Thomas Ramey Watson

Our forebears valued equity (except for slaves)

As new archival research by economists Peter Lindert and Jeffrey Williamson documents, those colonists lived in a society that sported far more equality than mother England. In 1774, on the Revolution’s eve, the colonies probably enjoyed “a more egalitarian income distribution” than “any other place on the planet,” Lindert and Williamson write.

Our colonial top 1 percent took in just 8.9 percent of colonial household income. Back in England, the richest 1 percent raked in 17.5 percent, nearly twice that share.

Free American colonists — from average families — had significantly higher incomes than their English counterparts. And the rich in the colonies had significantly smaller incomes than England’s richest.

What explained the difference? In mother England, American patriots noted, 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 would struggle to free themselves — but not their slaves — from it. Their new nation, they pledged, would be a republic.
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Over recent decades, we’ve lost that vision. Our top 1 percent now expropriates a greater share of national income than the old English aristocracy did.

The tea party followers and their pals don’t mind this glaring inequality. But the founders cared deeply about equality. So should we.

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