Conjectural Estimates of Economic Growth in the Lower South, 1720 to 1800
NBER Historical Working Paper No. 126
This paper describes the first step in a larger project to build up regional estimates of economic growth before 1800 in the parts of North America that became the United States. In it we employ the method of conjectural estimation to develop new estimates of the rate of economic growth in the Lower South (modern day North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee) from 1720 to 1800 for both colonists and the Native American population of the region. Contrary to the widely held view that GDP per capita grew at a rate of 0.3 to 0.6 percent per year during the eighteenth century our best estimate is that per capita GDP grew at just 0.09 percent per year. Despite the slow growth of GDP per capita, however, the region's economy did achieve appreciable extensive growth, and achieving any advance in per capita production can be viewed as a significant accomplishment in light of the challenges that this growth posed for the economy. The difference between our estimate and those of previous studies appears to be the result of earlier scholars' undue focus on export performance. In contrast, our approach allows us to accurately account for the effect of the slowly growing domestic sector of the economy.