- Historic Sites
Violence In America
What Human nature and the California gold rush tell us about crime in the inner city
September 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 5
For a nice illustration of this principle, consider the contrast between two American gold rushes of the 1840s and early 1850s—the famous one in California and a largely forgotten one in the Gold Hill region of North Carolina. The latter attracted Cornish miners, many of whom brought their families or married local women, who were much more plentiful than on the distant Pacific coast. Aside from the inevitable deep-shaft mining accidents and sporadic fights, the Cornish immigrant miners experienced little in the way of premature death and violence—nothing to compare with what happened to the young men who flocked to California. One environment was overwhelmingly single and masculine; the other was not. The difference in gender balance translated into a difference in the social order.
The best thing that can be said about California-style frontier violence was that it didn’t last long. Most of the surplus men who sought their fortunes along the frontier died, returned home, drifted elsewhere, or eventually were married, usually to young brides who went on to have numerous male and female children, thereby evening out the population and eliminating its tendency to violence and disorder. No frontier region, however notorious, escaped this process. Cowboy watering holes like Dodge City and Fort Griffin, murder-a-day railroad boomtowns like Julesburg and Laramie—all eventually succumbed. When families replaced bachelor laborers and vice parasites, things quickly settled down.
Immigrant groups that initially had more men than women eventually adjusted as the passage of time balanced the sexes.
Two decades sufficed to normalize most frontier populations, especially those in farming areas where the initial imbalance was less extreme. Washington County, Kansas, a stretch of arable prairie between the Flint Hills and the Nebraska border, had three men for every two women in 1860, but only eleven for every ten in 1880. This was typical. In Midwestern farming areas the demand for farm hands ensured that the number of women almost never exceeded that of men, but the additional male workers were usually attached to families.
By the mid-twentieth century America’s overall male surplus was disappearing, as a result of shifts in immigration patterns and the fact that women’s life expectancy was improving faster than men’s. With a balanced population and a prosperous industrial economy, postwar America enjoyed a sustained marriage boom. The two popular images of the 1950s—as the decade when Americans settled down to raise their children in safety and plenty and as the decade of conformity—both arose from this marital efflorescence. Men worked hard, paid off their mortgages, and sacrificed for their children. Church attendance rose, violent crime fell. It looked as if America’s built-in propensity for violence and disorder—the excesses of excess men—had finally run its troubled course.
Then came the 1960s and 1970s, the coming of age of the baby boomers, the sexual revolution, and a sustained rise in violent crime and drug abuse. It was not simply that there were more young and therefore troubleprone men in the population, though that was true enough. It was that more of these men were avoiding, delaying, or terminating marriages. Overall, the number of American men living alone roughly doubled between 1960 and 1983, an unprecedented change for prosperous times. In 1960 Americans spent an average of 62 percent of their adult lives with spouses and children, an all-time high; in 1980 they spent 43 percent, an all-time low. “This trend alone,” remarks the sociologist David Popenoe, “may help to account for the high and rising crime rates.” Violent crimes were largely committed by unattached males. When their numbers rose, so did crime.
Though marriage and conventional family life grew less common among young men after 1960, sexual intercourse did not. The result, despite widespread contraception and abortion and a decline in fertility, was a huge increase in the percentage of children who were illegitimate and raised in fatherless families. The much higher frequency of divorce also increased the number of poorly supervised, poorly socialized, and just plain poor children.