America's revolutionary generation, new research documents, lived in a society much more equal than our own. And early Americans prized that equality, an inconvenient reality for conservatives today.
Not too long ago, Americans only dressed up in George Washington wigs, waistcoats, and tri-corner hats on the Fourth of July. But then the Tea Party came along, and colonial garb started turning up at rallies all year around.
In quick order, the legacy of 1776 started “belonging” to the anti-“Big Government” Tea Party crowd. The Founders, claimed Tea Party types, wouldn’t abide government interference in their lives. And neither should we. If we today just stayed true to 1776, the United States would remain forever “exceptional.”
And how do we stay true? The Tea Party — and like-minded GOP leaders in Congress — had a ready answer. No new taxes. Ever. Not even on the super rich. Forget that fussing about inequality. Starve the beast. Keep government small.
This basic Tea Party line has now become the reigning mantra within conservative circles. But this mantra totally mangles the historical record. The patriots of 1776 didn’t stage a revolution to keep government small. They revolted to keep their America relatively equal.
Those colonists, new archival research by economists Peter Lindert and Jeffrey Williamson documents quite dramatically, lived in a society that sported far more equality than mother England. In 1774, on the eve of the American Revolution, the 13 American colonies enjoyed what appears to be “a more egalitarian income distribution” than “any other place on the planet.”
Our colonial top 1 percent, Lindert and Williamson calculate in research published last year, took in just 8.9 percent of colonial household income. Back in England, the richest 1 percent were raking in 17.5 percent, nearly twice that share.
Free American colonists — from average working families — had significantly higher incomes than their English counterparts. But the rich in the colonies had significantly smaller incomes than England’s richest.
What explained the difference? In mother England, American patriots saw clearly, wealthy aristocrats were manipulating the levers of government to enrich themselves and deny average people the “fruits of their labor.”
Our generation of 1776 considered aristocracy a direct threat. They struggled to free themselves from it. Their new nation, they pledged, would be a republic.
Our founders, adds historian James Huston, believed their new republic would endure only so long as they kept “an equal or nearly equal distribution of landed wealth among its citizens.” These early Americans had read their history. Previous attempts to establish republican rule — in Athens, Rome, Venice, and Florence — had all failed. Inequality had wrecked them.
Our generation of 1776 would not repeat that mistake. They would celebrate the relative equality of their young nation as a bulwark of republican liberty.
“We have no paupers,” Thomas Jefferson would write. “The great mass of our population is of laborers; our rich, who can live without labor, either manual or professional, being few, and of moderate wealth.”
Added Jefferson: “Can any condition of society be more desirable than this?”
To Jefferson and his generation, equity seemed nature’s way. Most colonials lived on small family farms. The earth they farmed could yield only so much wealth. If government just let the economy alone, America’s original revolutionaries believed, gross inequality would never appear.
No one could ever become fabulously wealthy in an economy where labor, and labor alone, determined a citizen’s worth.
This advocacy for “limited government” seemed to make sense in an agrarian nation. But the United States would not remain agrarian. A century after 1776, giant corporations lorded over America’s economic landscape, and new industrial elites were enriching themselves at the expense of average Americans.
But average Americans would fight back over the first half of the 1900s. They would use government to limit the corporate power to exploit. They would put in place progressive tax systems that cut the new corporate rich down to democratic size. They would, in short, stay true to Jefferson’s original egalitarian vision.
Over recent decades, we’ve lost sight of that vision. Our top 1 percent are now expropriating a greater share of national income than did the aristocrats back in old mother England.
The tea partisans and their pals, meanwhile, advise us to pay no heed. The founders would not agree. They cared deeply about the link between democracy and equality. And not just on the Fourth of July.