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Activities. In the large port cities of New York, Boston, and Philadelphia merchants were the individuals who imported or exported goods in bulk. Usually they also owned or rented a warehouse. In contrast, shopkeepers sold only a limited amount of goods at retail that is, to ordinary customers rather than to other merchants. In areas outside of the port cities, however, merchant became a generic term that referred to any individual who bought and sold goods. By the time of the Revolution the largest of the mercantile businesses specialized in importing and wholesaling, but most merchants did not confine themselves to particular goods or functions. The colonial market was simply too small and scattered, and

transportation and communication too primitive to allow for the kind of large-scale specialists that emerged in the nineteenth century. Instead most colonial merchants in the port cities made a living by diversifying their activities. They worked as middlemen, coordinating the buying and selling of goods between overseas suppliers and the numerous storekeepers and farmers who lived outside of the main cities. A few merchants also invested their excess capital in manufacturing. Others functioned as bankers during a time when the colonies lacked banks (except for land banks, discussed below). These merchants accepted deposits and honored checks drawn on these funds, just like modern banks do today. Some merchants made additional money by buying shares in ships and cargoes. Retail stores were also largely unspecialized. The older commercial centers had a few specialty stores for books, wine, medicine, tobacco, groceries, and millinery. However, most retail establishments, especially those in rural and frontier areas, were general stores that sold a wide variety of goods. Country storekeepers became important figures in their communities because they were the primary source for goods and information about the outside world. They acted as middlemen, buying the farmers surplus products and extending credit so that farmers could afford to buy supplies. In areas that were remote, small trading posts and a few peddlers supplied the inhabitants with the goods they needed.

She-Merchants. A few women participated in trade. In England some had done so since at least the fourteenth century, and a small number even belonged to guilds. Most colonial businesswomen were widows who had taken over upon the death of their husbands or single women forced to support themselves and perhaps a few dependents. But working for pay was hardly typical for women, and operating as a merchant was even rarer. During the revolutionary era women made up less than 10 percent of all the traders in Boston. At most, only about 2 percent of New Yorks substantial merchants were women. One was Mary Alexander, who was born Mary Spratt in 1693. In 1711 she married merchant Samuel Provoost, and when he died in 1719, Mary took over his dry goods business. In 1721 she married James Alexander, a prominent attorney and member of the New York Council, with whom she had seven children in addition to the three that she had with her first husband. According to James Alexander, Mary did not let child-bearing stop her from continuing her business; in fact she was back at the store the day after giving birth to one of her daughters, selling goods worth some thirty pounds. When James died in 1754, Mary was named the executrix of his estate. Yet no matter how large their businesses might be, female merchants rarely sought political clout. The New York Chamber of Commerce, founded in 1768, had no female members, and none seemed interested in joining.

Nonimportation Agreements. During the Revolution many merchants signed nonimportation agreements to force Britain into rescinding its new regulations. Some


Just prior to the War of Independence tobacco, grown in the Chesapeake and marketed in Europe by British merchants, was the most important of the British continental colonies export crops. These colonies (including Newfoundland, the Bahamas, and Bermuda) also exported substantial amounts of foodstuffs such as bread, flour, fish, rice, and wheat.

Export Commodity Value (£ sterling) Great Britain and Ireland% Southern Europe% W. Indies and Africa%
Enumerated products
Sources: Jacob M, Price, The Transatlantic Economy, in Colonial British America: Essays in the New History of the Early Modern Era, Greene edited by Jack P. and). R. Pole (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984), p. 27;
U.S. Bureau of the Census, Historical Statistics of the Unite fice, 1975), 2:1,183-1,184. d States, Colonial Times to 1970, 2 volumes (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1975), 2:1,183-1,184.
Bread, flour504,5538.440.351.3
Wheat, oats,    
Timber(wood products consisting of):171,737_______________
Masts, yards, etc.*16,63099.900
Pine, etc. boards58,61814.81.184.0
Staves, heading61,61937.78.254.1
Furs, skins*149,326100.000
Whale oil, fins*104,13492.33.14.7
Horses, livestock80,21200100.0
Beef, pork66,03501.498.5
Potash, pearl ash*64,661100.000
Tar, turpentine, etc35,07694.405.7
Other native products122,094   
TOTAL EXPORTS£3,437,715   

joined voluntarily while others succumbed to pressure from patriots. The colonists first used nonimportation to protest the Sugar Act in 1764, and they turned to it again when the Townshend duties were passed in 1767. Although some merchants, especially those in Philadelphia, resisted these agreements, nearly every colony eventually signed them. Nonimportation affected merchants and artisans in opposite ways. Artisans benefited because the ban on British goods enlarged the market for domesticmade products. In contrast, the movement divided merchants. Those who dealt primarily in dry goods from Britain believed that they were being unfairly singled out. They complained that the boycotts left virtually unaffected the merchants who dealt in West Indian molasses and rum. Nonofficial bodies, called committees of inspection and headed by merchants, planters, and artisans, took on the responsibility of enforcing the agreements. Patriotic newspapers did their part by publishing the names of merchants who continued to import from British suppliers. Mobs sometimes exerted pressure by tarring and feathering those who refused to honor the agreements. A few merchants were driven out of town or had their warehouses damaged and looted. In 1769 an angry mob confronted the Boston shopkeepers Betsy and Anne Cuming for continuing to import British goods. I told them we have never antred into eney agreement not to import for it was verry trifling owr Business, Betsy wrote to a friend. The committeemen threatened to publish the sisters names in the newspaper, but Betsy claimed that the publicity only Spirits up our Friends to Purchess from us. The Cumings could not long resist the Patriots pressure, however, and the sisters immigrated to Nova Scotia when the British army evacuated Boston in 1776.

Consumer Boycotts. Because almost everyone was a consumer to some degree, many individuals and groups participated in the patriot cause by resolving not to consume British-made products. Merchants dealing in imported luxury items were hurt by these movements. Women vowed to stop serving tea and refrained from wearing clothes made with fabrics imported from Britain. A widely reprinted appeal that first appeared in 1767 urged them to Wear none but your own country linen / Of economy boast. Let your pride be the most / To show cloaths of your make and spinning. College students also, participated in the boycotts. They abstained from drinking foreign wines, and the Harvard graduating class of 1770 wore black cloth that was manufactured entirely in America. At least one wedding received publicity because, as one newspaper reported, the bride and two of her sisters appeared in very genteel-like gowns, and others of the family in handsome apparel, with sundry silk handkerchiefs, &c., entirely of their own manufacture. A few womens groups even formalized their agreements, to much fanfare. In February 1770 the Boston Evening Post reported that more than three hundred Mistresses of Families had vowed to totally abstain from serving tea, Sickness excepted as an expression of their desire to save the Country from Ruin and Slavery. Another group in North Carolina signed an agreement in October 1774 proclaiming it their duty to do every thing as far as lies in our power to support the publick good. Most of the shunned items were luxuries, not necessities. In addition to tea, wine, and fancy textiles patriotic Americans gave up their coaches and carriages, gold and silver buttons, diamonds, clocks, watches, and jewelry. Poor consumers had fewer opportunities to express their support of the Revolution through nonconsumption. Nevertheless these boycotts allowed participation in public affairs to those, especially women, who had few other channels for expressing their political sentiments.


Mercantilism was a system of political economy wherein the imperial powers strictly regulated their colonies trade. Britain provided the bulk of its colonies imports (mostly manufactured products) and received more than half of their exports (mostly raw and semifinished goods.) The system helped to make Britain a pioneer of the Industrial Revolution and one of the worlds richest nations.

Proportion imported from:
Source: James F, Shepherd and Gary M. Walton, Shipping, Maritime Trade, and the Economic Development of North America (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972), pp, 160-161.
Great Britain80 percent
West Indies18
Southern Europe2
Proportion exported to:
Great Britain56 percent
West Indies26
Southern Europe18
Africaless than 1

Quartermasters and Commissary Officers. During the War of Independence merchants played the key role in organizing supplies for the Continental Army. They filled nearly all of the posts within the new Congresss quartermaster and commissary departments. Thomas Mifflin of Pennsylvania was named the armys first quartermaster general in August 1775. In addition to procuring supplies his job included maintaining the roads and bridges traveled by the army, furnishing the wagons and boats they needed, and constructing camps. In 1776 the first chairman of the Secret Committee of Trade, responsible for purchasing foreign goods, was another prominent Philadelphia merchantRobert Morris, who became superintendent of finance in 1781. Supplying the Continental Army was a public enterprise much larger than anything merchants had run before. The deputy quartermaster of Philadelphia, John Mitchell, supervised more than three hundred workers, a number three times the size of the largest businesses of the period. Procuring supplies also proved difficult because Congress made many bureaucratic and tactical blunders. For example, Congress set payment rates for some items below what the market was paying, so the procurement officials had a hard time finding people willing to sell to them. Knowing the armys predicament, speculators and other suppliers tried to force the government to pay the highest prices possible. The officials frequently could not wait for prices to drop but had to buy whatever was available. Merchants John Chaloner and James White, who bought supplies in Philadelphia after the British left the city in 1778, came to regard the speculators there as monsters

in human shape because of the excessive prices they charged. Yet despite their indispensable expertise, merchants working for Congress aroused public resentment because they mixed public obligations with their private business. Because Congress neither supervised them too closely nor required them to separate their public and private functions, merchants frequently used public funds and resources to their advantage. Many found it more convenient, or at least more profitable, to purchase supplies from their own firms or those of their partners: for example, about one-fourth of the Secret Committees expenditures from 1775 to 1777 went to its chairmans firm, Willing and Morris. A scandalized Congress learned in 1779 that while the army had been short of supplies, public wagons had been transporting merchants private goods to New York and New England. The commissions earned by quartermasters1 percent of all monies spentalso infuriated some members of the public, with some justification. Nathanael Greene, who succeeded Thomas Mifflin as quartermaster general in March 1778, admitted that the profit he made from the post is flattering to my fortune. Throughout the war many patriotic merchants performed their duties honorably and well, given the circumstances. However, most Americans distrusted them and believed that the merchants corruption worsened wartime inflation. In 1780, alarmed by the amount of money that was being spent and the general demoralization of both the citizenry and the army, Congress decided to reorganize its departments. Characteristically it turned for help to a merchant, Robert Morris, who himself had frequently been charged with corruption during his stint as chairman of the Secret Committee of Trade.

Beneficiaries of War. During the war some merchants, including New Yorks James Beekman and some loyalist Quakers in Philadelphia, chose to withdraw from business and wait for peaceful times to return. But the war benefited others who took advantage of the peculiar opportunities it offered. The wars disruptions broke the hold of established merchants and allowed new ones to emerge. Traders and storekeepers who operated on only a small scale substantially enlarged their businesses when they became military contractors. Older laws that discouraged competition from smaller traders became unenforceable. For example, New York merchants in 1766 had sponsored legislation prohibiting peddlers, but the law disappeared during the war. Merchants doing business for the government benefited by having access to public resources. The war gave them new contacts in Europe, and some set up branch houses there or entered into partnership with Europeans. In 1781 Congress established the Bank of North America in Philadelphia to help finance the war, a move that led to a boom in that city. Entrepreneurs from Scotland, Ireland, and France immigrated to Philadelphia, and many of the citys resident merchants became wealthy. Baltimore and Alexandria, Virginia, served an area that was relatively untouched by fighting, and many of the regions merchants profited from the wheat and flour trade. New opportunities inspired some to take greater risks. Entrepreneurs traded with the enemy, whose goods fetched high prices among American consumers. Many other entrepreneurs profited handsomely from privateering. Still others speculated on the paper money printed by the states and Congress. In 1781 Maryland merchants sold goods to soldiers in exchange for currency and Western land patents, which the soldiers received as pay from the government. The merchants accepted these at only one-seventh their face value and then resold them later at a higher price. Of course, not all merchants were successful. The war disrupted the economy, causing a number of merchants to go out of business, retire, or see their capital shrink. On average, Philadelphia merchants wealth grew more slowly during the period 1776 to 1789 than in the previous twenty years. Nevertheless the merchants who managed to prosper during the war years were in a good position to capitalize on the huge amount of commercial credit that flowed into America from Europe after the war ended.


Thomas M. Doerflinger, A Vigorous, Spirit of Enterprise: Merchants and Economic Development in Revolutionary Philadelphia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986);

E. James Ferguson, The Power of the Purse: A History of American Public Finance, 17761790 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1961);

Jean P. Jordan, Women Merchants in Colonial New York, New York History, 58 (October 1977): 412439.

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Kievan Russia supplied raw materials of the forestfurs, honey, wax, and slavesto the Byzantine Empire. This trade had a primarily military character, as the grand prince and his retinue extorted forest products from Russian and Finnish tribes and transported them through hostile territory via the Dnieper River and the Black Sea. In the self-governing republic of Novgorod, wealthy merchants shared power with the landowning elite. Novgorod exported impressive amounts of furs, fish, and other raw materials with the aid of the German Hansa, which maintained a permanent settlement in Novgorodthe Peterhofas it did on Wisby Island and in London and Bergen.

Grand Prince Ivan III of Muscovy extinguished Novgorod's autonomy and expelled the Germans. Under the Muscovite autocracy, prominent merchants acted as the tsar's agents in exploiting his monopoly rights over commerce in high-value goods such as vodka and salt. The merchant estate (soslovie ) emerged as a separate social stratum in the Law Code (Ulozhenie ) of 1649, with the exclusive right to engage in handicrafts and commerce in cities.

Peter I's campaign to build an industrial complex to supply his army and navy opened up new opportunities for Russian merchants, but his government maintained the merchants' traditional obligations to provide fiscal and administrative services to the state without remuneration. From the early eighteenth century to the end of the imperial period, the merchant estate included not only wholesale and retail traders but also persons whose membership in a merchant guild entitled them to perform other economic functions as well, such as mining, manufacturing, shipping, and banking.

Various liabilities imposed by the state, including a ban on serf ownership by merchants and the abolition of their previous monopoly over trade and industry, kept the merchant estate small and weak during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Elements of a genuine bourgeoisie did not emerge until the early twentieth century.

Ethnic diversity contributed to the lack of unity within the merchant estate. Each major city saw the emergence of a distinctive merchant culture, whether mostly European (German and English) in St. Petersburg; German in the Baltic seaports of Riga and Reval; Polish and Jewish in Warsaw and Kiev; Italian, Greek, and Jewish in Odessa; or Armenian in the Caucasus region, to name a few examples. Moreover, importers in port cities generally favored free trade, while manufacturers in the Central Industrial Region, around Moscow, demanded high import tariffs to protect their factories from European competition. These economic conflicts reinforced hostilities based on ethnic differences. The Moscow merchant elite remained xenophobic and antiliberal until the Revolution of 1905.

The many negative stereotypes of merchants in Russian literature reflected the contemptuous attitudes of the gentry, bureaucracy, intelligentsia, and peasantry toward commercial and industrial activity. The weakness of the Russian middle class constituted an important element in the collapse of the liberal movement and the victory of the Bolshevik party in the Russian Revolution of 1917.

See also: capitalism; economy, tsarist; foreigntrade; guilds


Freeze, Gregory L. (1986). "The Soslovie (Estate) Paradigm and Russian Social History." American Historical Review 91:1136.

Owen, Thomas C. (1981). Capitalism and Politics in Russia: A Social History of the Moscow Merchants, 1855-1905. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Owen, Thomas C. (1991). "Impediments to a Bourgeois Consciousness in Russia, 18801905: The Estate Structure, Ethnic Diversity, and Economic Regionalism." In Between Tsar and People: Educated Society and the Quest for Public Identity in Late Imperial Russia, ed. Edith W. Clowes, Samuel D. Kassow, and James L. West. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Rieber, Alfred J. (1982). Merchants and Entrepreneurs in Imperial Russia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Thomas C. Owen

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