One Billion Americans, 19th Century Style?

I’ve remarked often that the social machinery of the United States, our very identity as Americans, is dependent on carving industrial empires out of the wilderness with a firehose of immigrants from Europe. As soon as the frontier closed and the flow of people from Europe slowed to a trickle, America kinda died, and we’ve been gazing at the carcass ever since, desperate for something, anything, to spark it back to its former vibrancy.

To modern ears this all sounds weird, but this actually used to be a widely-recognized social problem! Frederick Turner’s “Frontier Thesis” held that the pioneer experience was decisive in shaping America’s culture of rugged individualism and its style of revolutionary liberal democracy. The fact the frontier was closing around the same time the thesis became widely accepted by scholars incited something of a panic for the future of the country, which arguably culminated in the 1960s in the form of John F. Kennedy’s signature political program, not coincidentally titled “the New Frontier”. What does building particle accelerators with herds of bison roaming over them and sending men to the Moon at great government expense telegraph if not a desperate effort to recapture the lost greatness of the Old West?

Alas, it seems not to have worked. And we not only lack a frontier, but we also want for a firehose of immigration from Europe. As Wolf Tivy once pointed out:

Why America needs immigrants to survive: because America is a dysfunctional vampire-state that destructively consumes human capital. We’ve been limping along on prewar central European fumes for decades. At some point, we run out. People act there there is some infinite pile of high-quality human capital overseas, and we can just plunder it indefinitely. It doesn’t work like that. At some point, you have to get good at generating human capital. America has never been good at this.

Examples abound, but perhaps the most prominent is how Wernher von Braun, a man very much the product of a life spent in Europe before World War II, spearheaded America’s effort to land a man on the Moon, a feat that hasn’t been duplicated since, despite it being 55 years and counting since Neil Armstrong took his “one small step for a man”. Even starker is how apparently the best man we could send to talk to the Chinese last year was Henry Kissinger, a man who was 100 years old at the time…and who recently died, without leaving a cadre of homegrown (or even imported) diplomats to replace his generation at the helm, a generation that came from pre-World-War-II Europe.

What if America was brought back to Life? Or; better yet, never Died?…into the Demographic Weeds we go!

Given this rather bleak reality, one might wonder what prospects there are, if any, of getting the carcass jump-started back to life, but much more intriguing, and the point of this post, is wondering what things might have been like if the machinery never ground to a halt. What if America in its 19th century demographic glory just kept going and was still humming along even today. What would that even look like?

Immigration, which at this time was overwhelmingly from Europe, slowed to a trickle after World War I and has never come back since. Keeping the firehose of European human capital coming in would have required an exponentially increasing number of arrivals, but that might not have been all that unrealistic a prospect. The United States was taking in half a million immigrants or so a year in the 1880s and 1890s, with numbers cresting a million a year by the eve of the Great War. This was on the order of 1% of the total population in any given year, with this (and various other factors) yielding a total foreign-born population hovering around 14% for most of this period (see this), increasing in tandem with natural growth of the native-born population. Which was brisk!

Childhood mortality was higher back then, but even adjusting for that factor the US’s fertility rate was close to 3 per woman as late as the 1910s, only truly dropping to replacement levels by the 1930s. Interestingly, this is similar to where Israel’s fertility rates have been for most of their history; Jewish fertility now crests 3 per woman, and has been above replacement since the founding of the country. And it’s not just the Haredi: even the most secular Jewish populations in Israel manage to average 2 per woman! Guess states on frontiers comprised of settlers who have a mission and believe in their future get birth rates like that.

Since Israel is very much a demographically modern country, their experience suggests it’s at least conceivable that America’s 1900s and 1910s fertility rates could have just kept chugging on indefinitely. Certainly an immigration rate around 1% of the total population every year could have kept going indefinitely, though it starts to get slightly questionable how much of that could come from Europe.

What would all this have come to, on net? Well, the United States was growing at a torrid rate throughout the 19th century, cresting 30% population increases per decade from its founding through the 1850s. After that, when the population had expanded from the 1790 figure of 3.9 million (!) to a rather larger 31 million, the percentage increases started to slow. Still, the United States managed to grow in population by over 20% per decade for the rest of the 19th century, posting 21% growth in both the 1890s and the 1900s, the decades we’re studying here, where immigration flows and fertility rates were, intriguingly, at levels that wouldn’t look totally out of place for a large and demographically modern country.

So let’s say, hypothetically, that the United States had kept that population growth rate indefinitely, expanding the ranks of Americans by 21% per decade up to the present day, starting from the 1910 census. As of the 2020 census the United States population would stand at *drumroll* 750 million.

We hear so much about how torrid population growth was back then, so it might come as some surprise to learn the population only doubles in such a scenario. Part of the puzzle is, of course, the lack of a Baby Boom; for the two decades after World War II a fertility rate steady in the high 2s per woman would be lower than what occurred in our timeline.

Nevertheless, that’s an entire current America added on to the total! Not quite the “one billion Americans” of Matt Yglesias’s dreams, but we would be growing briskly enough, on track for a population of 908 million in 2030 and 1.099 billion in 2040.

We’d be on track to surpass China in population by 2050 and India (!) by 2060, becoming the most populous country in the world. Assuming, of course, that China and India evolve in the same way they did in real life during this alternate 20th century.

What would an entire current America added onto the total be like? Much of this comes from greater natural growth from people who were already here as of 1910, but a huge portion of it comes from the immigrants America is taking in in this scenario. To remain true to the spirit of the “1900s forever” scenario, they’re going to have to come primarily from Europe. This basically mandates that no world wars take place, which depleted the European population and inspired places like America to shut the door. Many places in Europe still were in the earlier stages of the demographic transition as of 1910, particularly southern and eastern Europe, which is where more and more of the immigrants were coming from (as opposed to the more traditional sources in northwestern Europe). Realistically, that’s going to be where most of these newcomers will be sourced from. But will there be enough white-ethnics to fill the boats going to Ellis Island?

Maybe. Even as of 2020 the requisite rate of 1% of the US population per year in immigrants would equal 7 million immigrants per year. That’s a torrid pace, but Europe even today has over 700 million people; without the effects of world wars and communism southern and especially eastern Europe would no doubt have much greater populations. But on the flip side lots of this excess would have already left for America by 2020! Let’s say the Europe-wide population as of 2020 is 1 billion. At 7 million emigrants a year that’s 0.7% of the European population vacating the continent every year, an emigration rate of 7 per 1000. That’s not crazy!

Quite a few countries today meet that figure, even in Europe; even going by net migration rates (which also factor in immigration, not just emigration), Latvia and Lithuania exceed it, and Ireland’s not too far behind that benchmark. All told 70 million European immigrants per decade is not unrealistic, though it would require a Europe that’s emptying out to a considerably greater degree than it actually is.

Blanqueamiento a la Estadounidense?

Obviously if the vast majority of immigration is coming from Europe America does not experience the “browning” effect of the post-1965 immigration wave; indeed, the effects on the United States might be akin to the “whitening” policies pursued in South America around the turn of the 20th century. As it was the white share of the American population steadily increased from 81% as of 1790 to an all-time height of 90% by 1930, despite high fertility rates among blacks (who were the overwhelming majority of people of color throughout that era). The difference was made up for via immigration. Just between 1880 and 1910, the peak of the great European immigration wave, the white percentage increased from 86.5% to 88.9%; the black share of the population dipped below 10% by 1920.

How low could it go? The black share of the population shrunk at a rate of 8.8% during the 1900s; projecting that out, the black percentage dwindles to just 5% by 2000, and as of 2020 would currently stand at just 4.4%. It’s worth noting that 4.4% of a population of 750 million is an African-American population of 33 million total; actually less than the current figure of 47 million, but in the same ballpark, especially considering black populations have been augmented substantially by immigration from black countries in the Caribbean, Latin America, and even Africa in recent decades, which in a primarily European immigration wave isn’t going to be forthcoming. So that 4% number might actually be about right.

Native Americans and Hispanics/Latinos (the latter of which were traditionally classified as white) were both under 1% of the national total until relatively recently, so this is an America whose population could crest 95% white. Yikes.

The wild card here is the possibility of Asian immigration, which one would think would be a substantial factor, but let’s suppose for whatever reason no significant wave is in the cards. Even today Asians only comprise 6% of the population, so even if it’s the same in the alternate history (and remember, we have double the population, so proportionally double the amount of Asians are required to reach the same percentage), you’re still talking about something like 89% white. With a much larger proportion of those whites being of southern and eastern European descent than is the case today: ancestries like Italian and Russian might challenge or even supplant English and German as the most commonplace. We’d be living in a really different country…

Disproportionate Growth; or, where will those extra 350 million go?

That might include the places all these new people live. Somehow I doubt that each and every city and metro area would just straightforwardly double in size. Not that it wouldn’t be interesting; I might like to see what New York would be like as a metro area of 40 million people, or Chicago with 20 million. But if we’re carrying over the 19th century vibe, shouldn’t the newer states in the west get most of the population growth?

Indeed, as of the 1910 census California was rocketing upward the ranks of the most populous states; between 1900 and then the place grew by 60%, about twice as fast as any other state that was larger, having already moved up to twelfth place. The trend was rather steady for a long time; from around 1% in 1860, California’s share of the national population was already about 3% in 1910, and continued increasing steadily, reaching 10% by 1970, finally peaking at 12% in 1990, afterwards beginning to shrink. Boo!

Let’s say this unfortunate happenstance never occurs, and the salutary trends in population share continue for the Golden State. That puts California’s share up to around 18% by 2020, which with a national population of 750 million gives the state a population of…135 million. Woo. Those are the sort of numbers I bandy about in my “Pacific Coast City” concept. Three and a half times the current population, for reference. If Greater Los Angeles swelled proportionally it would be host to 64 million people: double Tokyo’s population, though spread over a considerably larger area. The Bay Area would swell to 35 million, with San Diego rounding out the list with 12 million. The coastal cities might swell even more than that, considering it seems unlikely the Central Valley cities, let’s say, would be as attractive to inmigrants in such a timeline, so they’ll enjoy a disproportionate share of the gains.

Washington and Oregon, the other two of the contiguous states on the West Coast, were growing by leaps and bounds in the turn of the century, only to cool off later, so for all we know populations in Portland and Seattle might surge disproportionately as well in this America. Given a 19th century vibe we should expect Alaska to get in on the action as well in the fullness of time.

A Pacific Answer to Manhattan? Ooh…

Anyway, it would be particularly fascinating to see what becomes of California’s great cities in such a world. If we assume transportation technology develops similarly, these places will have to become much denser, and since they’re already near the limit with detached houses that means a lot more apartment living in high-rises. How much? Los Angeles’s current urban area is 2281 square miles and contains about 15 million people, for a total density of 6500 per square mile. This timeline’s Los Angeles is perhaps four times as populated, and assuming it occupies the same area its density would rise to 26,000 per square mile. About the same as present-day Queens; much less than Manhattan, though presumably the denser sections might approach Manhattan-level concentrations.

Imagine a coastal California where it’s carpeted with the characteristic residential buildings, only they’re high-rise apartments housing most of the population of the region, a population that’s something like 98% white, with perhaps 30% having been born in Europe. That might sound outré, but exactly that was the demography of Chicago in 1900!

A very Different, yet Realistic Past…

Like I say, we’d be living in a very different country, one that might be a fascinating scenario to explore. Now, I might prefer if there was also a titanic wave of Asian immigration, leading to a profusion of Americasias across the West Coast, in addition to the white-ethnic enclaves, but meh. Even more fascinating is the suggestion, given what we’ve explored in this post, that an America that answers to the general description of our demography circa 1900, only a lot bigger and more high-tech, is actually realistic, from an alternate-historical point of view!

The well of pre-war central Europe might have run dry, but even as a dysfunctional vampire state destructively consuming human capital (to use Wolf Tivy’s stirring phrase…) America could have persisted for a long time, well into the 21st century it seems. Even if all of America’s human capital had to come from Europe like it did circa 1900, the flow could plausibly still be going strong in the 2020s.

…One that could still be our Future? 😮 

Indeed, the future of America could, even now, be more European than we think. J. Sanilac (a.k.a. Evil Vizier) provocatively predicts that Europe’s future in coming decades will be an “emigration death spiral”:

EMIGRATION DEATH-SPIRAL: THE FUTURE FOR EUROPE? Low fertility, high mobility, weak economic growth, and big pensions. It’s an unprecedented combination, and we should consider the possibility of an unprecedented consequence: emigration death-spiral. Here’s how it would work…
Pensions are paid from younger generations to older generations. In the past the pain was reduced because younger generations were larger than older generations, and because these younger generations expected to receive pensions of their own when they came of age. No longer.
Today younger generations are smaller than older generations, and the gap is increasing. That makes big pensions increasingly difficult to fund. It’s necessary to continually increase the tax burden.
But older generations, being larger, still retain more voting power. You can’t vote away their big pensions! You can’t even vote away their inflated asset prices, which are lowering fertility further by making it unaffordable to comfortably house families.
(Expensive housing isn’t an accident. It’s gibs for Boomers–also known as generational theft.)
Europe has an additional problem, though it’s not evenly distributed across the continent. Growth is sluggish. Europe is falling more and more behind the US every year. And that might understate the problem. It looks like slow-motion self-destruction on several levels.
By consequence, talented Europeans can do better for themselves by leaving their home countries for greener pastures.
Will they? Brain drain has already hit the most backward parts of Europe. But as the gap increases, it will come even to parts once thought impregnable. Parts that are already “benefiting” from huge waves of IMMigration from even worse countries!
Now, as brain drain becomes more significant, economic growth slows further. That makes big pensions even harder to pay. And the people left behind may ask their governments to compensate for decline with more generous social policies–making the problem worse.
Less and less wealth on the bottom means every individual has to suffer a higher tax burden, and so the incentive to leave keeps increasing. That’s where the death spiral comes in. The more talented people leave, the greater the incentive to leave. And Bob’s your uncle.
One objection to the death-spiral argument is that people leaving will lower housing costs which will make it cheaper to stay. But it’s not clear governments will allow housing costs to fall more than they have to. They will likely elect to support them by pumping immigration.
To pump immigration and keep the population afloat they will bring in less talented people from poorer places. Do you think this will slow the death-spiral, or accelerate it further.
You may also argue that work from home will make location irrelevant, allowing Europeans to share in US growth without moving. But it doesn’t look like WFH is really the future for most industries. Big companies are all trying to scale it back because it lowers productivity.
I said the combination leading to this death spiral was unprecedented, and that’s true on the country level. But we have examples on the city level. Consider Detroit. There are FREE houses there, but no one wants to move into them! The city suffered a death spiral of emigration.
It’s impossible to know the future, so I’m not guaranteeing this will happen. But keep in mind: it’s better to be the first to leave than the last!

Maybe we’d better warm up all those Mediterranean-style apartment blocks on the Pacific Coast after all…

The Expanding Circle of White Ethnics

Oh well. The scenario I outline here, basically a very European and very growing America persisting into our own time, is not necessarily the most realistic version. Even aside from the East Asian influence that seems likely to predominate in much of the country in any scenario where 19th century America keeps chugging along, we should keep in mind the circle of “white-ethnic” was already starting to expand beyond Europe even before the First World War: immigration from the Middle East was starting to pick up, which is how Detroit got such a large Arab population (they were brought over by Henry Ford).

There can be little doubt that there was an incipient great immigration wave of Arabs and various other nationalities from the Middle East; all the Italians and Russians would have been joined by Persians, Kurds, and Turks. All these nations were universally regarded as white back then, and indeed are still classified as “white” by the United States Census even today!

The next logical expansion of the white-ethnic front line beyond the Middle East is into Central Asia and India. Central Asians are still in the main regarded as white, but Indians are thought of as a separate entity. Not as much as one might think, however; in many contexts throughout United States history people native to India have been classified as white! For example, none other than Nikki Haley identified herself as “white” on her voter registration card in 2001. Hmm.

As a light-skinned Punjabi Haley has a much easier time getting away with that sort of thing than, say, her presidential rival Vivek Ramaswamy would, but the point is the prevailing facial features among natives of India are very much “Caucasian” and although skin tone extends to the darkest of blacks the fact remains that many Indians, particularly those of higher castes and/or in the north, have skin color as light as many Europeans. So there is a strong argument that a definition of white broad enough to encompass Cretans and Sicilians should also include a great many Indians. If, though this would be more of a reach, “Caucasoid” is regarded as synonymous with “white” all Indians may be included, even the darkest-skinned!

America could realistically have gotten up to 95% white with a population of 750 million by just relying on Europeans. How much easier it would be still if Middle Easterners, Central Asians, and Indians were brought into the white-ethnic fold?

A Pan-European Castizo America?

More radically still, if the tidal wave of white immigration dwindles the percentage of racial minorities, total assimilation into the white mainstream becomes theoretically viable. Such was the endgame for the process of South American countries’ “racial whitening” policies: blanqueamiento.

Argentina is where this process was most thorough: originally making up to half the population in many cities (!), black Argentines currently stand at less than one percent of the total population, even though their genetics contribute to four percent or so of the total. The reason, of course, is vigorous intermarriage with a much larger white population. The same process could absorb East Asian immigration even more easily, given the closer proximity of skin color and facial features.

It smacks of the alt-right project of “castizo futurism”, of course, but it is crazy to think that if United States culture was as amenable to miscegenation and building a “cosmic race” as Latin America’s was that such a scenario is actually realistic! Much more likely is the color line is maintained; the taboo against race-mixing is just too ingrained in Anglo-American culture. Still, one has to wonder, what if…


Well, I wonder what that says about me: spending my Martin Luther King Jr. Day, of all days, worldbuilding a scenario where America becomes all white! 🤪 Still fascinating on any day, though, and it does come with the territory of imagining a 19th century style American demography that just keeps going like the energizer bunny clear through the 2020s.

Nevertheless, the thought of making up for it looms in my mind. My thoughts turn to Mansa Musa, ruler of a 14th century empire in West Africa rich enough to make him the wealthiest man on the planet, a man who came to power in the first place because his predecessor launched an expedition across the Atlantic and never came back. Hmm…I’m not sure if I’m feeling it myself, but there’s a real banger of an alternate history story to be told there too…

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