Slaveholders in the Halls of Congress

Taking a break from going through the old articles and things I’ve saved, let’s turn to a an article from the Washington Post published earlier this week. As the title indicates, the Post’s article explores slaveholders in Congress. Many of us know that the vast majority of antebellum presidents at one point or another owned slaves. (Washington and Jefferson being the two most commonly cited in recent years.) But what about the other branches of government?

The article is a fascinating read about the prevalence of slaveholders in the legislative branch. For our purposes it uses a series of bar charts and maps to illustrate its point. Now, the piece isn’t truly interactive as it’s more of the scrolling narrative, but at several points in American history the article pauses to show the number of slaveholders in office during a particular Congress. The screenshot below is from the 1807 Congress.

That year is an interesting choice, not mentioned explicitly in the article, because the United States Constitution prohibited Congress from passing limits on the slave trade prior to 1808. But in 1807 Congress passed a law that banned the slave trade from 1 January 1808, the first day legally permitted by the Constitution.

Almost half of Congress in the early years had, at one point or another, owned slaves.

Graphic-wise, we have a set of bar charts representing the percentage and then a choropleth map showing each state’s number of slaveholders in Congress. As we will see in a moment, the map here is a bit too small to work. Can you really see Delaware, Rhode Island, and (to a lesser extent) New Jersey? Additionally, because of the continuous gradient it can be difficult to distinguish just how many slaveholders were present in each state. I wonder if a series of bins would have been more effective.

The decision to use actual numbers intrigues me as well. Ohio, for example, has few slaveholders in Congress based upon the map. But as a newly organised state, Ohio had only two senators and one congressman. That’s a small actual, but 33% of its congressional delegation.

Overall though, the general pervasiveness of slaveholders warrants the use of a map to show geographic distribution was not limited to just the south.

Later on we have what I think is the best graphic of the article, a box map showing each state’s slaveholders over time.

How the trends changed over time over geography.

Within each state we can see the general trend, including the legacy of the Civil War and Reconstruction. The use of a light background allows white to represent pre-statehood periods for each state. And of course some states, notably Alaska and Hawaii, joined the United States well after this period.

But I also want to address one potential issue with the methodology of the article. One that it does briefly address, albeit tangentially. This data set looks at all people who at one point or another in their life held slaves. First, contextually, in the early years of the republic slavery was not uncommon throughout the world. Though by the aforementioned year of 1807 the institution appeared on its way out in the West. Sadly the cotton gin revolutionised the South’s cotton industry and reinvigorated the economic impetus for slavery. There after slavery boomed. The banning of the slave trade shortly thereafter introduced scarcity into the slave market and then the South’s “peculiar institution” truly took root. That cotton boom may well explain how the initial decline in the prevalence of slaveholders in the first few Congresses reversed itself and then held steady through the early decades of the 19th century.

And that initial decline before a hardening of support for slavery is what I want to address. The data here looks only at people who at one point in their life held slaves. It’s not an accurate representation of current slaveholders in Congress at the time they served. It’s a subtle but important distinction. The most obvious result of this is how after the 1860s the graphics show members of Congress as slaveholders when this was not the case. They had in the past held slaves.

That is not to say that some of those members were reluctant and, in all likelihood, would have preferred to have kept their slaves. And therefore those numbers are important to understand. But it undermines the count of people who eventually came to realise the error of their ways. The article addresses this briefly, recounting several anecdotes of people who later in life became abolitionists. I wonder though whether these people should count in this graphic as—so far as we can tell—their personal views changed so substantially to be hardened against slavery.

I would be very curious to see these charts remade with a data set that accounts for contemporary ownership of slaves represented in Congress.

Regardless of the methodology issue, this is still a fascinating and important read.

Credit for the piece goes to Adrian Blanco, Leo Dominguez, and Julie Zuazmer Weil.

Revolution Number…

Nein?

Last week we ended the week with a Friday post looking at Covid-19 cases. And they are not trending in the right direction, to put it mildly. Now I’m not sure I like the Covid post being on Friday, but it also doesn’t make sense on Mondays any longer given the lack of data updates from Virginia and Illinois at the weekend.

I figured this week we could at least begin with a lighthearted post to balance out last week’s ending. And we have a great piece from Indexed that tackles two of my favourite subjects, astronomy and history. She titled the piece brilliantly, “Regarding both astrophysics and and the popularity of guillotines”.

And hopefully later this week I will address one of those two topics a little more in depth. But for now, begin your week with mirth because I will update you all with the new Covid data later this week. Spoiler: it’s not getting any better.

Credit for the piece goes to Jessica Hagy.

Philadelphia’s Changing Skyline

Yesterday I mentioned how I spent Monday researching some old family properties in Philadelphia. In some cases the homes my family owned still stand. But, in many others the homes have long since been replaced. But that’s the nature of city development.

That got me thinking about an article published earlier this month at Philadelphia YIMBY where the author created an animated .gif detailing the Philadelphia skyline from 1905 through 2020. This screenshot captures the overlay of 2020 atop 1905 from the south of Philadelphia.

Kind of how it’d look from the sports complex.

But the gem of the piece is the animation. Implicit in the graphic but unmentioned is the text, which is understandably centred on the architectural designs of the skyline, is the history of Philadelphia.

In the old days, well before 1905, the city was concentrated along the Delaware River because it was—and still is—a port city. But as those shipping businesses were replaced by banks and financial companies which were replaced by other offices and manufacturing headquarters that were themselves replaced by corporate highrises and so on and so forth, we can see the centre of gravity shift westward.

The mass of buildings by 1905 has shifted away from the Delaware River and is concentrated to the east of City Hall, the tallest building until the 1980s. But you can see the highest and largest buildings moving more to the left in every frame. Though in the latest you can see some new largely residential highrises built along the Delaware waterfront.

It’s a great piece.

Credit for the piece goes to Thomas Koloski.

Substandard Housing in Philadelphia

I took a holiday yesterday and headed down the street to the Philadelphia City Archives, which houses some of the oldest documents dating back to the founding of the colony. But I was there primarily to try and find deeds and property information for my ancestors as part of my genealogy work.

When I walked into the building—the archives moved a few years ago from an older building in University City into this new facility—an interactive exhibit confronted me immediately. Now I did not take the time to really investigate the exhibit, because I anticipated spending the entire day there and wanted to maximise my time.

But there was this one graphic that felt appropriate to share here on Coffeespoons.

Philadelphia’s population crested in the 1950 census, it would decline continually until the 2010 census.

Like a lot of statistical graphics from the mid-20th century we have a single-colour piece because colour printing costs money. It makes use of a stacked bar chart to highlight the share of housing in the city that can be classified as substandard, i.e. dilapidated or without access to a private bath.

The designer chose to separate the nonwhite from the white population on different sides of the date labels, though the scale remains the same. I wonder what would have happened if the nonwhite bars sat immediately below the white bars within each year. That would allow for a more direct comparison of the absolute numbers of housing units.

That would then free up space for a smaller chart dedicated to a comparison of the percentages that are otherwise written as small labels. Because both the absolutes and percentages are important parts of the story here.

The white housing stock increased and the number of substandard units decreased in an absolute sense, leading to a strong decline in percentages.

But with nonwhite housing, the number of substandard units slightly increased, but with larger growth in the sheer number of nonwhite housing units overall, that shrank the overall percentage.

Put it all together and you have significant improvements in white housing, though in an absolute sense there still remain more substandard units for whites than nonwhites. Conversely, we don’t see the same improvements in housing for nonwhites. Rather the improvement from 45% to 35% is due more from the increase in housing units overall. You could therefore argue that nonwhite housing did not improve nearly as much as white housing between 1940 and 1950. Though we need to underline that and say there was indeed improvement.

Anyway, I then went inside and spent several hours looking through deed abstracts. Not sure if those will make it into a post here, but I did have an idea for one over a pint at lunch afterwards.

Credit for the datagraphic goes to some graphics person for some government department.

Credit for the exhibit goes to Talia Greene.

Bodies Buried Under Spring Garden

Okay, technically not Spring Garden Street, but a strip mall along one of Philadelphia’s main arterial city streets. Luckily these aren’t some victims of a serial murderer, but rather the result of Philadelphia being an old city (for the United States). As this article from the Philadelphia Inquirer explains, the bodies were discovered during excavations for new construction at the site.

The reason I shared this today was that this past weekend, I had a pint with a colleague of mine at Yards Brewery located at 5th and Spring Garden. We sat at an outside table along Spring Garden and at some point I recall pointing out that Spring Garden hadn’t always been a street. Originally it only existed west of Broad.

Little did I know that the construction site across the street on that sultry Sunday afternoon was home to an archaeological excavation of an old, long since demolished city church cemetery.

Of course I still want a tram/trolley or light rail line to run down the length of Spring Garden like it did in years past.

You can use the slider in the article to compare the layout of the intersection in 2021 to that of 1860. I love these old timey maps, especially when working on genealogy. Because while we know the cities where we live today, they didn’t look like we know them 150 years ago. And in lieu of photography, it’s otherwise difficult to try and make sense of our ancestors’ world.

Just a few doors south of the Methodist church we had a bakery and a small alley called Brussels Place. And facing the alley we had what look like a number of small homes or perhaps stables. Larger presumably rowhomes lined the main streets of the intersection.

At the right of the screen, I also remember my colleague and I discussing some of the old-looking rowhomes. They may very well be the same ones depicted on this 1860 map. They are the few survivors as most of the area, as the article points out, was eventually turned into a petrol station that later became the strip mall today fenced off to be turned into flats.

Credit for the piece goes to John Duchneskie.

Biden’s English Ancestry Revisited

Last week I posted about an article in the BBC on the English ancestry of American president Joe Biden. And these types of article are a bit pro forma, famous person has an article about their personal ancestry with a family tree attached. Interestingly, this article did not, just the timeline I mentioned and a graphic as part of an aside on the declining self-identification as English-American.

And that, normally is it. Perhaps the article comes out with a few revisions upon the famous person’s marriage, birth of children, and more rarely death, but that is it. Yesterday, however, the BBC posted a follow-up article about an English family claiming kinship with Joe Biden. This article, however, included a family tree of sorts.

With some interesting spacing here…

This isn’t a family tree in the traditional sense, I would argue it’s the sort of chart genealogists would use to highlight two parties’ relationship to their most recent common ancestor (MCRA). But this chart does something odd, it spaces out the generations inconsistently and so Joe Biden appears at the bottom, aligned with the grandchildren of Paul Harris, the man at the centre of the story.

If you compare the height/length of the lines linking the different generations you can see the lines on Biden’s side of the graphic are very long compared to those on the Harris’ side. This isn’t technically incorrect, but it muddies the water when it comes to understanding the generational differences. So I revisited the design below.

Now with more even spacing…

Here I dropped the photographs because, primarily, I don’t have access to them. But they also eat up valuable real estate and aren’t necessary to communicate the relationships. I kept the same distance between generations, which does a better job showing the relationship between Joe Biden and Paul Harris, who appear to be actual fifth cousins. Joe is clearly at a different level than that of Paul’s grandchildren.

I added some context with labelling the generational relationship. At the top we have William and James Biden, assuming they are brothers, listed as siblings. The next level down are first cousins, then second, &c. Beyond Paul, however, we have two additional generations that are removed from the same relationship level. This is where the confusing “once-removed” or “twice-removed” comes into play. One way to think of it is as the number of steps you need to take from, say, Paul’s grandchildren, to get to a common generational level. In their case two levels, hence the grandchildren are fifth cousins to Joe Biden, twice removed.

These types of charts are great to show narrow relationships. Because, if we assume that up until recently each of the generations depicted above had four or five children, that tree would be unwieldy at best to show the relationship between Paul’s family and Joe Biden. If you ever find yourself working on your family ancestry or history and need to show someone how you are related, this type of chart is a great tool.

Credit for the original goes to the BBC graphics department

Credit for my remake is mine.

All the Little Spacecraft

Early tomorrow morning, weather permitting, NASA’s Perseverance rover will blast off from Cape Canaveral on a six-plus month trip to Mars. There, hopefully it will land successfully and join all the rovers that have come before.

And so this piece from the New York Times feels appropriate. It’s a great illustration of all the spacecraft we have sent into space, including the active and inactive, with some notable exceptions.

What spacecraft are in orbit of Earth and headed to Mars.

I really like how it pays attention not just to the planets and their satellites (like the Moon), but also the comets, asteroids, and even the Lagrange points. And it does this all with small illustrations of the spacecraft.

Credit for the piece goes to Jonathan Corum.

African Descent in African Americans

A study published last week explores the long-lasting impact of the Atlantic triangle trade of slaves on the genetic makeup of present day African Americans. Genetic genealogy can break down many of what we genealogists call brick walls, where paper records and official documentation prevent researchers from moving any further back in time. In American research, slavery and its lack of records identifying specific individuals by name, birth, and place of origin prevents many descendants from tracing their ancestry beyond the 1860s or 50s.

But DNA doesn’t lie. And by comparing the source populations of present day African countries to the DNA of present day Americans (and others living in the Western hemisphere), we can glean a bit more insight into at least the rough places of origin for individual’s ancestors. And so the BBC, which wrote an article about the survey, created this map to show the average amount of African ancestry in people today.

Average amount of African genetic ancestry in present day populations of African descent

There is a lot to unpack from the study, and for those interested, you should read the full article. But what this graphic shows is that there is significant variation in the amount of African descent in African-[insert country here] ethnic groups. African-Brazilians, on average, have somewhere between 10–35% African DNA, whereas in Mexico that figures falls to 0–10%, but in parts of the United States it climbs upwards of 70–95%.

In a critique of the graphic itself, when I look at some of the data tables, I’m not sure the map’s borders are the best fit. For example, the data says “northern states” for the United States, but the map clearly shows outlines for individual states like New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. In this case, a more accurate approach would be to lump those states into a single shape that doesn’t break down into the constituent polities. Otherwise, as in this case, it implies the value for that particular state falls within the range, when the data itself does not—and cannot because of the way the study was designed—support that conclusion.

Credit for the piece goes to the BBC graphics department.

Armistice Day

Yesterday was Armistice Day, a bank holiday hence the lack of posting. So I spent a few hours yesterday looking at my ancestors to see who participated in World War I. It turned out that on my paternal side, my one great-grandfather was too old and the other was both the right age and signed up for the draft, but was not selected.

And so the only two that served were my maternal great-grandfathers. One served a few months in the naval reserve towards the end of the war. My other great-grandfather served for a year, a good chunk of it in France. This I largely knew from my great aunt, who had told us stories about how he had told her about blowing up bridges they had just built to prevent Germans from capturing them. And then how after the war he served as military police, arresting drunk American soldiers in France. But I had never realised some of the documents I had collected told more of the skeletal structure like units and ranks. Consequently, I decided to make this graphic.

All the timelines
All the timelines

Credit for the piece goes to me.

The Roaming Life of Rev. Dr. Stephen Remington

As many of you are aware, one of my personal interests is in genealogy and my family history. And sometimes, data visualisation can help make sense of my research. This past weekend, I was looking through some of my notes on my great-great-great-great-grandfather, a man named Stephen Remington.

One of the outstanding questions is who was his wife, a woman named Eliza Ann. Her surname might be either Garretson or Caustin. So I used a timeline of Stephen’s residences to see if any his residences overlapped with similar surnames. It sort of did, but not until after the year he married her. So still more work is needed.

But then I decided with a few tweaks I could actually plot out where he lived, because he lived all over. His earliest years are a bit of a mystery, because his parents are both unknown and they both died during Stephen’s youth.

Ridgefield was home to a small cluster of Remingtons. Were they related?
Ridgefield was home to a small cluster of Remingtons. Were they related?

In his earlier years he was what was called a circuit rider. Before there were large, dense settlements of people, the rural and frontier people relied upon essentially travelling ministers. The ministers had a responsibility for a small (sometimes large) area. And early in Stephen’s life his circuit riding kept pushing him north up the Hudson River with occasional postings back to New York City.

Rhinebeck is the town demanding my closer attention for Eliza's sake.
Rhinebeck is the town demanding my closer attention for Eliza’s sake.

Eventually, however, he ended up preaching in Massachusetts, where he separately earned his medical doctorate from Harvard University. He practiced medicine on the side for years. Then in 1846 he converted from the Methodist church to the Baptist church. He wrote about it in a notable book/pamphlet: Reasons for Becoming a Baptist.

From then he became an itinerant pastor, never staying at a single congregation for more than five years or so. He travelled from New York to Philadelphia to Louisville for several months then back to New York.

Evidently his time in Louisville was short, possibly because of anti-slavery views.
Evidently his time in Louisville was short, possibly because of anti-slavery views.

He preached as a Baptist for twenty-plus more years before finally settling in Brooklyn, where he died at the age of 66. He lived all over the mid-Atlantic, especially the Hudson River Valley. And while he returned to places over the years, notably New York City, he appears to have never stayed in one place longer than maybe five years.

That was a lot of places for Stephen to hang his hat.
That was a lot of places for Stephen to hang his hat.

As for Eliza, she died in 1850. But I wonder if she may be related to a cluster of Garretsons that lived in Rhinebeck, which included the famous Reverend Freeborn Garretson, a circuit riding Methodist minister.

The daughter born in Hartford is my direct ancestor. She eventually married a man in New York City with the surname Miller. Then, after having a son (my next direct ancestor), she upped and moved to Wisconsin and married another man with the surname Miller, who was not related to the first. There is talk of a divorce, but no record of it. Could she have been a bigamist? That’s a story for another day.