Life in 1776

Obviously it was different, but when you go by the numbers, it's striking. Also, 7 other things worth your time.

This weekend, we’ll mark the 245th Independence Day celebration in the United States.

We’re still a young nation in the grand scheme. Let’s put it this way: If you’re 50 years old, you’ve been alive for more than 20% of the entire history of the independent United States.

Still, it’s fun to go back and point out just how different life was in the colonies in 1776 compared to now. One the one hand: yes, obviously.

But on the other, sometimes the numbers tell an interesting tale.

So here are 10 facts about the new nation the Founding Fathers were building that demonstrate just how different it was from our country today.

1. It was very small.

The entire population of the United States in 1776 was about 2.5 million people, well under 1% of what it is today, according to the U.S. Census.

That's about the size of the metro area around San Antonio now, or halfway between the populations of Kansas and New Mexico. 

2. It was only partially free.

A massive number of people were enslaved. The Census Bureau source above doesn't break it out for 1776, but by 1790, the total population had grown to 3,929,214, of whom 697,681 (so 17.8%) were slaves.

Separately, most women were not allowed to vote (except in New Jersey, but that's another story).

3. People died young.

Average life expectancy of a white male at the time was about 38 years, compared to about 78 now. Very high infant mortality back then affected this statistic significantly. If men like the Founders lived to age 60, odds were good they'd live to age 75; their average age at death turned out to be about 65.

4. Yet they were healthier than you might think.

Medicine was nothing compared to today, but as a proxy for health, Americans were fairly tall, with men averaging about 5 feet 8 inches in 1776, just an inch shorter than today. The most common explanation is that nutrition was actually better for average Americans then.

5. The economy was very different.

It was an agrarian economy, and the industrial and technological revolutions were far in the future. But almost everyone was an entrepreneur—including most of the Founders. (However, there are two asterisks here, in that many of them inherited immense wealth or were rich because of slavery.) Today, about 9% of Americans own a business.

6. Standards of living were high.

The combined U.S. economy was about 30% the size of Great Britain's. However, the U.S. standard of living among free people was considerably higher because of its smaller population. 

7. Families were big.

Families were big, with an average of 5.79 people, according to the first census in 1790. Today, it's about 3.14.

8. Taxes were low.

Surprising, right, given what we know about the Boston Tea Party? But the average effective total tax rates back then were between 1 and 1.5% total. At the same time, government services were very limited.

9. There were big sacrifices being made.

During the Revolutionary War, about 30,000 Americans were killed, wounded, or died from non-combat conditions (e.g., disease, accidents). Combined, this adds up to about 1.2% of the total population. The comparable rate for the Civil War was 2.1% (counting both sides). For World War II, it was 0.39%.

10. But there was an advantage to limited technology.

The penalty for signing the Declaration of Independence would have been severe if the signatories were caught, or if the revolution had not succeeded.

But the Founders were protected by a practical consideration: Poor communication and travel in the 18th century would have made it very hard for the British to even find most of the signers, at least according to historian Denise Kiernan.

Just some food for thought as we look back at where we’ve been, and contemplate where we’re going.

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7 other things worth your time

  • Bill Cosby is out of prison and back home after his 2018 conviction for sexual assault was overturned by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which concluded he’d relied on a previous district attorney’s implied promise not to prosecute him when he testified in a civil suit, rather than taking the Fifth Amendment. Lawyers I talked with and read on Wednesday say overturning his conviction is on more solid ground than the court’s related order, which said he can’t be retried. (The Daily Beast)

  • Utterly tragic: A mother taking her son to the U.S. Naval Academy for his plebe year was shot and killed as she sat on a hotel balcony, in what appears to be a bystander casualty. An FBI representative said: "I know the pride she must have felt bringing her son to start his new life ... only to have her life cut senselessly short." (ABC News)

  • Donald Rumsfeld, former secretary of defense and architect of the Iraq War, has died at age 88. (Washington Post)

  • Walmart plans to offer store-brand insulin in an attempt to secure its place in the healthcare market. The generic insulin will cost 58-75% less than branded medication in what the company calls “a move to provide affordable and accessible treatments while improving health equity and outcomes.” (Forbes)

  • For the second year in a row, there’s a fireworks shortage in the U.S., just ahead of the Fourth. (CNN)

  • Literal game-changer: The NCAA gave its member institutions sweeping discretion Wednesday to set rules letting players make money on everything from product pitches to autograph signings after a bruising Supreme Court defeat last week. Big athletic programs are already deep into prepping, and some student-athletes were announcing paid autograph signings within hours. (Politico)

  • First Lady Dr. Jill Biden will be featured on the cover of Vogue’s July issue. The announcement comes after Melania Trump was the only first lady for several decades not to have a cover feature in the magazine. (CNN)

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Thanks for reading. Photo credit: Government work based on a painting by John Trumbull, 1817. I’ve written about 1776 before at Want to see all my mistakes? Click here.