Professor researches economics behind 1851 Indiana racial exclusion vote

by William Wood

College of Business Faculty News

SUMMARY: Economics professor Scott Milliman is using quantitative methods to unlock the racial history of Indiana in a pioneering study that is the first of its kind.

A JMU researcher is using quantitative methods to unlock the racial history of Indiana in a pioneering study that is the first of its kind.

In Social Science Quarterly this spring, economics professor Scott Milliman published an article titled “Racial Exclusion in the Antebellum North: An Analysis of Indiana's 1851 Vote to Ban African American Immigration,” the findings of which show how a racially charged 1851 vote depended on economic and social factors that varied across Indiana's 91counties.

The 1851 “restricted” vote, where only White males could participate, was on an exclusion clause that blocked Blacks from entering Indiana. The law was designed in the previous year by delegates at an Indiana state constitutional convention, and they decided to submit it to voters. Milliman's article is the first econometric analysis of a statewide referendum on Black immigration.

The article points out that even though slavery was being phased out or outright banned in the North, Black residents still faced pervasive social, economic, and political restrictions.

Milliman's research began with the painstaking assembly of a historical database on 19th-century Indiana. He collected a variety of demographic and economic variables, including religious affiliations.

Milliman's analysis showed that counties with less support for exclusion had larger populations of adult White males born in New England, New York, and Pennsylvania. “A significant number of Yankees were against the ban,” Milliman said.

The presence of Quaker meetinghouses and Church of the Brethren and Mennonite congregations also was associated with lower support for exclusion, in keeping with their tradition as classic “peace churches.” However, for Brethren and Mennonite churches, Milliman said it was unclear how much of the effect was directly due to voting because in Antebellum America, members of these denominations often avoided political activity.

There was greater support for exclusion in counties with high availability of unimproved farmland. In those areas, Milliman wrote, “White fears of land competition with Blacks may have prompted higher support for the ban.”

More broadly, the analysis prompts some reflection about insular political movements that take strong stands on political issues while simultaneously demonizing opponents and avoiding any dialogue with them. Says Milliman, “Many of the delegates at the 1850 Indiana State Constitutional Convention, as White supremacists, were comfortable with harshly criticizing Blacks and abolitionists, and there is no evidence that they tried to communicate with these two groups in any way.” Fast-forwarding to today, a possible implication is that, while strong partisanship has its place, perhaps some political movements—of whatever political persuasion—would be more effective, he says, “if their strong advocacy was combined with some humility and graciousness, and if significant attempts were made to engage with, and hear out the alternative viewpoints, of at least some opponents.”

Overall, the Indiana vote reflected views on White supremacy and segregation that were prevalent at the time, Milliman said, but there were nuances. “Those beliefs were not uniformly held across Indiana voters, and this analysis shows the effects of variations in geographic origin, differing religious traditions, and purely economic factors.”

Milliman’s research received valued assistance from Calvin Nester, an undergraduate research assistant who was sponsored by JMU’s Research Experience of Undergraduates (REU) program.

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Published: Friday, July 16, 2021

Last Updated: Friday, July 16, 2021

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