Some tidbits on the state of United States in 1800

The United States today is the 3rd most populous country on earth with 330MM people. We all know that the first European settlements in North America began circa 1600. But what did the eastern seaboard look like, some 200 years later in 1800 – a good twenty four years after the Declaration of Independence?

To understand America some 200 years ago, one of the best books to read is Henry Adams’s History of the Administrations of Jefferson and Madison. The period covered is from 1800 to 1816. But let’s focus on Chapter 1 of the work – that discusses the physical state of US in 1800.

In 1800 the whole of United States (i.e. the 13 states, and not the whole continent) had 5.3 MM persons. To put that in perspective, the US in 1800 when Jefferson took office had fewer people than the city of Bangalore today.  The figure of 5.3MM is relative to the 15MM who lived in the much much smaller British Isles the same year, and the 27MM people in the French Republic post revolution. Out of 5.3MM, about a fifth were African slaves. So the free white population was about 4.5MM. This excludes the native American population (on whose population I can’t readily find estimates in the book or elsewhere).

Nearly all of this 5 MM was concentrated along the Atlantic seaboard and the 13 original states. Barely about 0.5MM lived beyond the Alleghany mountains of Pennsylvania and had made their way to territories westward like Ohio and Kentucky.

Travel was mostly through land for getting to the interior regions even on the eastern seaboard. And land travel as one would expect was pretty expensive and very very long.

Let’s take the cities of New York and Boston – separated by some 220 miles – a distance covered in about 4 hours by car today. Back in 1800, the Boston to New York journey was a 3 day affair, despite the existence of a “tolerable highway” in Adams’s words. There were apparently stage-coaches from NY that departed to Boston thrice a week carrying passengers and mail. So it’s not just about the 3 day long journey but also the infrequency of travel options. Just thrice a week.

Let’s take NY to Philadelphia – two towns separated by 100 miles (and a 2 hour cab drive today). Back in 1800, the stage-coach ride from NY to Philadelphia took the “greater part of two days” in Adams’s own words. The journey between Baltimore and Washington DC (the country’s capital then as now) was a perilous one in 1800 – as there were forests to traverse. These two towns are barely an hour’s drive from each other today.

Let’s see what Adams has to say about housing in 1800 US –

“Fifty or a hundred miles inland more than half the houses were log-cabins, which might or might not enjoy the luxury of a glass window. Throughout the South and West houses showed little attempt at luxury; but even in New England the ordinary farmhouse was hardly so well built, so spacious, or so warm as that of a well-to-do contemporary of Charlemagne.”

Back in 1800, it used to take 16 days for a mail to reach Lexington Kentucky from Philadelphia – two towns separated by 650 miles. A mail from Philadelphia to Nashville took 22 days.

How large were the great cities of US in 1800 –

  • Philadelphia – 70,000 people
  • New York – 60,000
  • Boston – 25,000

So Philadelphia was no larger than a midsized town like Liverpool (also 70K) in England. London to put things in perspective had 1 million inhabitants in 1800.

For those familiar with NYC, here’s an interesting tidbit from Adams on how the city was back in 1800 – “the Battery was a fashionable walk, Broadway a country drive, and Wall Street an uptown residence”!!

So this was the state of US, a good 200 years after the European first settled it! That’s a long long time. Even after 200 years, two third of the American population was within 50 miles of the Atlantic seaboard!

Adams’s take on the state of US presided over by Jefferson is very sobering. It tells us how difficult “progress” is, and how much of a long haul just about everything was all over the world, before the railroad and the steam engine (particularly in the absence of waterways).

Also this chapter underscores the sheer physical challenge posed by the American continent – a far greater challenge than say Western Europe where the sea is within a couple of hundred miles of most parts.

It also helps explain why North America was so uninhabitable and backward for millennia despite being colonized by man as early as 15,000BC. Even the highly civilized Eurasian man could barely bring himself to move away from the seaboard after spending 200 years on the continent.

The author tweets @shrikanth_krish

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3 years ago

The parellel to the expansion of the US from the 15th top 20 C is the expansion of Russia , when the Golden Horde was defeated by the Ugra river in 1480 and the expansion continued till the occupation of Afghanistan by Soviet forces in 1979. The area expanded by Russia was as much as the USA . Unlike the amricans who had to battle poorly organised and armed American natives, Russia expanded in the teeth of strong Muslim khanates. International politics defeated Russian expansion in Afghanistan
The character of both the US and Russia have been formed by their respective political geography over the past 4 centuries. In the US, case it was a kind of frontier individualism , even Trump can be conisrdered a ruthless individualist vs the strong centralised state of Russia. For the US, Protestant individualim combined with “call of the wild” helped continental spread. Putin is the successor to vassily, Ivan, Tsars, and Stalin

3 years ago
Reply to  VijayVan

The americans, colonial and independent, had to expand against the french, spanish, and mexicans as well. Also, apart from whether its something to be proud of, the us settlers dominated their terrain to the absolute dispossession of native peoples, speaking to its intensity.

Scorpion Eater
Scorpion Eater
3 years ago

what is point of this article?

in 1800 AD, it took 2 days to travel from delhi to agra, or from london to liverpool for that matter. in fact, it took two days to travel 100 miles anywhere in the world in 1800. surprising?

3 years ago

Transport facilities goaded by capitalism quickly connected major population centres of the USA and helped the eastern board settlers to spread to the west. Thousands of people in the UK invested many risky rail road ventures of which many failed. As soon as railways made it’s appearance in Britain from 1830s, entreprenuers were eager to spread the technology and their business model to the US. Steam Ship travel getting faster and more voluminous as well as the railroads wre the main means of spread of european settlers all the way to the Pacific coast.

3 years ago

Even the highly civilized Eurasian man could barely bring himself to move away from the seaboard after spending 200 years on the continent.

This strikes me as being highly tendentious, if your claim is that geographical barriers were the reasons for lack of outward spread. Likely, a better answer is in the article itself, that most American cities close to the seaboard were thinly populated compared to Eurasian cities. You need a critical mass to trigger emigration and dispersion.

Those who tried to immigrate to the US before the Revolution were select groups of highly motivated people (religion and/or political ideology providing that motivation), as Albion’s seed lays out pretty comprehensively. They wanted to build their own ideal communities and live there (like the Puritan theocracies of New England) rather than spread around grabbing all the land they could. My guess is they didn’t necessarily want to mess with the Native Americans in the interior unless they had to (as turned out to be the fate and destiny of the Scots Irish). On the other hand, those with wanderlust and trading motives had no problems traipsing all across the continent.

Consider the fact that within a half century of Columbus’ sighting of the New World, the Spaniards held sway from California up north to Chile and Argentina at the tip of South America. All those natural barriers didn’t seem to stop that Eurasian Man! But in their case, motivation wasn’t lacking.

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