A few years ago, economists Peter Lindert and Jeffrey Williamson uncovered a startling fact about the origins of inequality in America.
We know, of course, that incomes are highly unequal today. We can trace the rise and fall of the 1 percent back to the early 1900s, when robber barons ruled and Jay Gatsby partied. But that’s pretty much where the data peter out.
To go back further, Lindert and Williamson spent the better part of the last decade piecing together tax records, local directories and historical accounts in a painstaking effort to reconstruct an economic portrait of the nation’s past.
What they discovered was that we started out from a remarkably egalitarian place. “Incomes were more equally distributed in colonial America than in any other place that can be measured,” Lindert and Williamson write in their new book, Unequal Gains, which traces how inequality surged and receded in American history.