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).

Mike B

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.


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.


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

Mike B

In bushels.