Leadership as a driving force of history: Evidence from the Forty-Eighters in the American Civil War

Profs Christian Dippel and Stephan Heblich in this research:

To study the Forty-Eighters’ effect on the local communities where they settled, we perform our analysis at the level of towns, by constructing a geo-located 1850-1860 panel of over 10,000 Northern towns. To study a meaningful outcome that connects closely to the Forty-Eighters’ anti-slavery convictions and agitation, we constructed town-level rates of Union Army volunteering based on data for the over 2.2 million men who fought in the Union Army between 1861 and 1865 (Figure 2). 

Figure 2 Map of Union Army enlistments (per hundred adult males)

We employ a variety of identification strategies to address potential endogeneity concerns surrounding the Forty-Eighters’ choice to settle in one town over another. Across these strategies, we estimate that towns where Forty-Eighters settled saw around ten more men per hundred adult males enlist over the course of the war, relative to a mean enlistment rate of 13%. Men in Forty-Eighter  towns also enlisted earlier, consistent with the view that early enlistment cohorts had stronger anti-slavery convictions (McPherson 1997). We provide evidence that the Forty-Eighters influenced their social networks through their involvement in local social clubs and through anti-slavery treatises they published in print.

As an auxiliary exercise that buttresses our core results, we track those Forty-Eighters who enlisted in the Union Army and show that commanding officers reduced desertion rates in their companies, essentially replicating the setup in Costa and Kahn’s (2003) well-known study of Union Army desertion.

Lastly, we investigate the Forty-Eighters’ long-run effects on social norms in the towns they settled. As an outcome that connects closely to our main analysis, we study the formation of town-level chapters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People after 1900, and find that, other things equal, towns where Forty-Eighters settled were 30% more likely to have a local NAACP chapter in the 20th century.


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