Income Equality in Revolutionary America

Photo: Peter Roan

A tad late for Independence Day, but interesting nevertheless: a new paper called “American Incomes Before and After the Revolution,” by Peter H. Lindert and Jeffrey G. Williamson. Couldn’t find an ungated copy; abstract below (emphasis is mine):

Building social tables in the tradition of Gregory King, we quantify the level and inequality of American incomes before and after the Revolutionary War. Our tentative estimates suggest that between 1774 and 1800 American incomes fell in real per capita terms. The colonial South was richer, and then suffered a greater Revolutionary decline, than suggested by previous estimates. Any rapid growth after 1790 seems to have just partially offset part of a very steep wartime decline. We also find that free American colonists had much more equal incomes than did households in England and Wales. Indeed, New England and the Middle Colonies appear to have been more egalitarian than anywhere else in the measurable world. The colonists also had greater purchasing power than their English counterparts over all of the income ranks except in the top few percent.

In other old news: there are just as many U.S. newspapers now as in the 1890’s, although per-capita readership is what we really care about.

And in even older news, a reassessment of the Glorious Revolution (PDF here, abstract here).

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  1. Mike B says:

    No wonder the framers of the Constitution had no inkling to separate freedom of speech from campaign finance reform. That such a small % of Americans could command such a large % of the wealth must have been as alien a concept as firearms that didn’t take half a day to load.

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    • JP says:

      The thought behind having a citizenry that is armed is so they can’t be strong armed by their government like so many citizens have before and have since. How long the it takes to load the firearm is irrelevant to the law.

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    • Andrew Krause says:

      CFR would not have been on the Founders’ mind because the notion of treating one part of the population as more or less deserving their Natural Rights is antithetical to the principles upon which the revolution was based. They were certainly not strangers to the idea of a small number of people controlling a large amount of the wealth either. Most of the founders were aristocrats.

      The average Redcoat could fire three shots from their musket in a minute. The average Continental, only one . The notion of firepower was not alien at all.

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    • Clifton Griffin says:

      “That such a small % of Americans could command such a large % of the wealth must have been as alien a concept as firearms that didn’t take half a day to load.”

      This is simply untrue. The power and concentration of wealth in the hands of the few was even more disproportionate historically.

      The American constitution’s protection of the individual’s right to pursue their own prosperity without the government tipping the scale gave rise to the large socioeconomic group we call the “middle class”, and now take for granted.

      The founder’s were certainly acquainted with the powerful and the wealthy. We can be thankful they wrote a constitution that regards all equally…even the wealthy.


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  2. James says:

    I wonder, though, just how one defines “income” in a largely agrarian society, in which almost everything needed is produced at home?

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    • Mike B says:

      In bushels.

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    • Andrew Krause says:

      Those goods still have a market price, even if they don’t enter the stream of commerce. A bushel of corn would be as cheap a five shillings. $6 in today’s money. If you grew and consumed a bushel of corn, it would be the same as earning $6, and is called imputed income.

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      • James says:

        OK, but now we have to wonder how much corn people grew, and whether we should price it as feed corn for cattle, corn meal, or organic sweet corn. If our colonial farmer kills a deer, what’s it worth, the cost of powder & ball, or the price of venison today? Which isn’t cheap:

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