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 was more than five times as deadly.
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 veto champion was
Franklin Roosevelt, with 635 and nine overridden. The current
president hasn't vetoed any bill; if he never does, he'll be the
first president to do so 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 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 areas 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. 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, Riverside -- decided
to fill the gap. The resulting compilation enlarges our rearview
mirror and, perhaps, hints where we're headed.