The horrific images from the Japanese earthquake-tsunami have probably shaken everyone’s confidence. When a nation so modern — so modern that its technology is considered cutting edge — is knocked down so badly, with thousands of citizens dead and many more left in the cold dark for days, with food running short, communities isolated, and anxieties about a nuclear energy threat, the rest of us can only wonder how secure we are.
The anxiety will pass. The worst of tragedies — like the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami which killed 230,000 people and the 2008 earthquake in China which took 68,000 lives — pass into vague memory as we go about our daily lives. (The public’s amnesia for natural disasters drives emergency preparedness experts batty.) But the experience at the moment creates a sort of historical flashback to an era when it was a lot harder to feel secure, when insecurity was the norm.
Over your shoulder
There was a time, a long time, from when humans appeared on earth to about the 20th century, when death was a constant companion. I don’t mean this in the sense of an existential foreboding (as in a Woody Allen movie), but in the sense of an everyday experience and threat. Death — along with serious disability and chronic pain — was all around and could strike suddenly. Most Americans today live without that constant fear.
In America of the 1700s and early 1800s, the average woman would have already buried both of her parents and four of her children by the time she had reached middle age. The diaries and letters of mothers from that era show that the experience of losing and fearing the loss of infants constantly pressed on their thoughts and emotions. It was not until after World War I that the typical mother would live to see all her children grow up.
Early Americans understood the precariousness of life. Puritan ministers stressed death’s whim and the need to stay religiously prepared. Many could recite the saying, as Reverend Cotton Mather did, “If an old man has death before his face, a young man has death behind his back; the Deadly Blow may be as near to one as ’tis the other.” Similarly, a 1776 gravestone in Schenectady, New York, warned passers-by that the Angel of Death is close, so be ready for Judgement: “The soul prepared needs no delay / The summon comes the saint obeys.”
Death often rode in with the plague, the First Horseman of the Apocalypse. In 1832, residents of Schenectady tracked reports of cholera in England, its arrival by ship in New York harbor, and then its advance upstate. Civic leaders mobilized citizens to clean the streets, experiment with disinfectants, reform their personal habits, and join in prayer. In the end, little helped and more than 40 died in a town of five thousand people. (Story told here.)
New York City suffered even more. Tens of thousands of the well-to-do fled Manhattan ahead of the disease. “The roads, in all directions, were lined with well-filled stagecoaches, livery coaches, private vehicles, and equestrians, all panic-struck, fleeing the city” and filling up farm homes for miles around. Over 3,500 largely poor, immigrant, and black New Yorkers died (proportionally it was as if over 100,000 New Yorkers died today). In some neighborhoods death arrived so quickly that bodies remained lying in the gutter.
On the Illinois frontier, federal troops carried the same cholera into communities which were already beset by seasonal epidemics. Cholera lasted there into 1834. Deaths mounted so rapidly in what was then “the West” that sometimes two bodies shared a blanket for a coffin.
Add to these episodic catastrophes the chronic ones such as common illnesses and infections (in 1900, about one of every 500 Americans died of tuberculosis; compare that to the rates for AIDS in 2000, when 1 of every 6,000 Americans was just diagnosed with HIV); accidents (one study found that a large proportion of Boston men in the 19th century ended their lives falling off scaffolds, getting caught in machinery, or in other accidents); wars on the frontiers; alcoholism; and everyday interpersonal violence.
Americans gained much distance on the Angel of Death in the 20th century. The life expectancy of an American newborn lengthened by about 30 years over the twentieth century. For the average white baby girl, that meant the difference between dying at about age 50 and dying at about age 80. Many factors contributed to greater security of life: increasing physical immunity, much better nutrition, deeper understanding of disease, greater personal and home cleanliness, vaccinations, fewer work accidents, antibiotics and other new medicines, much more effective law enforcement, more schooling, and others. The largest single factor was public construction of facilities to provide clean water and to safely remove sewage. It was the major reason so many fewer American mothers had to bury their children.
Certainly, the improvement was not uniform. There are American communities today where death is a lot closer than it is elsewhere, neighborhoods where infant mortality is near third-world levels and deadly violence seems to be at wild-west levels.
Even there, as hard as the daily experience seems, life is longer and more secure than generations ago. For most Americans, it has been a dramatic transformation. Cotton Mather’s warning, that “the Deadly Blow may be as near” to the young as the old, makes little sense today. Death, personal experience tells us (although television dramas may tell us otherwise), is a matter for the old.
Greater security of life is one reason why the American birth rate dropped so rapidly in the last century and a half. When we expect all our children to grow up, and almost all do, we decide to have fewer of them. This security is why we look forward to the future and plan as much as we do, why it makes sense to save money for college, to take out a 30-year mortgage, to enroll in a 401K plan, to scout out a retirement home, and so forth. It makes sense because we expect to be there to fulfill those plans.
And yet episodes such as the Japanese disaster — or, closer to home, 9/11 — periodically remind us that the normal can be shattered. All that which helps make our lives safe and predictable — the car has gas, the road is open, the stores have food and medicines, the ATM has cash, the heat works, the lights go on, the ambulance and police are at hand, and the rest — can disappear in an instant. And then Reverend Mather is right, the Deadly Blow is near.
Japan will makes us think a bit about this. And then, if past experience holds, we’ll stop and get back to that predictable and secure life.
Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American life from American history.