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Wall Street Journal's Colonial America revisionism (Frank Fleming, Independence Day, "What America Was Really Like In 1776")

To celebrate the Fourth of July, the Wall Street Journal offers a bit of historical revisionism from Frank Fleming [1] designed to portray Colonial America as a libertarian-leaning wonderland (link):

Almost every American knows the traditional story of July Fourth - the soaring idealism of the Declaration of Independence, the Continental Congress's grim pledge to defy the world's most powerful nation with their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor. But what else about revolutionary America might help us feel closer to those founders in their tricornered hats, fancy waistcoats and tight knee-breeches?

Those Americans, it turns out, had the highest per capita income in the civilized world of their time. They also paid the lowest taxes - and they were determined to keep it that way.

...In the northern colonies, according to historical research, the top 10% of the population owned about 45% of the wealth. In some parts of the South, 10% owned 75% of the wealth. But unlike most other countries, America in 1776 had a thriving middle class. Well-to-do farmers shipped tons of corn and wheat and rice to the West Indies and Europe, using the profits to send their children to private schools and buy their wives expensive gowns and carriages. Artisans—tailors, carpenters and other skilled workmen—also prospered, as did shop owners who dealt in a variety of goods.

You don't have to be Howard Zinn to realize that and the rest of the article is more than a bit fantastic: things weren't so great for the bulk of those inhabiting the Colonies. Millions whose descendants would wind up as Americans weren't exactly "thriving": slaves, indentured servants (most of them white), Indians, low-skilled workers, the poor, farmers on the edges of the colonies, and others. Fleming doesn't mention any of those except the last [2]. He's also not noting that most of those weren't considered Americans at the time; some of his statistics don't seem to include all residents.

You do have to be a libertarian or in the Teaparties to not realize the huge subsidies implied in the article. Slave owners were able to get fantastically rich, but only by getting a huge, multi-generational subsidy: among other things, their actions stuck the U.S. with huge costs that remain with us today.

In the ensuing decades, the libertarian profits-at-any-price spirit has resulted in, for instance, environmental disasters that represent untold billions in subsidies (Superfund sites, etc.)

In 1776, foreign countries only had armies and navies, not ICBMs.

It would be very difficult to get back to the WSJ's libertarian paradise without re-creating the other conditions involved at the time, the ones that the WSJ doesn't mention. I don't think even the WSJ would want to do that, so perhaps the next time they should mention that.

[1] Per the WSJ:

[Frank Fleming] is a former president of the Society of American Historians. This article was adapted from his e-book, "What America Was Really Like in 1776," recently published by New Word City.

Fleming may cover some or all of the issues mentioned above in the e-book, but he certainly doesn't in his WSJ article.


Several hundred miles inland was the "back country," and at the time of the Revolution, not many people went there by choice. Most were poor and landless - younger sons, for example, whose older brothers had inherited the family's property. Life on the outskirts of civilization was hard and often violent. Morals on the Western frontier were often much more relaxed than they were in the civilized East.

Other tags: tea parties

Wed, 07/04/2012 - 11:28 · Importance: 4