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The Weirdest Guest — William Z. Ripley: Economist, Financial Historian, and Racial Theorist September 26, 2011

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of Economic Thought, History of the Human Sciences.
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William Ripley’s (October 13, 1867 – August 16, 1941) long career as a writer, public servant, and academician presents nightmarish problems of reconstruction for the historian.  Ripley, at one time vice president of the  American Economic Association, was an expert on railroads and trusts, a competent historian of the financial history of colonial Virginia, an astute observer on the labor problem in both Europe and America, and, with the publication of the Races of Europe (1899), one of the preeminent sociologists of his day.

William Z. Ripley's Races of Europe

The longevity of Ripley’s influence poses problems for the scope of the academical truism of the “revolution” brought about by Boas’ cultural relativism, as well as the intriguing connections between the Oxford School of Anthropology and American racial theory.  Such was the enduring reputation of Ripley’s work that it was revised in 1946 by Carlton Coon, an important twentieth century physical anthropologist who taught at Harvard.  Coon’s mentor, Earnest Albert Hooton, a student of R. R. Marett, was a nasty piece of work, producing works in the same mental universe as Lothrop Stoddard’s The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy (1920).

A key question for the historian of Ripley’s work is to explain how the author of The Financial History of Virginia 1609-1776 (1893) penned The Races of Europe less than a decade later.  One is inclined, at least initially, to throw up one’s hands.  The disjuncture between these two texts is less than immediately appears.  Ripley argues, with much fuss, that the distinctive fiscal structures of colonial Virginia, as well as the institution of slavery, were due to the action of climate and due to the presence of an aristocratic social structure.  The emphasis on environment and aristocracy returns with the discussion of the races of Europe and the “urban selection” debate.

For all of the descriptive differences of both texts, and for all of the minutiae, Ripley was concerned in his writing with articulating a theory of civilizational development and for accounting for those factors which were most responsible for the emergence of the modern and industrial world, the knowledge of which would ameliorate the problems of industrial life and modern sociability.  Ripley’s work on trusts, railroads, monopolies, the labor problem, and the forces guiding the development of the races of Europe was all of one piece, as all of the works represented an inquiry into the prospects of progress and its various costs.

Key to Ripley’s discussion in The Races of Europe was the “urban selection” debate. Ripley considered the rise of the cities and of migration from rural to urban localities to be of essential importance.  Migration and urbanization, though important in America, was doubly so in Europe.  The depopulation of the countryside, the rise of the urban masses, and the infertility of the European nations had begun a new process of selection.

Ripley’s opinions here were deeply German, developing from the work of Georg Hansen and Otto Ammon.  Hansen divided a nation’s population into three strata: country-dwellers, the middle class of townsfolk, and the urban folk of the cities, made up mostly of laborers and artisans.  While the people of the countryside were fertile and added to their numbers,those in the cities suffered from not only an inordinately high birth-rate but also an extremely high level of mortality.  Hansen concluded that the country population was consistently being drained of its “best blood” as those of great intellect, ambition, or curiosity, went to the cities.  Of this “best blood,” Ammon and Ripley concluded, the most common was the “long-headed” and “Teutonic” type.

The natural penchant of the Teutonic type to migrate to the cities was known as “Ammon’s law,” a theory still discussed by Pitirim A. Sorokin, the shining knight who tipped his lance against Talcott Parsons, with a great deal of seriousness, later in the century.  It was the Teutonic, long-headed, type, this “migratory class,”  Ripley declared, which had “the courage, energy, or physical ability to seek its fortunes at a distance from its rural birthplace.”  It was the tendency of the Teutonic type to “reassert” itself “in competition” throughout history, including in the nineteenth century.

As importantly, the Teutonic type had been the dominant class, particularly in military and political affairs.  All of the leading dynasties, Ripley asserted, “were recruited from its ranks.”  This race’s energy was in stark contrast to the more sedentary “Alpine” type, the dominant type of people in the peasant class from Spain to Russia.  This social and racial stratum was all the more remarkable for its conservatism, and, in certain situations, its capacity for brutality and violence.

The horror of city life was then that it tended to degrade individuals, particularly physically, and that such degradation was hereditary.  With Ripley’s work, however, we have simply not an emphasis on the fixity of race but, as importantly, a disquisition on the importance of environmental influences.  As great a factor as race played, the environment of the city could degrade the gifts of inheritances.  The city was the cruelest selector, as the vast majority were the “grist” for the city mills,  and the chosen few, those who could climb the social ladder. Those less successful individuals migrated in the city towards the Eastern areas, the Bowery, while those most successful, established themselves on West End.

As with Joseph Deniker, Ripley’s work illustrated ethnology and anthropology at a key moment before the ‘cultural turn’: an inquisitorial framework straining under the weight of an avalanche of  the evidences of physical anthropology, human and physical geography, and sociological theory (particularly urban and rural sociology.) Ripley, though indebted to physical anthropology, through his reading of Ellen Semple, Carl Ritter, Friedrich Ratzel, Max Nordau, and even Montesquieu, among others, was quite convinced that the fate of any ethnic group was tied to both race and environment.  It was, furthermore, this interplay of arguments, which allowed Ripley, like Deniker, to have a semblance of a reputation at mid-century.  Ripley’s standing has also not been hurt by his trenchant analysis of trusts, pools, and corporations, either, seemly unconnected as they were to his racial sociology.  Ripley’s work in a variety of areas- economics, sociology, physical anthropology — mirrored the balancing act in his sociology of a variety of arguments and evidences.


1. Charles Nydorf - September 28, 2011

Some nuances are necessary here. E A Hooton was a eugenicist and a racist but at times also a staunch opponent of anti-semitism in the academy. When Franz Boas sought allies in the physical anthropology community to refute Nazi race theory, Hooton was the only one to sign on. Carlton Coon’s “Races of Europe” first appeared in 1939 and, in spite of its title, was quite critical of Ripley whom he compared unfavorably to Deniker.

2. Harvard. Trade Unionism and Allied Problems, Final Exam. Ripley, 1914-15 - Economics in the Rear-View Mirror - August 19, 2017

[…] Of no small interest is his early work in sociology, in particular his 1899 book: Races of Europe. For a brief discussion of Ripley’s balancing act involving the factors of race and environment, see Christopher Donohue’s “The Weirdest Guest–William Z. Ripley: Economist, Financial Historian, and Racial Theorist“.  […]

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