What Accounts for New England Genius?


New England

New England

Slate has posted a fascinating map constructed by Gustave Michaud in 1904 that purports to show the concentration of genius in the United States at that time.

There was a likely motive behind the map. Michaud was a eugenicist who was interested in identifying attributes of human genius that could help refine scientific methods for improving the species.

The map represents the birthplaces of so-called “men of genius” listed in “Who’s Who in America.” The fact that New England possessed the highest concentration of genius shouldn’t surprise anyone, but it does raise an intriguing question: What accounts for this concentration?

My personal quasi-educated guess: New England was originally populated by “people of the book,” religious fundamentalists who initially valued literacy solely for the role it played in ensuring that followers acquired a strong mastery of Scripture.

But as with many cultures that place strong emphasis on the individual mastery of sacred texts, this produced a knock-on effect: the rise of an educated elite.  It is an effect that has played out many times and in many places throughout U.S. history, all the more fascinating when one considers how  outlooks of many of these elites ended up deviating widely from their fundamentalist forebears.

This is one of the ironies underscoring modern New England’s lasting cultural and intellectual preeminence within the United States, at least, as I see it: The region’s early fundamentalist origins afforded it an enormous advantage over the other cultural regions of 18th century British America.

Secular 21st century New England owes an immense debt to Calvinist 17th century New England.


About Jim Langcuster

A Southern late-Baby Boomer whose post-retirement focus is on building a post-racial, post-Confederate Southern regional identity. If the election of 2016 underscored one thing, it is that this country is intractably divided and that radical devolution of power to localities and states is the only way to save the American Union.
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