Historical Echoes: We Are the 99 Percent, 1765 Edition
One might dispute the biblical assertion that “the poor always ye have with you” (John 12:8, King James Version), but it is indisputable that we will always have the top 1 percent of the income distribution among us. The recent focus on the top 1 percent by the Occupy Wall Street movement has drawn attention to the distribution of income in the United States and the trend toward increased inequality of income in the last three decades (see, for example, this January 2012 speech by the Chairman of the President's Council of Economic Advisers, Alan Krueger).
Resentment over the sometimes extravagant lifestyle of the wealthiest 1 percent has been acute at times, perhaps especially in New York, where we find this historical echo of the slogans heard today in Zuccotti Park. Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace, in their Pulitzer Prize–winning account of the city’s past, Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898, remind us of a time in colonial New York when many complained about the lifestyles of the rich.
In the early 1760s, an economic downturn caused a great deal of hardship for most of the residents of New York, including many merchants, recent immigrants, and debtors (many of whom wound up in jail). In the midst of this downturn, the wealthiest merchants, officials, and naval officers did not seem to suffer. One particularly obvious show of distinction and wealth was possession of a carriage. The city's 85 carriages were owned by only 62 people in New York, whose population was approximately 18,000 in 1760. The modern equivalent (although not as visible, perhaps) might be traveling by private jet rather than by commercial airlines.
Disapproval of the extreme wealth of the few during an economic downturn was made clear in a 1765 letter to the editor of the New–York Gazette. The letter is primarily about the worsening relations with the "Mother Country," England. However, the writer also expresses dissatisfaction with affairs in New York in a fashion that presages the “We are the 99 percent” theme of Occupy Wall Street:
Some Individuals of our Countrymen, by the Smiles of Providence or some other Means, are enabled to roll in their four–wheel'd Carriages, and can support the Expence of good Houses, rich Furniture, and Luxurious Living. But, is it equitable that 99, or rather 999 should suffer for the Extravagance or Grandeur of one? Especially when it is consider’d, that Men frequently owe their Wealth to the Impoverishment of their Neighbours.
(You can view the edition of the New–York Gazette containing the letter at the bottom of this post, courtesy of the New York Society Library.)
The economic downturn of the early 1760s passed, and the subsequent growth of New York is an amazing story as immigrants flooded the city, industry grew, and technologies progressed. Today, the only carriages remaining in New York are used for a quaint tour of Central Park, not for daily transportation.
There was that revolution, though, that interrupted the life of English colonial New York in 1776 . . .
*Kara Masciangelo is a research librarian in the Research and Statistics Group.
The views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York or the Federal Reserve System. Any errors or omissions are the responsibility of the author.