Table VII

Number and Per Cent, of Eminent Persons who were in Certain Professions
Profession Number Per Cent.
of Total
Educators 1,932 19.3
Lawyers 1,354 13.6
Business men 998 9.9
Public office holders (except Army and Navy) 916 9.2
Authors 908 9.1
Clergymen 732 7.3
Doctors 619 6.2
Scientists 614 6.1
Journalists 595 6.0
Army and Navy 430 4.3
Miscellaneous 902 9.0
——— ———
Total 10,000 100.0
 

The returns do not show on their face any justification for the belief that the various professions have been so picked as to militate in favor of New England. Indeed, it is apparent that all of the leading professions are well represented. Therefore, if New England makes a fair showing in a goodly number of the professions, the conclusion may be justifiably drawn that New England stands out in specific instances, as well as in general, as the producer of eminent persons.

The figures in Table VIII. contain a statement of the proportion of persons in the different professions for each of the geographical divisions of the United States.

Table VIII

Per Cent, of Eminent Persons in the Five Professions having the Largest Number of Names in "Who's Who," Classified by Place of Birth, for those Sections having the Highest Number of Eminent Persons
Place of Birth Educa-
tors
Lawyers Business
Men
Public
Office
Holders
Public
Office
Authors
All Pro-
fessions
New England 24.2 17.1 26.8 16.9 26.5 23.1
Middle Atlantic 25.2 29.8 33.3 20.1 30.7 29.8
East North Central 25.7 22.0 21.6 23.8 21.5 22.2
West North Central 5.7 4.9 5.1 7.3 5.7 5.5
South Atlantic 12.7 13.2 7.9 15.4 6.5 10.9
East South Central 5.0 8.2 3.0 9.6 5.4 5.4
Other Sections 1.5 4.8 2.3 6.9 3.7 3.1
100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0

The supremacy of the northeastern section of the United States is again amply demonstrated. Throughout the period under consideration, this section of the country has contained less than three fifths of the total population.[3] There is an almost equal percentage of educators in the three sections. The Middle Atlantic States lead notably in the percentage of lawyers and business men, while among public office holders, authors and all other eminent men, the three sections are on comparatively equal terms.

The time has now come when the three questions propounded at the outset of this paper may be answered with some color of authority. The answers are not final, but they are significant in so far as "Who's Who" is authoritative.

The answer to question one is clear and unequivocal. "Was there ever a time when the number of distinguished men born in New England was greater, in proportion to its population, than the production for the other sections of the United States?" In the past New England has towered head and shoulders above the other sections of the United States in her production of eminent persons. Two other sections, the Middle Atlantic and the East North Central States, alone approach her record, and they lag far behind her pace.

The second question is not so susceptible of positive answer—"Has there been any change in the proportion of distinguished persons contributed by New England?" Such a change has undoubtedly taken place. Until 1880 New England took first rank. Up to that time her supremacy can not even be disputed. With that decade, New England drops behind the Middle Atlantic States. Whatever the cause of the change, the change is itself forcing the New Englander's lead very hard.

The third question: "What contribution of distinguished persons is now being made by the various sections of the United States?" may not be answered in any dogmatic way. New England is evidently contributing a less high proportion of distinguished persons. The Middle Atlantic States, the East North Central States, and the Pacific States are striding rapidly to the front. Thus far (the decade of 1880-1889) the Middle Atlantic States lead, with New England second, and the East North Central States third.

All the facts at hand point to New England as the one-time birthplace of the largest proportion of distinguished persons. The center is shifting, however, into New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio. That New England once held the palm is a statement that must go without challenge. That she can or will continue to hold it seems doubtful. Meanwhile, of the persons whose names found their way into "Who's Who in America" an overwhelming proportion seem to have been born in that section of the northeastern United States bounded by the Mason and Dixon line on the south, and the Mississippi-Missouri River on the west.

  1. "Who's Who" is published in Chicago. The editor, Albert Nelson Marquis, was born in Ohio. "The standards of admission to 'Who's Who in America' divide the eligibles into two classes: (1) Those who are selected on account of special prominence in creditable lines of effort, making them the subjects of extensive interest, inquiry or discussion in this country; and (2) those who are arbitrarily included on account of official position—civil, military, naval, religious or educational—or their connection with the most exclusive learned or other societies." From a statement following the preface, 1912-13 edition.
  2. Of these 10,000 eminent persons, 779, or 7.8 per cent., were women. Sex will not be considered in the present article.
  3. In 1850 the New England States, the Middle Atlantic States and the East North Central States contained 56.7 per cent, of the population; 55.7 per cent, in 1860; 55.5 per cent, in 1870.