American Birthrates, Colonial-1870

wtknugent structures

Nugent’s 1981 masterpiece on American demographic history

While an undergraduate at the University of Notre Dame (B.A., 1990), I had the immense pleasure of working with Professor Walter T.K. Nugent, a scholar of remarkable talents.  Not only did he serve as one of my main professors, but I had also a full year as his research assistant.  I admired him immensely and still do.  One of his many expertise was the demographic history of the United States.  As he taught in the 1980s, the world had never seen a birth rate equal to the American birthrate (for whites, but blacks were not far behind), 1720-1870.  It is nothing short of astounding.

Here are a few quotes to illustrate:

“Fertility was enormously high as long as the young couple could form their own household on their own land.  Females reached menarche at about age fifteen in 1800 and perhaps a few months earlier in 1850.  If a woman married soon after that, as many did, the ultimate size of her family could be prodigious.  The American and Canadian census manuscripts are crowded with cases of women marrying at sixteen or seventeen and producing a child every eighteen to twenty-four months–about the biological maximum because of breast-feeding and pregnancy intervals–until reaching menopause in their mid-forties.  The average number of children born per woman in her lifetime, as of 1790, was almost eight. . . . Newly married women could look forward to twenty or even thirty fertile years.” [Nugent, STRUCTURES, 57-58]

Why?  Lots of reasons, but room to expand and nutrition help explain much.

Peter Kalm, Swedish scientist and visitor to America, 1748: “In the morning I undertook a little journey again to Raccoon, New Jersey.  It does not seem difficult to find out the reasons why the people multiply faster here than in Europe.  As soon as a person is old enough he may marry in these provinces without any fear of poverty.  There is such an amount of good land yet uncultivated that a newly married man can, without difficulty, get a spot of ground where he may comfortably subsist with his wife and children.” [quoted in Nugent, STRUCTURES, 52]

Dr. Benjamin Rush, 1774: “. . . The universal prevalence of the protestant religion, the checks lately given to negro slavery, the general unwillingness among us to acknowledge the usurpations of primogeniture, the universal practice of inoculation for the smallpox, and absence of the plague, render the imposition of government for that purpose [population growth] unnecessary.  These advantages can only be secured to our country by AGRICULTURE.  This is the true basis of national health, riches, and populousness.” [quoted in Nugent, STRUCTURES, 51]

Jeremy Belknap, 1791: “Where land is cheap, and the means of subsistence may be acquired in such plenty, and in so short a time as is evidently the case in our new plantations, encouragement is given to early marriage.  A young man who has cleared a piece of land, and built a hut for his present accommodation, soon begins to experience the truth of that old adage, ‘it is not good for man to be alone.’  Having a prospect of increasing this substance by labour, which he knows himself able to perform, he attaches himself to a female earlier than prudence would dictate if he had not such a prospect.  Nor are the young females of the country averse to a settlement in the new plantation.” [quoted in Nugent, STRUCTURES, 52-53]

One Congressman stated: “I invite you to go to the west, and visit one of our log cabins, and number its inmates.  There you will find a strong, stout youth of eighteen, with his Better Half, just commencing the first struggles of independent life.  Thirty years from that time, visit them again; and instead of two, you will find in that same family twenty-two.  That is what I call the American Multiplication Table.” [quoted in Johnson, HISTORY OF THE AMERICAN PEOPLE, 283.

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