At the turn of the 19th century, it did not appear that financial metrics were going to define Americans’ concept of progress. In 1791, then-Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton wrote to various Americans across the country, asking them to calculate the moneymaking capacities of their farms, workshops, and families so that he could use that data to create economic indicators for his famous Report on Manufactures. Hamilton was greatly disappointed by the paltry responses he received and had to give up on adding price statistics to his report. Apparently, most Americans in the early republic did not see, count, or put a price on the world as he did.
Until the 1850s, in fact, by far the most popular and dominant form of social measurement in 19th-century America (as in Europe) were a collection of social indicators known then as “moral statistics,” which quantified such phenomena as prostitution, incarceration, literacy, crime, education, insanity, pauperism, life expectancy, and disease. While these moral statistics were laden with paternalism, they nevertheless focused squarely on the physical, social, spiritual, and mental condition of the American people. For better or for worse, they placed human beings at the center of their calculating vision. Their unit of measure was bodies and minds, never dollars and cents.
Yet around the middle of the century, money-based economic indicators began to gain prominence, eventually supplanting moral statistics as the leading benchmarks of American prosperity. This epochal shift can be seen in the national debates over slavery. In the earlier parts of the 19th century, Americans in the North and South wielded moral statistics in order to prove that their society was the more advanced and successful one. In the North, abolitionist newspapers like the Liberty Almanac pointed to the fact that the North had far more students, scholars, libraries, and colleges. In the South, politicians like John Calhoun used dubious data to argue that freedom was bad for black people. The proportion of Northern blacks “who are deaf and dumb, blind, idiots, insane, paupers and in prison,” Calhoun claimed in 1844, was “one out of every six,” while in the South it was “one of every one hundred and fifty-four.”
By the late 1850s, however, most Northern and Southern politicians and businessmen had abandoned such moral statistics in favor of economic metrics. In the opening chapter of his best-selling 1857 book against slavery, the author Hinton Helper measured the “progress and prosperity” of the North and the South by tabulating the cash value of agricultural produce that both regions had extracted from the earth. In so doing, he calculated that in 1850 the North was clearly the more advanced society, for it had produced $351,709,703 of goods and the South only $306,927,067. Speaking the language of productivity, Helper’s book became a hit with Northern businessmen, turning many men of capital to the antislavery cause.