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American Homicide.

American Homicide. By Randolph Roth (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009. 655 pp. $45.00).

In a bold, iconoclastic analysis, Randolph Roth challenges the conventional wisdom about the history of violence. American Homicide is unique in both methodology and substance. While most historians of violence have grounded their work in the local context and have focused on periods short enough to permit them to undertake exhaustive research, Roth casts his study in grand terms. His examination of homicide in America spans four centuries, crosses the continent, and includes an analysis of European violence. Moreover, Roth offers a single explanation for the history of homicide, averring that one core factor accounts for shifting patterns of lethal violence, regardless of time or place.

Methodological obstacles have shaped the scholarship on violence. "There is only one way to obtain reliable homicide estimates," Roth explains, "and that is to review every scrap of paper on criminal matters ... " (pp. xi-xx). As a consequence, historians of lethal violence have typically undertaken micro histories or community studies. Roth, however, employs a different methodology. Building on his research on homicide in Vermont and New Hampshire, as well as surviving records for isolated counties across the continent, Roth stitches this material into a loose patchwork and links these sources to data culled from published studies (and sometimes to the datasets used in published studies). He then extrapolates from localized data and measures homicides in vast regions and across huge sweeps of time, even though he has not consulted "every scrap of paper" and relies on data from disparate places and periods. Roth's figures on homicide in the nineteenth-century Southwest, for example, are based largely on records from portions of California and from one county each in Arizona and Colorado. Despite these gaps, Roth reports that he found remarkably consistent patterns, enabling him to produce precise homicide figures for entire regions, centuries, and the nation.

Simply put, Roth argues that political instability accounts for homicide, particularly among unrelated adult men. While most historians of violence have emphasized the "usual suspects" in homicide cases, such as gender identity, racial conflict, class affiliation, ethnic divisions, honor, and uneven sex ratios, Roth insists that these are proximate causes; the ultimate causes are political. He borrows this framework from criminologist Gary LaFree, who argued that late twentieth-century homicide correlated with levels of trust in government. Roth adapts this theory and postulates that Americans, regardless of class, ethnicity, race, religion, region, or era, killed more often when they felt alienated from political institutions. Alternatively, when Americans, from the seventeenth century until the present, and from Maine to California, have trusted the central government, when government has seemed stable, and when Americans have believed the "social hierarchy is legitimate," have been "patriotic," and have possessed "fellow feeling" (p. 18) for one another, they have refrained from robbing strangers, lynching minorities, killing friends in drunken brawls, fighting with neighbors, or gunning down rival drug dealers and gang members. Because attitudes toward the government have varied, patterns of homicide have been complex, but the root cause of lethal violence has remained unchanged, according to Roth, and America's unusually homicidal past is a product of its failures in state-building.

To support this interpretation, Roth charts homicide rates. He then presents colorful summaries of individual cases that illustrate his argument. For eras and places with low levels of bloodshed, Roth offers descriptions of political stability and patriotism, most often drawn from secondary works. Likewise, he couples his data on homicidal periods and places with accounts of political turmoil.

Such a provocative thesis will not persuade all readers. Some may take issue with Roth's methodology. Cases from Vermont and New Hampshire command disproportionate attention, and Roth often uses data from these rural, agricultural states during the nineteenth century to calculate homicide rates for urban, industrial New England. Furthermore, when he disaggregates the data and examines particular kinds of violence, this methodology sometimes leaves Roth calculating sweeping patterns on the basis of a modest evidentiary foundation; his quantitative analysis of homicide by estranged husbands in the nineteenth-century North, for example, is based on eighteen cases.

Others readers will question Roth's argument on substantive grounds. For all of his effort to determine exact rates of homicide, Roth's analysis rests on plastic definitions of political stability, unity, and fellow feeling, enabling him to find expressions of political harmony or conflict in many eras. Moreover, the complex relationship between correlation and causation is not always explored with precision. Nor is his emphasis on the calming influence of patriotism likely to persuade all readers, and some historians will dissent from the view that the ultimate triggers for lethal violence and that the marrow of political affiliation have remained static over time and across space. Roth's analysis of twentieth-century homicide will also be hotly debated, as he posits that homicide rates ebbed and flowed according to the popularity of presidents. Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and Clinton forged political unity and hence inspired reductions in homicide, while unpopular presidents, such as Nixon, triggered spikes in violence. Roth suggests that Carter's early popularity with African Americans contributed to falling rates of African-American violence, while his flagging popularity fueled a surge in African-American homicide.

Finally, Roth's larger conclusions are laudably clear but some will be controversial. Racial dominance, he argues, reduces homicide. Rates of lethal violence in the Reconstruction-era South "fell drastically," according to Roth, "as soon as white conservatives returned to power" (p. 411), just as "Anglo domination reduced the likelihood that minorities would be murdered by Anglos" (p. 407) in the Southwest. "A history of political unity, stability, and dominance over minorities," he states, "made whites less homicidal" during the twentieth century (p. 446). In the book's conclusion, Roth notes "some of the grimmer realities of human nature" and declares that "nothing depresses homicide rates more effectively than a race war (for the winning side, at least)" (p. 469). Interesting and original, American Homicide will generate a lively debate about deadly behavior.

Jeffrey S. Adler

University of Florida
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Author:Adler, Jeffrey S.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2011
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