Was Colonial America ‘Egalitarian’?


America might have had a lot more in common with Sweden than IKEA furniture and H&M clothing, according to new research.

Two economists now say that the Founding Fathers’ nation was “more egalitarian than anywhere else in the measurable world,” reports Reuters (via New York Times.)

Hm. This sounds rather strange, considering that Colonial America had arguably the most inegalitarian institution ever — slavery. Some researchers insist, however, they have financial data to back up claims that the U.S. was “a great country for the 99 percent, particularly compared with the folks back in the old country.”

Wage-wise, they say that Revolutionary War-era America was “most equal in their distribution of income among households, though by a finer margin,” even counting slaves.

Peter H. Lindert and Jeffrey G. Williamson, who conducted research on this topic, say that the only free class who had it better in Europe was the landed nobility.

At the time, England’s “1 percent” was so loaded that “the country’s average national income was nearly as high as that of the colonies, despite the markedly greater prosperity of what today we might call the American middle class.”

Lindert and Jeffrey counter that an inversion has taken place: Today, “the rest of the world can’t come close to the 1 percent in America.”

All interesting stuff, sure. But it’s a hard sell to make any statements about egalitarianism that don’t fully take into account egregious social injustices — namely, the fact that there were slaves.

(Seriously, people. Whatever happened to context?)

Talking about income is great and useful and has its place. Fine. Still, any generalizations about equality in the past seem super sketchy — if not loaded with B.S. — when so many Americans were denied basic human rights.