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Thomas Fleming: What Life Was Like in 1776Roundup: Talking About History
Mr. Fleming is a former president of the Society of American Historians. This article was adapted from his e-book, What Life Was Really Like in 1776, recently published by New Word City.
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.
By 1776, the 13 American colonies had been in existence for over 150 years—more than enough time for the talented and ambitious to acquire money and land. At the top of the South's earners were large planters such as George Washington. In the North their incomes were more than matched by merchants such as John Hancock and Robert Morris. Next came lawyers such as John Adams, followed by tavern keepers, who often cleared 1,000 pounds a year, or about $100,000 in modern money. Doctors were paid comparatively little. Ditto for dentists, who were almost nonexistent...
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