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EAC Reviews: American Homicide by Randolph Roth

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American Homicide by Randolph Roth (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2009), 655 pp.

In American Homicide, Randolph Roth attempts to use the massive amount of historical data that he and his colleagues have assembled for the Historical Violence Database to explain patterns in the murder rate over broad historical time periods. His goal is to try to understand from an historical perspective why the United States is the most violent nation among affluent Western nations today.

And violent it is: from 1965 to 1992, the homicide rate for the U.S. was 9 per 100,000 people. The first-world democracy with the next highest rate is Canada, with only a quarter of the homicides per capita as the United States. Australia ranks third, with only a fifth of the U.S. number. If the murder rate in the United States continues, 1 out of every 142 children born today will be murdered. Even if the lower rate of 6 per 100,000 that the United States experienced during the 1990’s continues, nearly 1 out of every 200 newborns will eventually be murdered.

The risk of being murdered is by far highest in the South, moderately high in the Southwest, and lowest in the North. Poor Americans experience the highest murder rate, but even middle-class and affluent Americans run a much greater risk of being murdered than do people in other affluent democracies. Such high homicide numbers today make it hard to believe that America’s homicide rate was once the lowest in the Western world.

Roth and his colleagues compiled the historical data that informs his book by examining “every scrap of paper on criminal matters in every courthouse, every article in every issue of a number of local newspapers, every entry in the death records, and every local history based on lost sources, local tradition, or oral testimony” (xi-xii). The results are monumental, and they make all of this data available on the Historical Violence Database from the Criminal Justice Research Center at The Ohio State University.

Roth begins his book by discounting the usual explanations for the high homicide rate in the United States, such as urban poverty and unemployment, substance abuse, or support for law enforcement. He shows how each explanation does not stand up to close historical or geographic analysis. Instead, Roth identifies four main correlations to homicide rates over four centuries:

  1. The belief that government is stable and that its legal and judicial institutions are unbiased and will redress wrongs and protect lives and property.
  2. A feeling of trust in government and the officials who run it, and a belief in their legitimacy.
  3. Patriotism, empathy, and fellow feeling arising from racial, religious, or political solidarity.
  4. The belief that the social hierarchy is legitimate, that one’s position in society is or can be satisfactory and that one can command the respect of others without resorting to violence (18).

Roth systematically analyzes homicide among Anglo-Americans, other European immigrants, African-American slaves, and Native Americans from colonial times to the present. Roth even compares American homicide rates with European ones to get a sense of how unique violence in America really was at the time.

From its very beginning, America was a violent place. Seventeenth-century colonial America had high homicide rates, mainly due to political instability and an absence of unity among settlers. Law and order was also difficult to uphold on the colonial frontier with its competing jurisdictions and assorted notions of justice.

Roth contends that indentured servitude during this time had a strong impact on homicide rates, because it disrupted the social hierarchy. The institution forced free men and women down to the bottom of the social ladder, where they were remained for years living as near-slaves. Not surprisingly, this arrangement created power struggles between servants and their owners that often ended violently. In the mid-seventeenth century, indentured servitude accounted for 29 percent of the homicides in New England, 50 percent in Virginia, and 67 percent in Maryland.

Once political stability was achieved on the frontier in the last quarter of the seventeenth century, homicide rates dropped dramatically. Roth cites three events in particular that galvanized colonial society and led to a sharp drop in murder rates, which continued throughout much of the eighteenth century. King Philip’s War was one, by unifying colonists who lived on the front line in New England in their fight against a common enemy. The Chesapeake area experienced a similar unifying effect during its transformation into a slave society, when white slave owners put aside their differences in the interest of defending white supremacy. The third event was the Glorious Revolution in 1688, which brought all colonists together when the governmental reforms that accompanied it appeared to benefit the colonies as a whole.

The low homicide rate among unrelated adults through much of the eighteenth century did not last, though. The Revolutionary Period and its political turmoil saw the return of high homicide rates, with people questioning both government legitimacy and the loyalties of their fellow neighbors.

After America’s homicide rate dropped once again in the early nineteenth century as the country was coming together and taking shape, the rate soared in the mid-nineteenth century. This time, the murder rate diverged sharply from the rest of the Western world after roughly following worldwide trends up until this point. Roth’s account for why the homicide rate in the U.S. skyrocketed at this time in history should give us pause, if not chills. My guess is that Roth wrote the following passage before our recent partisan squabbles really took shape, but it certainly seems to mirror descriptions of our current political situation:

The Democrats failed as a national party and the Whigs failed altogether, leaving the two-party system in ruins. Parties that were more aggressive ideologically took their place. The leaders of these parties questioned the legitimacy of national institutions and challenged other Americans’ morality, patriotism, and right to citizenship. They used extreme rhetoric to generate partisan enthusiasm, and they encouraged righteous and retributive violence, especially in defense of property or rights (301).

In some ways, there are two books riding parallel with one another throughout Roth’s book. One is quantitative, with its presentation of large quantities of data and number crunching. The other is interpretive, with lots of anecdotal evidence, notable stories of murder, and his attempt to explain fluctuating homicide rates through political, social, and economic trends. The latter requires the more convincing of the two. Roth, for example, cites war as a divider at times and a unifier at others, depending on whether the murder rates are up or down through that period. Granted, war is a complex phenomenon that cannot be reduced to an essential element, but the difficulty in ascribing its effect on murder rates illustrates just how tricky interpreting numbers can be when they involve so many variables in motive, emotion, and method that murder does.

Not surprisingly, Roth’s interpretive assessment of his data has received the most critical attention from other historians. In The New Yorker, Jill Lepore takes Roth to task for grafting what she sees as dubious conclusions onto quantitative data, as though Roth is simply generating raw numbers and then looking for entry-points to slap his own agenda on top of them. As she puts it, “if you know what the homicide rate is, it’s easy to find a story that fits your data.”

Lepore, however, ungenerously characterizes Roth’s data-collecting methods, which required him to comb through countless qualitative sources to extract quantitative numbers. I would like to believe that this exhausting process informed his interpretation of the data. Yes, it is possible to come up with various stories to fit the numbers, but the job of the historian is to find the best story that fits the availability of evidence. Time and more research will tell whether or not there is any weight to Roth’s interpretations. If we take Lepore’s strict rules for what qualifies as historical evidence to heart, we would indeed arrive in a “no man’s land” that would “devolve into meaninglessness,” which, ironically, is how she characterizes Roth’s project.

Homicide statistics for the twentieth century are surprisingly not as complete or as readily available as they are for the centuries that preceded it. The reason for this discrepancy is that the official data gathered by twentieth-century government agencies only record the number of victims–not the circumstances of their deaths–out of reluctance to specify motive before cases have been played out in court. For this reason, we will have to wait for more data to be collected before drawing firm conclusions about the most recent century.

Even if we don’t buy into Roth’s overarching conclusions, he presents the most comprehensive picture of American homicide to date. More studies will follow. A separate volume, Child Murder in America, will appear at a later date, since, according to Roth, the patterns for murders of children or by children are fundamentally different from those involving adults. So far, Roth’s work has greatly enhanced our understanding of violence and murder in America and shows great promise for future work on this topic.

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