The Population Explosion in 1700s America

If there was one inarguable fact about the American colonies in the mid- to late 18th century, it was that they were growing like crazy. In 1730, the population of the 13 colonies was about 655,000. Boston was the biggest city, with a population of about 13,000, while New York and Philadelphia were home to about 8,500 people each.

By 1760, the population had reached 1.6 million, not including African slaves, and by 1775, the white population stood at 2.5 million. Philadelphia was the largest city in that year, with a population of about 34,000.

Accounting for the population explosion

The population explosion was caused by two things. One was the natural birthrate of the colonists. Partly because of the time-honored farm family tradition that large families meant more people to work (and maybe because there wasn’t much else to do on those long winter nights in the country), the size of many American families was astounding.

Benjamin Franklin wrote of a Philadelphia woman who had 14 children, 82 grandchildren, and 110 great-grandchildren by the time she died at the age of 100.

The growth rate was even more astounding when you consider the high infant mortality rate. One woman was reported to have lost 20 children at birth or soon thereafter.

But the growth was by no means all from within the colonies. Immigration was the second factor in the population explosion. It continued at a brisk pace, not only from England but also from other Western European countries.

A 1909 population study estimated that at the time of the American Revolution, about 82 percent of the white population was from England and Wales; 5 percent from Scotland; 6 percent from the German states; and about 7 percent from Holland, Ireland, and other countries.

Despite a postwar recession after the fighting with the French stopped in 1763, the colonies were on a fairly sound economic foundation. About 90 percent of the colonists were involved in agriculture, with tobacco, corn, rice, indigo, and wheat being the main crops.

Fishing and whaling were big in New England. Timber was the top manufacturing product, and because trees were plentiful and cheap, shipbuilding boomed. By the time of the American Revolution, one-third of the British navy had been built in America.

Living the good life

Although the colonists shared problems common to people all over the world in the 18th century, such as nasty epidemics, they generally ate better, lived longer, and were more prosperous than any of their European counterparts. Land was cheap and had to sustain fewer people because the population was smaller. Because labor was often in short supply, wages were higher, which raised the standard of living.

While enjoying the protections of the formidable British Empire’s military, the average American colonist, if he paid any taxes at all, paid far less than his British cousin.

The argument against British taxes, put forth by the eloquent Boston lawyer James Otis, that “taxation without representation is tyranny,” was a bit hypocritical. After all, more than a few Americans had to pay taxes to American local governments and still couldn’t vote or didn’t have a representative in the colonial assemblies.

Moreover, for the most part, Britain didn’t interfere in the colonies’ internal affairs. Mostly, the mother country concerned itself with defense and trade issues, and many of the trade laws were mutually beneficial to both sides of the water (unless you happened to be a big-time smuggler like John Hancock, who later became the first to sign the Declaration of Independence and was Public Enemy Number One as far as the British were concerned).

So, most Americans in the 1760s and early 1770s had no interest in independence from Britain. What they wanted was what they had: protection by the world’s mightiest navy, generally cozy trade rules, and freedoms and rights unequalled in the rest of the world.

Britain, however, couldn’t afford to maintain the status quo.

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