Did the American Colonies Pay Too High a Cost for Revolution? (August/September 2023)
Vincent Geloso and Antoine L. Noël, How Much Economic Growth did America Leave Behind when it Revolted?
If one leaves out petro-nations (e.g., Qatar, United Arab Emirates) and fiscal havens (e.g., Bermuda) from international rankings of income per person, one will find the United States at or near the top of the list (depending on the source used). For many, it is a short step to connect this causally to the American Revolution. The core of this argument is that the American Founding set the United States on a unique path that made it one of the richest and freest places in the world. Yet, this causal connection requires a leap of faith. Few have attempted to conjure a counterfactual in which America remained a British colony or became independent in ways similar to later British Dominions (e.g., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa).
Serious causal inference generally requires the use of large datasets to infer the effects of important policy changes or some large exogenous shocks. For nations, especially in the more distant past, this is even more challenging because of data paucity, limited numbers of observations, and other confounding factors. It may even be impossible. A possible alternative course is to rely on analytical narratives to construct a theory, laying out assumptions and predictions. Then one takes the list of predictions and assumptions and checks to see if they hold up using both quantitative and qualitative sources.
Many have tried to deploy this practice with regard to the American Revolution by asking what really led to the Revolution (e.g., burdensome elements of British imperial policy such as the Navigation Acts) or what the British Empire would have looked like had they retained the American colonies (notably the decision to abolish slavery in the West Indies). However, to the best of our knowledge, very few attempts to construct a counterfactual regarding economic growth in the United States without the Revolution have been undertaken. This is an unfortunate omission as American prosperity is not just a by-product of the ideas of the Revolution. Asking what would have occurred had the Revolution failed is asking a question that goes to the root of why America sought its independence. Notice we say “failed” rather than “never happened,” because we are asking if the institutional changes that emerged from the Revolution’s success were beneficial. This is what we seek to do here, attempting to create a reasonable counterfactual of American economic growth until the Civil War.
Strangely enough, the first step in constructing a counterfactual lies north – in the Canadian province of Quebec. In 1759, when the French army was defeated outside Quebec City, Quebec was still a French colony with an almost exclusively Catholic population. By 1760, French forces had capitulated at Montreal and, three years later, the colony was formally and permanently ceded to Britain. Moreover, and this is also relevant for the purpose of constructing a counterfactual, the colonists in Quebec were invited to join the American Revolution, an offer that was rejected. As such, we have an example of a group of colonists in North America that both became British subjects and chose to remain British subjects.
Recent research about colonial Quebec’s economic growth suggests three key facts that are of use in setting up a counterfactual. First, the colony was the poorest place in all of North America – by a wide margin. Second, it enjoyed no increases in living standards (wages, incomes) until the 1760s. Third, the colony most likely enjoyed mild economic growth until the 1850s.
This can be contrasted with evidence from economic historians regarding economic growth in the United States before, during, and after the American Revolution. Currently, the consensus is that economic growth prior to 1776 could not have been below 0.05% per annum (which is a powerful finding given the rapid population growth) and not higher than 0.5% per annum for all the thirteen colonies (even though there were important variations regionally). The extent of the decline in living standards during the war was substantial and it is relatively well-documented. A reasonable figure would be that incomes fell 20% during the period (with larger declines in the southern states). As such, when the war ended and economic growth resumed, it started from a lower floor. From there, the data about economic growth is far more solid and it suggests that, from 1790 to 1860, the average income of Americans grew between 1.07% and 1.41% per annum (the latter being estimated from 1800 to 1860) – astoundingly fast growth rates in economic history up to that point.
The tendency of many in constructing a counterfactual would be to assume that growth rates pre-Revolution would have continued even had the Revolution failed. This suggests a trend such as depicted in the two top panels of Figure 1 below, where the dashed lines can be seen as the counterfactual (with incomes in 1700 being set equal to 1 so that a value of 2 on the y-axis implies that incomes were twice as high as in 1700). The difference between the counterfactual and the actual growth rates – the solid black line – can be seen as the “effect” of the Revolution’s success. In that graph, we assume the 1.07% figure of per capita growth from 1790 to 1860, which suggests that Americans were 59% richer in 1860 than they would have been (assuming that growth continued at 0.5% per annum) or 87% richer in 1860 than they would have been (assuming that growth continued at 0.05% per annum) without the positive effects of the Revolution.
However, this is the wrong counterfactual in that it falls into the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. The better counterfactual, as outlined above, is the Canadian colony of Quebec. Taking a mid-range value of 0.6% per annum growth in Quebec as the counterfactual suggests the trend in the bottom two panels of Figure 1. There, it can be seen that the “net total effect” of the Revolution is far smaller. Instead of being between 59% and 87% wealthier, they are somewhere between 39% and 48%. This use of Quebec and Canada essentially allows us to set plausible high and low bounds to the counterfactual of the United States failing to win the Revolutionary War.
The second step we can take is to assess the benefits as a residual by subtracting the main costs of the Revolution from the “total net effect” (which we obtained in the first step and illustrated in Figure 1). The list of proposed costs is, fortunately, not too long. Few historians seem to believe that slavery would have ended sooner had it not been for the Revolution. There are more serious discussions of whether the welfare of Native Americans would have been greater but given their demographic weight and the differences in living standards, it is hard to see that their welfare had a large economic cost to the United States as a whole (there was, obviously, a large and varied cost to Native Americans). The remaining costs fall into the broad category of trade disruption.
Recent research has shown that natural trade barriers imposed by the ocean were not as detrimental to international trade and market integration as generally thought. Trade policy (i.e., tariffs) seems to have been a far stronger determinant. Pre-Revolution, there are strong signs of market integration between the colonies and Britain. In the period from 1760 to 1775 when Canada, the British West Indies, the thirteen colonies, and Britain were essentially in the same political union, annual price data for wheat suggests there were also strong trends in favor of market integration. It is unsurprising that the period leading up to the Revolution is marked by strong gains in shipping productivity and rising trade volumes per capita. The American colonies were essentially already participating in a global economy. The Revolution’s success – unfortunately – meant that trade policy barriers would be erected. The Americans no longer had preferential access – under the Corn Laws – to British grain markets. Numerous goods were heavily taxed. Similarly, trade with the West Indies and Canada became subject to more tariff barriers. As a result, trade volumes took a long time to return to their pre-Revolutionary levels.
Canada’s preferential access to British grain markets and the fact that the United States and Canada had similar transport costs with Britain essentially delayed the First Age of Globalization across the North Atlantic. The first age of globalization – where economies grew increasingly intertwined – is tied to serious gains in economic growth. Since the American Revolution meant the heightening of tariff barriers across the North Atlantic, its success also meant the delay of the first age of globalization was one of the costs.
How big was that cost? This is where we can again look north to Quebec. Between 1760 and 1775, it was part of the same political entity as the United States. Using monthly price data for wheat for Quebec City, Boston, Philadelphia, New York and a large number of British cities, we can assess the level of market integration between these economies using multiple metrics – the most common and easiest to understand is the coefficient of variation. That coefficient, because it divides the deviation in prices by the mean prices across all areas, gives a standardized measure of price spreads across space and time. The lower the coefficient, the more integrated markets were. In Figure 2 below, we show the coefficient of variation across North American cities from 1760 to 1775. The red dashed line shows the coefficient of variation averaged over the entire post-Revolutionary period. The difference between the black and red lines is the “difference in market integration” before and after the Revolution. As can be seen, except within the first months of British rule over Quebec, markets were always better integrated during the colonial era. We also replicate this figure for the integration between all of North America and London from 1770 (the first point in time where continuous monthly prices are available). As can be seen, the same pattern is true – markets were better integrated before the Revolution.
How much does this matter? It is hard to arrive at a measure without using economic modeling. However, some works of economic history may help us ballpark the cost.
Using data for Mexican grain market integration following the expansion of railroads from 1880 to 1910, we can see there was a halving of the coefficient of variation. That halving, it is argued, explained half of the growth in Mexico during the period. Given the growth rate in Mexico during the period, this means that a halving of the coefficient of variation increases growth by roughly 0.8% per annum. Transposing this to the American case suggests that the rough doubling of the coefficient of variation within the north Atlantic slowed down growth by 0.8% per annum. Obviously, this is a ballpark and future efforts are needed to more precisely assess the benefits of market integration. Nevertheless, even a halving of that proportion to 0.4% per annum implies a major cost from the Revolution. Indeed, it is close to half of the growth observed in the data from 1790 to 1860.
Some might take our article as a form of devaluing the American Revolution since we claim that its economic gains were not as large as some think. However, we see the exact opposite – it is a vindication of the American Revolution. Revolutionaries knew there would be costs. It might have been impossible for them to predict that Britain would tighten its Corn Laws from the 1790s onwards or that the French Wars would engulf the North Atlantic from 1792 to 1815. After all, these factors were largely out of their control. However, even that uncertainty about the true cost is something they would have considered as well. This means, costly as it might have seemed, the Revolutionaries knew that the benefits were so much larger. This, we believe, is a testimony to the magnitude of the fruits of the revolution. That is saying that there truly is something historically exceptional about America’s founding moment.
Dobado, Rafael and Merraro, Gustavo, “Corn Market Integration in Porfirian Mexico,” The Journal of Economic History. Vol. 65 (2005).
Egnal, Marc. New World Economies: The Growth of the Thirteen Colonies and Early Canada. Oxford University Press, 1998.
Figueiredo, Ruj. J.P., Jr.; Rakove, Jack; and Weingast, Barry, “Rationality, Inaccurate Mental Models, and Self-Confirming Equilibrium: A New Understanding of the American Revolution,” Journal of Theoretical Politics. Sage Journals. October, 2006.
Garmon, Frank W., Jr., “Population density and the accuracy of the land valuations in the 1798 federal direct tax,” Historical Methods: A Journal of Quantitative and Interdisciplinary History. Vol. 53 (2020).
Geloso, Vincent, “Distinct within North America: living standards in French Canada, 1688-1775.” Cliometrica. Vol. 13 (2019).
Geloso, Vincent, “Toleration of Catholics in Quebec and British Public Finances, 1760-1775. Essays in Economic and Business History. Vol. 33 (2015).
Hummel, Jeffrey Rogers, “Benefits of the American Revolution: An Exploration of Positive Externalities,” at Econlib, July 2, 2018.
Lindert, Peter H. and Williamson, Jeffrey G., “American colonial incomes, 1650-1774,” The Economic History Review. Vol. 69 (2016).
Mancall, Peter and Weiss, Thomas, “Was Economic Growth Likely in Colonial British North America?” The Journal of Economic History. Vol. 59 (1999).
Reid, Joseph D. “Economic Buren: Spark to the American Revolution? The Journal of Economic History. Cambridge University Press. May 11, 2010.
Sharp, Paul and Weisdorf, Jacob, “Globalization revisited: Market integration and the wheat trade between North America and Britain from the eighteenth century,” Explorations in Economic History. Vol. 50 (2013).
Shepherd, James F. and Walton, Gary M., “Economic change after the American Revolution: Pre- and post-war comparisons of maritime shipping and trade,” Explorations in Economic History. Vol. 13 (1976).
Walton, Gary M., “Sources of Productivity Change in American Colonial Shipping, 1675-1775,” The Economic History Review. Vol. 20 (1967).
 Probate records – which allow for wealth estimations that can be converted into income under some assumptions – suggest per capita growth rates of wealth ranging somewhere between 0.38% to 0.96% per annum from 1792 to 1835. Improvements to price indexes (in order to deflate nominal wealth into inflation-adjusted wealth) suggest somewhat slower growth (0.33% to 0.83%). Different estimation techniques over the period 1822 to 1850 suggests growth rates ranging from 0.17% to 0.53%. Finally, real wage data for the period suggests that there were gradual improvements until the 1820s at which point things plateaued until the 1850s. If the wage data are taken as the measure of growth averaged over the period from 1760 to 1850, the growth rate in living standards is somewhere between at 0.36% to 0.72% per year.
Vincent Geloso is an Assistant Professor of Economics at George Mason University. He held prior appointments at Texas Tech University, Bates College and King’s University College. Mr Geloso holds a PhD in economic history from the London School of Economics and Political Science and a master’s degree in economic history from the same institution. He has published more than 70 scientific articles in journals such as Economic Journal, Research Policy, European Journal of Political Economy, Public Choice, Economics & Human Biology, Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, Contemporary Economic Policy, and the British Medical Journal: Global Health. He is also associate editor at Structural Change and Economic Dynamics and Essays in Economic and Business History.
Antoine Noël is an assistant professor of economics at Université Laval (in Quebec city). He received his Ph.D. at Queen’s University (in Kingston). His research focuses on international trade and macroeconomics. More specifically, he analyzes how preferential trade agreements can be building or stumbling blocks to the multilateral trading system.
Samuel Gregg is Distinguished Fellow in Political Economy and Senior Research Faculty at the American Institute for Economic Research. He has a D.Phil. in moral philosophy and political economy from Oxford University, and an M.A. in political philosophy from the University of Melbourne. He has written and spoken extensively on questions of political economy, economic history, monetary theory and policy, and natural law theory. He is the author of sixteen books, including On Ordered Liberty (2003), The Commercial Society (2007), Wilhelm Röpke’s Political Economy (2010); Becoming Europe (2013); Reason, Faith, and the Struggle for Western Civilization (2019); The Essential Natural Law (2021); and The Next American Economy: Nation, State and Markets in an Uncertain World (2022). Two of his books have been short-listed for Conservative Book of the Year, and one of his books was a finalist for the Hayek Prize. Many of his books and over 400 articles and opinion pieces have been translated into a variety of languages. He can be followed on Twitter at @drsamuelgregg.
Marcus M. Witcher is an Assistant Professor of History at Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Alabama. He completed his Ph.D. in history from the University of Alabama in 2017. His first book Getting Right with Reagan: The Struggle for True Conservatism, 1980-2016 was published by the University Press of Kansas in 2019. Dr. Witcher is also the co-editor of four edited collections and has been published in a diverse range of publications including: Reason Magazine, National Review, Modern Age, and the Washington Post. His most recent book, Black Liberation Through the Marketplace: Hope, Heartbreak, and the Promise of America was co-authored with Rachel Ferguson and was published by Emancipation Books in May of 2022.
C. Bradley Thompson is the Executive Director of the Clemson Institute for the Study of Capitalism and a Professor of Political Science at Clemson University. He is the author most recently of America’s Revolutionary Mind: A Moral History of the American Revolution and the Declaration that Defined It (2019) and What America Is (2023).
Anthony Comegna received his M.A. (2012) and Ph.D. (2016) in history from the University of Pittsburgh, where he specialized in early American, intellectual, and Atlantic history. His dissertation, “‘The Dupes of Hope Forever': The Loco-Foco or Equal Rights Movement, 1820s-1870s”, revives the submerged and forgotten legacy of Loco-Focoism. Anthony has taught undergraduate courses in American history and Western civilization. From 2016 to 2019, he produced regular historical content for Libertarianism.org and was the writer/host of Liberty Chronicles. In 2019 he joined the Institute for Humane Studies, where he is a Program Manager including direction of the “Advanced Topics in Liberty” series of discussion colloquia co-sponsored by Liberty Fund.
Copyright & Fair Use Statement
"Liberty Matters" is the copyright of Liberty Fund, Inc. This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. These essays and responses may be quoted and otherwise used under "fair use" provisions for educational and academic purposes. To reprint these essays in course booklets requires the prior permission of Liberty Fund, Inc. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions.
- Did the American Colonies Pay Too High a Cost for Revolution? (August/September 2023)
- Adam Smith’s Emergent Rules of Justice (June/July 2023)
- The Roman Senate in Early Modern Europe (May 2023)
- Did we have a Constitutional Revolution but not reconstruct the South? (April 2023)
- Why Do We Need Feminist Economics? (March 2023)
- Is there a Role for Monarchy in a Free Society (January/February 2023)
- Why Read the Ancients Today? (November/December 2022)
- Systemic Racism in Education and Healthcare (October 2022)
- Perspectives on Mises' Socialism After 100 Years (August 2022)
- The Constitutional Convention and the Peculiar Institution (July 2022)
- Is Machiavelli Friend or Foe to Liberty? (May 2022)
- Why History Matters for 21st Century Liberty (April 2022)
- Remember the Ladies: The Fight for Equality among the Genders (March 2022)
- What Does Liberty Have to Say to Black History? (February 2022)
- The Legacy of Walter Williams (January 2022)
- What Adam Smith Means to Me (November 2021)
- Mustafa Akyol, Liberty was Islam’s First Call (October 2021)
- John Locke on Commercial Society (September 2021)
- David French, “Can American Liberty Survive American Animosity?” (August 2021)
- Understanding Jefferson: Slavery, Race, and the Declaration of Independence (July 2021)
- Liberty and Virtue: Frank Meyer’s Fusionism (June 2021)
- Humboldt’s State – and Ours (May 2021)
- Daniel B. Klein, “Meanings of Liberty: Aron, Constant, Berlin” (April 2021)
- Keith E. Whittington, “John C. Calhoun, Constitutionalism, and Slavery” (March 2021)
- Reflections on Libraries, Liberty, and Black History (February 2021)
- Judge Glock, “Albert Venn Dicey and the Immunity of the Administrative State” (December 2020)
- Mikko Tolonen, Mandeville, Hayek, and the Politics of Self-Esteem (October 2020)
- Ruth Scurr, “J.S. Mill & Life Writing” (August 2020)
- Sarah Morgan Smith, “To Covenant and Combine Ourselves into a Civil Body Politic”: The Mayflower Compact @ 400 Years (May 2020)
- Daniel B. Klein, “Smith, Hume, and Burke as Policy Liberals and Polity Conservatives” (March 2020)
- Adam J. Macleod, “Bagehot and the Causes of Our Crises” (January 2020)
- Stephen Davies, “The Levellers and the Emergence of (Some) Modern Political Ideas” (November 2019)
- Carlo Lottieri, “Exchanges, Claims, and Powers: About Bruno Leoni’s Social Theory” (September 2019)
- Phillip W. Magness, “William Leggett: Free Trade, Hard Money, and Abolitionism” (July 2019)
- David M. Hart, “Reassessing Bastiat’s Economic Harmonies after 160 Years” (May 2019)
- Aurelian Craiutu, “How to Combat Fanaticism and the Spirit of Party: Germaine de Staël’s Lesson" (March 2019)
- Matthew McCaffrey, “Frank Fetter and the Austrian Tradition in the United States” (January 2019)
- Alberto Mingardi, “Liberty and Cynicism: Was Vilfredo Pareto a Liberal?” (November 2018)
- Virgil Storr, “Marx and the Morality of Capitalism” (October 2018)
- Peter Lewin, “Ludwig Lachmann – Enigmatic and Controversial Austrian Economist” (July 2018)
- Alan Kahan, “Limited Government, Unlimited Liberalism. Or, How Benjamin Constant was a Kantian After All” (May 2018)
- Henry C. Clark, “How Radical Was the Political Thought of the Encyclopédie?” (March 2018)
- Nicholas Capaldi, “The Place of Liberty in David Hume’s Project” (January 2018)
- Peter Boettke, “Gordon Tullock and the Rational Choice Commitment” (November 2017)
- Peter Boettke, “Hayek’s Epistemic Liberalism” (September 2017)
- Matt Zwolinski, “William Graham Sumner – Liberty’s Forgotten Man” (July 2017)
- Nicholas Buccola, “Frederick Douglass on the Right and Duty to Resist” (May 2017)
- Peter J. Boettke, “Israel M. Kirzner on Competitive Behavior, Industrial Structure, and the Entrepreneurial Market Process” (March 2017)
- Knud Haakonssen, “Pufendorf on Power and Liberty” (January 2017)
- David M. Hart, “Classical Liberalism and the Problem of Class” (November 2016)
- David Womersley, “John Trenchard and the Opposition to Standing Armies” (September 2016)
- John E. Alvis, “The Corrupting Influence of Power in Shakespeare’s Plays" (July 2016)
- Jacob T. Levy, “Rationalism, Pluralism, and the History of Liberal Ideas” (May 2016)
- Sanford Ikeda,“The Misesian Paradox: Interventionism Is Not Sustainable” (March 2016)
- Randy E. Barnett, “The Significance of Lysander Spooner” (January 2016)
- Henry C. Clark, “Montesquieu on Liberty and Sumptuary Law” (November 2015)
- Hartmut Kliemt, “Anthony de Jasay and the Political Economy of the State” (September 2015)
- Steven Kates, “Reassessing the Political Economy of John Stuart Mill” (July 2015)
- Justin Champion, “Magna Carta after 800 Years: From liber homo to modern freedom.” (May 2015)
- Richard M. Ebeling, “Assessing Böhm-Bawerk’s Contribution to Economics after a Hundred Years” (April 2015)
- David M. Hart, “On the Spread of (Classical) Liberal Ideas” (March 2015)
- Stephen Davies, “Richard Cobden: Ideas and Strategies in Organizing the Free-Trade Movement in Britain” (January 2015)
- George H. Smith, “Herbert Spencer’s Sociology of the State” (November 2014)
- Sandra Peart, “James Mill on Liberty and Governance” (September 2014)
- Donald J. Boudreaux, “Deirdre McCloskey and Economists’ Ideas about Ideas” (July 2014)
- Aurelian Craiutu, “Tocqueville’s New Science of Politics Revisited” (May 2014)
- Fernando R. Tesón, “Hugo Grotius on War and the State” (March 2014)
- Lawrence White, “Ludwig von Mises’s The Theory of Money and Credit at 101” (January 2014)
- John Blundell, “Arthur Seldon and the Institute of Economic Affairs” (November 2013)
- George H. Smith, “The System of Liberty” (September 2013)
- Robert Leroux, “Bastiat and Political Economy” (July 2013)
- Roderick Long, “Gustave de Molinari’s Legacy for Liberty” (May 2013)
- Geoffrey Brennan, “James Buchanan: An Assessment” (March 2013)
- Eric Mack on “John Locke on Property” (January 2013)