Was America ever a poor nation (compared to the relative standards of its time?)

Aside from its beginning (the travelers who disembarked from the Mayflower obviously couldn’t have had much prosperity when first getting things set up,) was America ever at any point a poor nation, by living standards or economics, compared to all other nations around it?

And if so, what was the poorest time of its history?

I don’t understand what you mean by “all other nations around it.” And living standards in a world where 99% of the population were peasants or slaves favors any displays of wealth. And America didn’t exist except part of a string of separately governed British colonies from the Caribbean to what is now Canada. It can’t be talked about as a nation in any sense until after the Revolution.

That said, the lowest relative point in the history of America as a nation was at its beginning. The war with Britain was expensive in lives and material destruction. Large segments of the population fled to Canada or Britain. American currency was debased. The British boycotted our exports and harassed our merchant ships. The Articles of Confederation proved that collecting money to run the government was a dream goal. Many thoughtful observers here and in other countries doubted that the nation - a loose alliance of 13 former colonies who mostly hated and feared one another - could possibly survive.

It did, mostly because it had unlimited Indian lands to usurp. But the U.S. was considered a nothing upstart in the sophisticated capitals of Europe until after it started rapidly industrializing. That era started roughly about 1850 but it took the Civil War to truly capitalize on its economic power and be more than a poor relative.

The other “nations” in the world were mostly kingdoms and empires. Rulers often had legendarily fabulous wealth. How that translated in modern terms as national economic power is fuzzy. Did a subsistence farmer in the Northwest Territories have higher living standards than a subsistence farmer in China? Or Poland? How does one even define that?

Indeed. The US was like that preemie baby no one expects will survive but who surprises everyone by thriving.

Nicely put.

In many measures of quality of life some of the American colonies were significantly higher than in Europe. New England in particular is sometimes colloquially said to have “invented grandparents” because the people who resettled there on average added enough to their life expectancy that it became very common for most people to know their grandparents.

Many of the Hessians who were essentially forced to come fight in the United States (they were mercenaries in that George III paid their Prince money for their services, but they themselves were conscripts or enlisted men in their Army, they had no option to decline deployment), attempted to and many did stay to live here after the war because they found it far preferable to the conditions of Germany at the time.

As a rule, the United States until cross-Atlantic travel had declined tremendously in cost was settled somewhat by the middle class of Europe. The extremely rich in Europe, other than ones who had fallen into extreme political disfavor (like some Huguenots who emigrated to some of the Southern colonies), had little interest in or desire to move to colonial North America. The extremely poor had far less means of getting across the Atlantic. The middle class tended to thus make up a disproportionate share of the early settlement.

There were of course opportunities to move to the colonies if you were extremely poor–by entering an indenture contract, and that was a major source of labor in the early colonies, but nonetheless on average, most of settlement into Britain’s North American colonies from the 1600s, up through the Revolution and into the early 1800s, was made up of middle class people.

Around the 1830s and on prices started to decline quite a bit, and that increased in the 1860s and beyond as “steam and sail” ships became more common and started to drive trans-Atlantic costs down across the board (the very poorest would still be making the transit on sail ships, but the competition from steam clippers had a downward influence on crossing rates of all ships, if that makes sense.) As an example of how much prices had dropped even before steam and sail ships had started to dominate (although some were sailing at the time), in 1816 passage from Liverpool England to New York harbor was over 3 pounds. By 1846 it was only 30 shillings (reminder in pre-decimal British currency there were 20 shillings to a pound, so this was roughly a 50% nominal decrease, note that while much lower than modern eras there was still inflation in the 19th century so on top of the nominal decrease, it was a value for money increase of even more than 50%.)

Another thing that somewhat reinforced this is the British did not want people emigrating to the independent colonies. They actually maintained specific policies that generally kept trans-Atlantic travel cheaper if your destination was a British North America (Canadian) port versus an American one. The cheapest passage to North America in the early 19th century was actually booking extra space on a fishing vessel, these could take you to Nova Scotia or Newfoundland. While I don’t know the circumstances of their crossing, this is when my paternal line actually made it into North America–landing in Nova Scotia in the 1840s and from all genealogical records we can tell that branch of the family remained deeply poor as an ongoing state of affairs, the branch that I’m from crossed into the United States as farm laborers in the 1890s, and eventually ended up in the Appalachias owning small parcels of land.

So TLDR, early America had much less extreme poverty than Europe. How would this translate to something like a modern GINI or HDI rating, very hard to say.

On a number of other measures, America was historically a middling performer until the late 19th century. I don’t have GNP figures for the first half of the 19th century. But in 1830 as an example, from data compiled by Paul Kennedy in his famous “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers”, there’s some interesting data on things like “Relative Share of World Manufacturing” and “Per-Capita Industrialization.”

In terms of “relative share of world manufacturing”, here are some comparison points:

United Kingdom - 4.3
France - 4.2
German States - 3.5
Italian States - 2.5
Russia - 5.6
United States - 0.8
China - 33.3

(Yes, as a share of manufacturing output even without even the beginnings of an industrial revolution, vast China was…much ahead of Europe in this metric.)

In 1830
United Kingdom - 9.5
France - 5.2
German States - 3.5
Italian States - 2.3
Russia - 5.6
United States - 2.4
China - 29.8

You’re starting to see the UK pull away here, as it is starting to “win” the early Industrial Revolution.

I won’t go through every year breakdown, but by 1900 the United States was up to 23.6%–China was down to 6.2%, and Britain was a bit behind the United States at 18.5%. So in about 70 years the U.S. went from being 1/12th the share of global manufacturing output as China, to being 3.8x that of China. Note that China’s population still grew at a very high rate over these 70 years, but the high population growth rate without significant industrialization, very likely decreased quality of life and per capita wealth in China by the year 1900. There’s a reason conditions politically in China were “not good” by then.

Another interesting measure from that same book is “per capita industrialization”, with 100 on this metric = to the United Kingdom in the year 1900.

By that metric, in 1800:

United Kingdom - 16
France - 9
German States - 8
Italian States - 8
Russia - 6
United States - 9
China - 6

So while significantly behind the mother country, in 1800 the U.S. was already on a per-capita basis more industrialized than Russia, China, Italy, Germany and on par with France.

By 1830:
United Kingdom - 25
France - 12
German States - 9
Italian States - 8
Russia - 7
United States - 14
China - 6

By 1830 the U.S. was #2 in the world behind the UK. You might notice there’s also a correlation here with countries that don’t improve much in these ratings being countries that go through profound politilcal/economic/social changes. Germany for example (really the many small independent German polities) eventually unifies and massively industrializes, but until some of the reforms and improvements made possible by unification, it was not particularly impressive in this metric. Countries like China and Russia that were still operating large portions of their economy with agrarian peasantry, barely improved in this measure at all in 30 years time.

By 1900 the UK was at…100 as the measure would suggest, and the U.S. was #2 at 69. All other countries are significantly behind that–Germany the next highest at 52, then France at 39. China is 3 in 1900, demonstrating that its per-capita industrialization has declined again, due to very high population growth without and industrial revolution.

None of this actually probably answers the OP, but may be a decent foundation for exploration.

Another chart I found from that same book that is salient to this thread:

1914 WWI Belligerent Nations

Country / National Income / Population / Per Capita Income
United States-------37bn/ 98m / $377
Britain-----------------11bn / 45m / $244
France----------------6bn / 39m / $153
Japan-----------------2bn / 39m / $36
Germany-------------12bn / 65m / $184
Italy--------------------4bn / 37m / $108
Russia----------------7bn / 171m / $41
Austria-Hungary----3bn / 52m / $57

I definitely would not ascribe too much weight to a country being wealthy with an imperial ruling family. Russia had the wealthiest imperial family in Europe, but was a pauper nation–with per capita income only 10.8% of that of the United States in 1914. Austria-Hungary likewise was ruled by a wealthy imperial family and is only slightly wealthier than Russia. Even Germany was only 48% as wealthy as the United States per capita in 1914.

It’s “common wisdom” that the North won the civil war despite inept military leaders in general (sorry). They had the means of production, the navy, the railroads, the supplies of coal, food, clothing, and weapons, and the means to distribute them.

Presumably this means in the 10 or 20 years leading up to 1860 the USA was certainly developing its industrial capability.

Pre-revolutionary America had its advantages as well:

  1. Wood. Just a seemingly inexhaustible supply of wood, an estimated 822,000,000 acres of harvestable wood at the beginning of the 17th century, representing 5,200,000,000,000 of marketable timber. “Here is good living for those who love good fires” said Francis Higginson, minister to the Cape Ann settlers in 1629. Ships, houses, towns, and…

  2. Rivers. … waterwheels for the endless rivers and streams found in the eastern seaboard. Waterwheels are great for processing all the…

  3. Plant foodstuffs left you by the largely-dead natives. Corn, walnuts, potatoes, and the most valuable one of all… tobacco. Lastly, there was the…

  4. Wildlife, just amazing in its fecundity, once the European settlers adjusted, by the time of the American revolution the typical ‘American’ was eating 200 pounds of meat a year (easily more than any other region of the world) and was 2 inches taller than their British cousins.

So I would argue… ‘no’. Even in our troubled times, we ate well and had heat.

Cite: Paul Johnson, A History of the American People, 1997 Harper & Collins.

Standard of living, as in the availability and access of food and material goods for the average person was always much higher in America than in Europe, except I would guess in the early colonial period.

Btw, fantastic work, @Martin_Hyde! Thank you!

Others have given specific examples, but America’s unique geography is the reason the answer to the OP is “no”. Having an expansive piece of undeveloped land - which was nominally yours - from which you could extract resources or grow population gave the U.S. a decided advantage over other nation states. Plus, it was protected from invasion or plunder from European or Asian powers by two oceans. American “exceptionalism” is really just a feature of its location.

There’s actually a lot that goes into it, it isn’t as simple as just land.

It is land + deployable capital + de novo society + lack of serious regional threats militarily + deep ties to a strong capitalist/industrializing country. This all swirled together to create a pretty unique set of conditions.

Even when it comes to land it also isn’t as simple as the land simply being there, but also how is it used and what type of land is it. The United States is gifted with lots of arable land, moreso than just raw amounts of land (we have 5x the arable land of Canada for example, 24% more than Russia despite Russia being far vaster, and around 12% more than China despite China having to support a far larger population.) We also did not have entrenched societal/political/economic practices that locked large amounts of land in inefficient ways. For example Britain, which in a great many ways was very well positioned going into 1800, had some issues around this. By the time the end of the “enclosures” came about, something like 0.06% of British people controlled over 50% of the land. Part of the issue with that is many of these individuals controlled the land not because they were shrewd businessmen, but simply because they were landed nobility whose daddy’s daddy’s daddy six generations back was on good terms with the monarch. Many of these great British estates were “rotten” by 1900, through decades of extreme mismanagement, and that had a societal wide impact that acted as an albatross on Britain’s growth. Britain was heavily urbanized because of the enclosure movement, which likely set it up to do so well in the Industrial Revolution, but it is very likely if not for so much real estate wealth locked up in the hands of inefficient nobles and their errant descendants, Britain would have had even stronger economic growth over the period in question.

America’s ties to Britain also shouldn’t be underestimated in importance though. Many of the things that lead to Britain doing so well in the Industrial Revolution were cultural / legal / political / economic practices that we inherited in the colonies. On top of that shared language and a somewhat common flow of business investment between the two countries (even after the Revolution) helped quite a bit. A number of very prominent early British industrializers skipped off to the United States to help set up some of the first American factories, realizing they could make their fortunes in the United States. This importation of knowledge was a significant advantage that other countries did not enjoy.

As I said earlier, industrialization in the North started becoming nationally important around 1850, although localized factory centers such as Massachusetts cotton mills were already in existence. That did give the North a ten-year head start over the South.

The South skews all attempts to judge average worth because its economy almost completely depended on the fabulously successful strategy of not paying its workers. Census data puts the South at about 5.5 million whites and 3.5 million slaves. By breeding more slaves and moving them to where they were needed, the prohibition on importing slaves (often flouted anyway) was no bar to continued wealth. What we call today venture capital was neither available in the South for massive industrialization not attractive because of the great risks involved. (Small industries existed, of course, but the North probably had 5-10 times as many.)

Therefore when the war came, the South did not have the industrial infrastructure of the North, and this would prove crucial to the first “modern” war. But more than that, the South could not provide an army proportional to the size of its population because it had set up a situation in which arming slaves was psychologically impossible. Maintaining armies not overwhelmingly smaller than the North’s could only come by stripping the South of all able men. They could never properly grow enough food for everyone, let alone bleed tens of thousands into new factories.

The North had 18.5 million people. What’s little known is that the population increased during wartime, a possibly unique circumstance, because of what I calculate to be one million immigrants. A large proportion of these were young men eager to take the $300 replacement fee - a year’s salary - the well-to-do could offer as a way of not seeing service. The Union armies therefore had an endless supply of warm bodies, allowing agriculture and industry to flourish in tandem. That’s why almost all modern historians poo-poo the old romantic theories about generals and dead-shot hillbillies. Unless the North simply surrendered, as the South thought it would, in hindsight there was never a moment the South could have won. It was a Lost Cause from Ft. Sumter on.

The presence of millions of slaves has only recently begun to be accounted in overall calculations of American prosperity. What to do with one-seventh of the overall population having a net worth of zero even though they produced tangible wealth? Those independent settlers in the lands stolen from Indians may have had better lives than European peasants but its impossible to argue that slaves did. Balancing that equation is not simple and not yet agreed upon.

I can’t recall where I heard/read this, maybe from a history teacher/professor, but my recollection is that the US was considered an economic (and definitely cultural) backwater by the powers of Europe until nearly the 20th century, and it wasn’t until after WWII that anyone else considered the US to be at the top of any meaningful pecking order. That doesn’t mean the US wasn’t big and growing and an industrial powerhouse a century ago, but it was viewed in much the same way we view China or India today.

Before that it was definitely a backwater as far as Europe was concerned, but “compared to all other nations around it” is much more difficult to say. Does that mean just Canada, Mexico, and the island nations of the Caribbean? I’m not sure it’s even possible to compare those, considering the tight timeframes involved.

In 1858 a famous slave auction occurred in South Carolina, as one of the largest plantations in the South was broken up to pay off debts incurred in the 1857 panic. 436 souls were sold at an average of $700 apiece, implying that the 4.5 million slaves had a market value of $2.8 billion.

A bubble then erupted which, by 1860, placed the average price of a slave @ $1,000, a total valuation of $4,000,000,000 for the south’s slaves.

In short, the cumulative value of the slaves in 1861 exceeded that of America’s then industrial and railroad capital stock.

In addition, slave-backed loans became a prime driver of 1850s southern prosperity. These loans were greatly sought after in the London markets, as well as factoring loans on future cotton production. And guess what exploded as the value of slaves exploded? Yup - loan volume.

Because of the financialization (there’s that word again!) of slaves, Bhu Srinivasan in his book Americana: A 400 Year History of American Capitalism notes:

As far as America being a backwater, eh, de Tocqueville had something to say about that in the 1820s, and American entries in the great exhibition of 1851 left the British press rather agog:


I would say that it wasn’t that it couldn’t be figured out how big America was economically prior to 1914, it’s just that there was no incentive for any European to find out. They really just didn’t want to know, it seems.

No less a personage than Bismark noted that the most important fact of 19th-century diplomacy was that the US and the UK ‘spoke the same language’. Yes, English, but also the language of a mostly shared culture.

Some of that is probably American-centric exaggeration, America even 120 years ago glorified things like cowboys and rough types, and celebrated the fact they weren’t beholden to European class-based institutions. Like a lot of things people glorify, there’s heavy fictionalization involved. For example, the wealthy elites of the east coast, with mansions in Newport, large town homes in New York City, and country estates across the Mid-Atlantic were far more akin to the European upper class than the cowboys and muddy-booted heroes of American lore. Note that even a scion of the class–Theodore Roosevelt, glorified the cowboys and rustics to the point of attempting to mimic them extensively.

At the same time, the class-based society in Europe absolutely did look down on American upstarts too, I just think to some degree America’s perception of how much time Europeans spent thinking about uncouth Americans is exaggerated.

But in terms of manufacturing the U.S. was already a world power by the 1880s, and in Naval tonnage it was a pre-eminent power by the early 20th century. The main reason it didn’t afford much interest from European policymakers is America had a very strong political and cultural aversion to entanglement in European affairs, and the European Great Powers were all busy fighting each other and trying to carve up Africa, East Asia and various island nations in the Pacific.

I’ll note whatever Europeans may have said about Americans, from 1880-1910 there were several examples of European great powers’ interests conflicting with America’s, and in all cases but one they decided “yeah let’s back down.” The one where they didn’t was Spain, which was quickly beaten and lost most of its overseas colonies–and the main reason it didn’t back down is America didn’t allow it to, it was in the throes of yellow journalism fueled war passions and was basically intent on going to war with Spain no matter what.

When the Kaiser wanted to land ground forces in Venezuela over the Venezuelan financial crisis of the early 20th century, Theodore Roosevelt told him if he did so it would mean war, and the Kaiser backed down.

Shelby Foote, the Civil War historian who is a little less respected these days because some of his writing drifted into Lost Cause thinking at times, said in his famous series of interviews for Ken Burns Civil War documentary that during the height of the war, colleges in New England were still hosting yacht races and other nonsense. In his words:

This is in no way a defense of slavery or an argument that slaves had any sort of quality of life, but it’s worth noting that, unlike most of the new world, slave populations did increase naturally and consistently. It says something about the base-level survivability of the US that even slaves managed to get enough to eat to be able to increase their population. I don’t think there’s any evidence that slave owners were naturally forward thinking enough to be responsible for that. They weren’t anywhere else.

How did that help the slaves in any way? My point is not that they didn’t contribute to production but that they individually were worse off.

That started with nickel and dime novels much earlier. From the beginning, however, the fact that many actual cowboys were Black or Mexican was ignored. As was the existence of several hundred thousand Native Americans except as vicious menaces.

I’m sure that modern historians are working busily to correct these omissions, but the extreme gap between slaves and plantation owners easily rivaled that between the nobility and peasants elsewhere and must be accounted for when looking at relative living standards.

As for the Civil War, I’ve often thought about writing a book. The Years Left Out of History: The North During the Civil War. So much happened of lasting importance other than the war itself that 1861-65 would be normally a whole chapter in a history textbook, but the ones I’m familiar with slide over them in a paragraph.