The Colonial Economy: Mercantilism
Beginning around 1650, the British government pursued
a policy of mercantilism in international trade. Mercantilism
stipulates that in order to build economic strength, a nation must
export more than it imports. To achieve this favorable balance of
trade, the English passed regulatory laws exclusively benefiting
the British economy. These laws created a trade system whereby Americans
provided raw goods to Britain, and Britain used the raw goods to
produce manufactured goods that were sold in European markets and
back to the colonies. As suppliers of raw goods only, the colonies
could not compete with Britain in manufacturing. English ships and
merchants were always favored, excluding other countries from sharing
in the British Empire’s wealth.
Between 1651 and 1673, the English Parliament passed four Navigation
Acts meant to ensure the proper mercantilist trade balance.
The acts declared the following:
- Only English or English colonial ships could
carry cargo between imperial ports.
- Certain goods, including tobacco, rice, and furs, could
not be shipped to foreign nations except through England or Scotland.
- The English Parliament would pay “bounties” to Americans
who produced certain raw goods, while raising protectionist tariffs
on the same goods produced in other nations.
- Americans could not compete with English manufacturers
in large-scale manufacturing.
The Navigation Acts severely restricted colonial
trade, to the benefit of England.
The colonists initially complained about these strictures
on trade. In New England in particular, many colonists evaded the
restrictions of the Navigation Acts by smuggling. But although relations
between England and the colonies were often full of friction (as
in 1684, when Charles II revoked the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s
charter as punishement for smuggling), the two sides never came
to any real conflict. Instead, England developed a policy of salutary
neglect toward the colonies, which meant that the
trade laws that most hurt the colonial economy were not enforced.
Threatened by the presence of the French in North America, British
officials knew that at some point they would have to clash with
the French over the domination of the continent, and they needed
the colonists to support them when that time came. The British did
not want to alienate their much-needed allies through aggressive
With the prospect of war against the French looming,
the British employed salutary neglect to maintain the colonists’
The Triangular Trade
British mercantilism manifested itself in the
form of the triangular trade. Trade routes linked the American
Colonies, West Indies, Africa, and England. Each port provided shippers
with a payoff and a new cargo. New England rum was shipped to Africa
and traded for slaves, which were brought to the West Indies and
traded for sugar and molasses, which went back to New England. Other
raw goods were shipped from the colonies to England, where they
were swapped for a cargo of manufactured goods.
Mercantilism and the triangular trade proved
quite profitable for New England tradesmen and ship builders. But
in the Southern Colonies, where the Navigation Acts vastly lowered tobacco
prices, economies suffered. The triangular trade also spurred a
rise in the slave population and increased the merchant population,
forming a class of wealthy elites that dominated trade and politics
throughout the colonies.