Colonial Commerce

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COLONIAL COMMERCE. From the earliest American settlements, colonial commerce was the province of diverse groups of settlers. Puritans in Boston, Pilgrims at Ply mouth Plantation, Quakers in Philadelphia, Dutch in New Amsterdam (New York City), and Scots in the Chesapeake were all part of the colonial American merchant establishment. As early as 1621, the famed "tri-angular trade" underpinned that commerce and laid the groundwork for American prosperity. North American merchants could not sell enough directly to England to pay for the English goods they needed, so they eventually traded tobacco, foodstuffs, and even slaves to obtain the sugar, molasses, and rum English merchants craved for the manufactures (tools, textiles, and weapons, for the most part) that the burgeoning North American colonies required.

Colonial Traders

While the British settlers in all their diversity came to dominate colonial commerce, the Dutch, who arrived early in New Amsterdam, helped pioneer that triangular trade. Dutch colonists began arriving in numbers as early as 1624 and dominated not only what became New York City but also the Hudson River valley as well. Dutch patrons along the Hudson were closely involved with the Dutch East India Company merchants on Manhattan Island, the latter forming the vital center of the commerce that ever after dominated the economic life of New York. Dutch New York was already a major American colonial merchant outpost when the English conquered it in 1664.

Already by that date Parliament and the British Board of Trade were establishing the ground rules for exploiting England's growing colonial empire in the New World. Beginning in 1663 the Navigation Acts defined the limits imposed on colonial commerce. They succeeded in constantly reminding American merchants, trades people, and artisans of the profit-squelching restrictions and second-class status under which American trade operated. They failed through lack of enforcement to actually improve British trade profits and did not hamper American economic growth. The acts altogether were thus a disaster for the mother country. They strained ties to the colonies, especially among the zealous Puritan merchants in Massachusetts Bay, even as they failed to reign in colonial commerce. The acts rankled symbolically, however, especially among the Puritan merchant elite in New England. On paper, the high (but largely uncollected) taxes and the list of goods that could not be traded (they were anyway) still remained a constant reminder to merchants of their second-class national status.

So even as the American colonies prospered, the perception grew in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that parliamentary restrictions were choking colonial economic growth. The reality was that major American port cities grew and prospered. Ultimately 80 percent of the American population in the thirteen colonies lived, worked, and farmed along the Atlantic seaboard. Urban commercial centers in Newport, Rhode Island; Boston; New York City; Philadelphia; and Charleston became thriving trade-oriented metropolises, with satellite port cities flourishing as well: New London, Connecticut; Wilmington, Delaware; Norfolk, Virginia; and Savannah, Georgia, among them.

These cities and towns were dominated by the merchant elite made well-to-do, even rich, by Britain's domination of world trade, restrictions notwithstanding. But this gentry, particularly in political centers like Boston and New York City, chafed under perceived British restrictions imposed by Parliament and the Board of Trade. It should be remembered as well that the laboring classes in the port cities, from the cartmen, who carried the goods to the skilled artisans on the docks, to the more proletarian seamen, who comprised the crews on colonial American bottoms, made their livings at trade. All depended utterly on the health and profitability of the triangular trade, and their politics, separated though the groups were by class distinctions, reflected their common economic realities. So it was that when in 1764 the British government actually moved rigorously to enforce the old Navigation Acts, it found strong resistance among all classes in all thirteen colonies.


The resurgence of British control over the culturally and politically independent colonists in North America coincided with the end of the French and Indian War (1754–1763) (variously called the Seven Years' War and the Great War for Empire) in 1763. British victory once and for all ended the French threat to wrest at least part of North America from English rule. It was no longer necessary, in the British government's view, to placate the thirteen colonies to keep them from the grasp of the French (never, except in Canada, a cultural or national possibility anyway). But the point was that French economic penetration of North America had always been a threat in the wilderness West, and the Seven Years' War effectively put a lid on that possibility. It was now time for the colonies to pay their own way, to put their treasures in the hands of the Crown for the sake of all the empire as England saw it. To this end the Crown determined to enforce the Navigation Acts, some dating back a century. To a large degree, seen in this way, the American Revolution (1775–1783) was about commerce as much as anything else. Capitalist free-enterprise notions

had over a century and a half taken root in the colonies as they had in the mother country. To a large extent that commitment to trade and profit permeated the ranks of the underclass artisan, mechanics, tradespeople, and yeoman farmers alike. Perhaps only laborers on the farms and seamen on the docks did not wholly buy into this commerce-based worldview.

In any event, all economic and social classes played their parts in the events leading up to the American Revolution. And these events started out as commerce-based grievances. The goals were to free commerce from the stultifying repressions of the Crown, the Board of Trade, and Parliament. The Sugar Act of 1764 claimed only to resurrect the unenforced Molasses Act of 1733 and—a generation after the Molasses Act—to finally collect half the duties prescribed in the old law, which was levied on the rich trade among the West Indies, the British Isles, and the thirteen American colonies. Enforcement of the 1733 law was seen correctly in the colonies as a new enforcement that would cut colonial profits and wages, however. British arrogance ran up against American nationalism over the question of who controlled American commerce and who gleaned the profits of trade. Commercial questions morphed into political questions of who controlled the colonies, what were the colonists' responsibilities to the Crown, and to what extent did political rights under Magna Carta and Parliament accrue to the former English subjects who became Americans in the New World.

These momentous questions of free trade, colonial commercial profitability, and actual political independence within the empire or without played out in the streets of the port cities of North America, particularly in Boston and New York City. The familiar milestones along the path to independence all had as overt causation questions involving taxation and trade that also became in the eyes of the colonists questions of human rights, individual liberties, and free enterprise.

The responses to the Sugar Act of 1764, the Stamp Act of 1765, the Townshend Duties of 1767, and the Intolerable Acts of 1774 all formed around grievances that raised these issues. Commerce-based capitalist control blended completely with the most basic, articulated demands for individual liberties and republican values in the maturation of the American Revolution. By 1774, commerce-driven protests were couched in the rhetoric of American independence rooted in the political freedom from the oppressions of the Crown, Parliament, and the Board of Trade. The British responded in kind, understanding all too well that commercial profit in the colonies was closely linked to the Enlightenment-driven high rhetoric of political rights. The Intolerable Acts of 1774 not only quartered British troops in American port cities and suspended the fractious Lower House of the Massachusetts legislature, but they closed Boston port as well. The First Continental Congress of 1774–1775 responded with the extreme economic pressure of effective boycotts of British imports. The merchant-dominated Continental Association joined with the working-class Sons of Liberty, first in Boston and New York City and soon along the entire Tidewater, stretching from Massachusetts to Georgia, to provide an economic response to perceived coercion. Loyalists in America argued as strongly that boycotts threatened profits as they denounced the long-term effects of political instability inherent in denunciations of the Crown's authority.

The century and a half of colonial commercial growth and the reality of increasing independence from effective British control created both a politically independent population spread over all classes in the colonies and a political ideology that increasingly articulated a capitalist free-enterprise ethos. The astoundingly radical Declaration of Independence of 1776 is both a ringing declaration of human rights, individual liberties, and political freedom and a reaffirmation of capitalism based on free commerce. Commitment to "Life" and "Liberty" was conjoined with the "Pursuit of Happiness," a euphemism for "Property" as John Locke originally expressed it. To this end it should be remembered that the American elite that drafted this world-changing document pledged not only its "Lives" and "Sacred Honor" but its merchant-driven "Fortunes" as well.


Bruchey, Stuart. The Roots of American Economic Growth, 1607– 1861. New York: Harper and Row, 1965.

Rakove, Jack N. The Beginnings of National Politics: An Interpretive History of the Continental Congress. New York: Knopf, 1979.

Carl E.Prince

See alsoColonial Policy, British ; Colonial Society ; andvol. 9:The Continental Association .

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Colonial Commerce

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