For more than two centuries, from the time of the first permanent settlements to the early decades of the nineteenth century, the fertility of the American people ranked among the world's highest. Estimates made by both contemporary and modern authorities, utilizing a variety of techniques and data, place the annual birth rate in the Colonial and early Federal periods at 50 to 57 births per 1,000 inhabitants. The women of completed fertility are variously estimated to have borne an average of eight children. According to Miller, the high American birth rate was sometimes cited for propaganda purposes before the Revolutionary War to indicate that it was only a question of time before the American population growth would shift the British Empire's balance of power westward.1 Benjamin Franklin made this type of forecast himself.
Contemporary observations. The contemporary explanation for America's high fertility is illustrated by the following quotations.
In 1751, Benjamin Franklin wrote:
Tables of the proportion of Marriages to Births, of Deaths to Births, of Marriages to the number of inhabitants, &c., form'd on observations made upon the Bills of Mortality, Christenings, &c., of populous cities, will not suit countries; nor will tables formed on observations made in full settled old countries, as Europe, suit new countries, as America.
2. For people increase in proportion to the number of marriages, and that is greater in proportion to the ease and convenience of supporting a family. . . . . . which charges are greater in the cities, as Luxury is more common: many live single during life, and continue servants to families, journeymen to Trades, &c., hence cities do not by natural generation supply themselves with inhabitants; the deaths are more than the births.
4. In countries full settled, the case must be nearly the same; all Lands being occupied and improved to the heighth; those who cannot get land must labour for others that have it; when laborers are plenty, their wages will be low; by low wages a family is supported with difficulty; this difficulty deters many from marriage, who therefore long continue servants and single. Only as the Cities take supplies of people from the country, and thereby make a little more room in the country; Marriage is a little more encourag'd there, and the births exceed the deaths. . .