American exceptionalism has long been a contested notion.
But there is one area in which the United States has been exceptional from the very declaration of independence: the relative inequality of the distribution of income.
In 1774, the United States was much more equal than England and Wales (and more equal, it seems, than other western societies, such as the Netherlands). Today, more than 200 hundred years later, the United States is more unequal than any of the other advanced capitalist nations.
Thanks to recent research by Peter H. Lindert and Jeffrey G. Williamson, we know that in 1774 the top 1 percent of households had about 9 percent of income—compared to 17.5 percent in England and Wales, and 17 percent in the Netherlands.
Today, the top 1 percent of Americans have about 17.5 percent of total income—more than the 14 percent in the United Kingdom and 7 percent for Sweden.
There is , then, a kernel of truth in the idea of American exceptionalism—in terms of relative equality then and obscene levels of inequality now.