woman smoking (historical photo)

History is not “history”; it is with us today. That is, the past constrains the present. This is obvious in one way: Conditions that developed long ago continue to shape our lives. We are ruled by old laws; we drive streets laid out in decades and centuries past; we operate technologies invented by earlier generations.

woman smoking (historical photo)
Lib. of Congress 1902

But history constrains us in a less obvious way, too: Even plans, customs, practices, and situations that long ago ended have enduring consequences far into the future.

This thought was stimulated by a recent report on the question, Why is life expectancy for older people — especially women — growing more slowly in the United States than it is in comparable countries? Why are the American elderly falling behind in the race to a long life?


A recent report of the National Research Council, our blue-ribbon group for scientific statements, addressed this question. The contributors to the study looked at a lot of factors. The results are complicated (aren’t they usually?) and we are missing some key data. But the report concludes (p. 14) that “… one finding seems clear: having the highest level of cigarette consumption per capita in the developed world over a 40-year period (up to the mid-1980s) has left a … continuing imprint on U.S. mortality” (particularly women). Because so many Americans smoked about 50 years ago, the death rate for our elderly is exceptionally high today. Americans no longer out-smoke the world. Our rates of smoking dropped rapidly, and today, Americans are less often smokers than are Europeans, about 20% of us versus 30% of them (especially so among the affluent – see here). But we live with the past, with the “heavy hand of history.”

The phrase, “the heavy hand of history,” is, I once thought, an old cliché. But some quick investigation on the web revealed that it is a relatively new one. It first appeared in a major American newspaper in 1947.  Google’s Ngram program picks out a 1916 guide book to White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, as the first use of the phrase: “Here, in this city, the heavy hand of history has written its record, deep and strong, in the enduring rock.”  The fourth recorded instance is more on-topic for us: Otto Klineberg, a renowned psychologist who studied race and intelligence, wrote in 1944, “It is true that the Negro has been legally emancipated, but his road to social emancipation is still a long one. The American Negro has the heavy hand of history upon him.” That is, whatever the conditions of African Americans in 1944 – who were even then only semi-emancipated – the slavery that ended in 1865 remained a burden a century later. Considerable research since Klineberg reinforces that conclusion.

Other interesting phenomena have similar properties. The phrase “path dependence”(which hardly ever appeared before the 1960s and is mainly a post-1990 academic buzzword) captures the notion. Wikipedia says path dependence describes “… how the set of decisions one faces for any given circumstance is limited by the decisions one [or someone or something else] has made in the past, even though past circumstances may no longer be relevant.” We typically assume that the events and behavior that are  happening now are caused by conditions, beliefs, and choices now. But the heavy hand of history (or path dependence) challenges our usual way of explaining events.

Paths taken and not

Perhaps the greatest example of path dependence is biological evolution. Branchings in the tree of life that occurred hundreds of thousands of years ago, perhaps in response to temporary events in the planet’s life, have become inscribed in the DNA and the organisms of the 21st century. For example, the breaking up of the land mass into continents gave us different mammals in Australia; the temporary land bridge between Siberia and Alaska led to a distinct Native American people. In many ways, the life sciences, including the social sciences, are all historical sciences, today is contingent on unique events of yesterday.

Evolutionary psychologists have grabbed popular attention — or at least, media notice – by making an especially strong heavy-hand-of-history argument: They explain how contemporary Americans behave – say, the way we romance, how we raise our children, or whether we give to charity — as the lasting residue (in our brains) of our ancestors’ adaptation to the particular conditions of the African savannah around the time they descended from the trees.

Vanity Fair cover, woman smoking
Libr. of Congress 1919

One need not go that far back to appreciate the heavy hand. I mentioned the heavy hand of slavery. Another contemporary case is the American health care system. It grew in the 20th century with little overall planning into one based on: paying for specific services (per visit, per operation); competition among doctors, hospitals, and insurance plans; and charity or municipal hospitals providing “safety net” care of last resort. Middle-class Americans gained some security through job-based health insurance. The irrationalities of this system – unique in the western world — are evident. For example, people stay in jobs they don’t like just to qualify for health insurance; the costs and waste are unusually high; and providers have perverse incentives. They make more money by providing lots of care to sick people than by keeping people from getting sick.

Yet moving from this system to one that makes more sense is immensely difficult. It is hard to get from here to there — too many vested interests, too many habits, too many fixed expectations. (The health care reform Obama signed is mainly an effort to make the current system serve more people, not to change it.) One substantial alteration of our health care was the establishment of Medicare in the 1960s — a half-a-loaf reform that the Johnson administration got through Congress thanks only to overwhelming Democratic control. Ironically, creating a single-payer system for the elderly has made it harder to do the same for the rest of the population because it also created another, powerful constituency for the status quo — the older population served by Medicare. In several ways, then, Americans’ medical care today reflects the heavy hand of history.

It is hard enough to nudge social trends in the right direction — toward, say, greater productivity, better intergroup relations, more opportunity — against the press of contemporary conditions. It is yet harder when we also have to undo the past, to release the grip of the heavy hand — including the hand gripping that cigarette years ago.

Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American life from American history.