The American Economy Prior to the Revolutionary War

By the eighteenth century, North Americans had established an economy in which a wide range of productive activities took place. Native Americans had adjusted their economic activities to accommodate the European colonists, sometimes against their will or better judgment. With the help of their Native American neighbors and through trial and error, the European settlers had identified the potential for production in the resources available in their regions, and were actively exploiting those resources. Americans were making contact with people in other parts of the continent and the world through trade. Industrialization was beginning, expanding cottage industries to larger scales. The colonial economy was flourishing, especially while Britain was too busy with its European wars to pay attention to enforcing colonial duties and trade restrictions. Britain's salutary neglect created an environment in which the independent economic activity of the colonists was able to flourish.

All over the continent, Native American tribes had conducted self-sufficient economic activity, producing food, clothing, shelter, and other goods and services in family and clan groupings. Although Native Americans traded with each other, few sought a standard of living that exceeded moderate comfort. Many of the European settlers, predominantly from England, arrived in their New World with dreams of wealth and economic advancement. While Native Americans tended to take an attitude of respect toward their environment, many of the European colonists felt that they needed to "conquer" the land and "tame" their environments to bring them in line with a more Europeanized ideal of living and civilization. Nevertheless, survival was an issue for everyone.

When the English colonists settled in North America, they found a land very different from their home country in several ways that were important in shaping the early American economy. Land was plentiful and, thus, cheap. Labor, especially of the skilled variety, was scarce. This was the opposite of the situation in England, where land was difficult to acquire, but the labor market was oversupplied. In England, land-intensive farming was not as lucrative as labor-intensive industry such as textile production. In the British colonies, farming was much more viable, especially once indentured servanthood and slavery were instituted to swell the ranks of cheap and free labor. Thus, most production in the 13 colonies was agricultural, and at least 90% of eighteenth-century Americans made their living on the land. Although cities grew rapidly, they did not produce a large part of the pre-Revolutionary colonial output.
Each region presented different challenges to the English economic men and women. In New England, colonists faced rocky soil and often rotten weather. Large-scale farming was not a viable option, but there was a plentiful supply of forests, so lumbering and shipbuilding flourished. Streams and harbors allowed for fishing (cod, mackerel), whaling. There were also many natural harbors, such as Portsmouth, Boston, and Providence, so trade was able to develop. Although they faced the dangers of the sea, including bad weather, sickness, and pirates, New England merchants were able to earn substantial profits. Many of their overseas trade routes involved triangular trade, often involving New England, the West Indies, and England. In one trade route, fish, grain, and lumber were exported to the West Indies. These goods were traded for sugar and molasses, which was shipped to Britain and used to purchase manufactured goods, which were then shipped to the American colonies. One notorious triangular trade route involved the American colonies, West Africa, and the West Indies. Sugar and molasses were shipped to North America, where they were made into rum and shipped to West Africa. In West Africa, the rum was traded for slaves, who were shipped to the West Indies. The slave trade stimulated investment, which helped European merchant marines grow and provided profits to jump start capitalistic entreprises in France, England, and New England.

In the Middle Colonies, Agriculture was much more prevalent than in New England, because of the favorable climate and fertile, level land. Family-size farms became prevalent, producing surplus grain (wheat, corn, and oats) to be exported to other colonies and to England. Soon, the Middle Colonies were known as the "bread colonies." The long, easily navigable rivers, such as the Hudson, Susquehanna, and Delaware, made trade with Native Americans possible, so fur trade went on. The excellent harbors, at New York and Philadelphia, for example, made trade possible with other colonies, England, and the rest of Europe.

The Southern colonies produced naval stores (pitch and tar from the forests), which were vital for shipbuilding in England and the colonies. The fertile soil and warm climate contributed to the creation of a plantation economy, in which indigo, rice, and tobacco. Most of these goods were exported to England in return for manufactured goods. Plantations grew in size, partly because tobacco exhausted the soil and new land needed to be acquired, so plantation owners became an entire class, wealthy and dominant in southern society.
In all regions of the colonies, merchants' attempts to promote economic growth were stifled by British policies of mercantilism. Long before capitalism, socialism, or communism were articulated as economic systems, Europe's economies had functioned under this system. The goal of mercantilism was to accumulate large stores of gold, silver, or other precious metals. Since money was viewed primarily as a store of value, the accumulation of money, in the reliable form of precious metals, was the wealth of the nation. Increasing the store of gold and silver was possible only through trade. A country would try to maximize its exports and minimize its imports, thus accumulating as much inflowing capital in the form of reliable precious metals as possible. Mercantilism could not be called a friendly, neighborly sort of system, since one country could only gain at the expense of another. In addition, the mercantile system promoted the acquisition of colonies for the purpose of exploitation for raw materials and development of markets for the exports of the mother country.\n\n

With such a mindset, English merchants were hardly inclined to support freedoms for the Americans which would interfere with their established system. One of the most fundamental causes of the war was the British attitude toward the American colonies. To British merchants and most of the Parliament, the American colonies were subject to the crown and Parliament, and their raison d'?tre was to serve the crown. As Englishmen and equal subjects of the royal crown, the English-Americans felt that they deserved the rights of other Englishmen, including the right to be represented before the body which levied its taxies. In addition, the English-Americans felt that, due to the taxes and trade restrictions imposed by the distant Britain, the mother country was doing more harm than good for the colonists.\n
Trade restrictions imposed by Britain prevented American colonies from trading with anyone but Britain and British West Indies. The Molasses Act of 1733, one of the Navigation Acts, required high duties on sugar and molasses purchased from anywhere but the British West Indies. The act was widely violated, since the British did not put much effort into enforcing it, and colonial demand for sugar and molasses exceeded British West Indies' production capacity.\n
In addition to trade, mercantilist laws hurt colonial industrialization. The largest industry in the colonies was New England shipbuilding. Cloth-weaving, clothing sewing, leather tanning, shoe-making, furniture-making, and tool-making were other small-scale industries that grew in the colonies until they expanded beyond cottage industries and out of local markets. Unfortunately, budding industrialists faced a number of stumbling blocks to success. In addition to the dearth of skilled labor, capital, and inland transportation for distribution, English mercantilist laws hampered colonial exports and, thus, industrialization.


In New England and parts of the Middle Colonies, the influence of religious groups, such as the Puritans of New England and the Quakers of Pennsylvania, created artistic strains characterized by simplicity in fields such as architecture, furniture-making, silversmithing, and music. In frontier areas, the effort of survival was too taxing to allow enough social energy to foster complex, non-utilitarian art forms, so simplicity was adopted out of necessity. Those whose tastes and pocketbooks demanded more generally turned to imported culture from Europe. Southern plantation owners, able to exploit the cheap or free labor of indentured servants and slaves, were eager to emulate the lifestyle of the English elite and European nobility. They imported culture in huge doses, sending their children to Europe for a refined education, having their portraits painted by European artists, buying the latest fashions from London and Paris, and building homes based on European models. This supported the sentiment that there was something inherently superior about European culture, and that the emerging American culture, with its Native American, African, and European influences, was incapable of producing the kind of socially-acceptable refinement which many of the social-climbing plantation owner class so desperately sought. Up to that point, most settlers thought of themselves as Europeans in America, and so their desire was to bring their home cultures to their new homes. Once they arrived and faced the competing cultures of Native Americans, African-Americans, and other European immigrants, their pre-conceived notions of "culture" were disturbed. Many British colonialists made strong attempts to reassert cultural dominance, especially in the Southern colonies. Nevertheless, American artists of stature managed to emerge from among the amateur copycats. Two notable examples were James Singleton Copley and Benjamin West. Both artists were born in 1738, achieved early success, and subsequently moved to England. West maintained his ties with his American home, supporting the patriot cause and encouraging young American artists studying abroad. Copley, however, was married to a Tory and had his life threatened by mob violence. The two painters' styles were very different, with West's works being characterized by softness and romanticism, while Copley's works had a more severe, penetrating quality. Ironically, the patriot West was known for his paintings of the nobility, while it was the Tory Copley who portrayed figures from a wide range of social stations, including the revolutionary silversmith Paul Revere.

As with the "highbrow" arts, domestic arts for American consumers were based on European models. In Philadelphia, American furniture artisans became known for their Chippendale-style furniture. In Newport, Rhode Island, John Goddard and John and Edmund Townsend were also known for high-quality furniture that could compete with imported pieces. New England mud cottages with thatched roofs were modeled on English country huts, although traditional patterns had to be adjusted to accommodate the harsher New England climate. The Dutch-Americans in New Amsterdam maintained their Walloon-style brick homes, while the Swedish-Americans in Fort Christina built Swedish-style stone houses. Down south, however, rather than building homes like those appropriate to their social station in England, many English-Americans took their newly acquired tobacco fortunes and attempted to imitate the lifestyles and architecture of the English landed gentry. Thus, they developed the colonial Georgian style for Southern mansions and plantation houses.

The literature of the British colonies was dominated by essays, books, and pamphlets on various nonfiction topics. Much of the best-written non-fiction of the pre-Revolutionary period came from clergymen and other religious writers. The Great Awakening of the mid-eighteenth century produced clergymen-writers, the most famous of which was Rev. Jonathan Edwards. In addition to religious and moral topics, history was a popular subject for non-fiction books, so that colonies like Massachusetts, Virginia, and New York had their histories chronicled, and the five nations of the Iroquois were the subject of a historical tome. Journals and correspondence, both actual and fictionalized, were frequently written and occasionally published. Almanacs and didactic volumes were ubiquitous. As British-American relations worsened, much American nonfiction turned to political issues, with John Dickinson's Letter from a Farmer in Pennsylvania to the inhabitants of the British Colonies (1768) and Thomas Paine's Common Sense (1776) being two of the most effective examples.

Although fiction was represented in the colonies, indigenous belles-lettres could not survive in the pre-Revolutionary colonies. A great deal of literature, especially fiction, was imported from England. Not until after the Revolutionary War would the first American novel, William Hill Brown's The Power of Sympathy (1789), be published. American writings which were not strictly practical were only one cut above the everyday in tone, if not quality. Since low literacy levels, competition from European books, and a degree of pragmatism in the emerging American psyche produced a limited audience for more refined literature, many American writers had to keep in mind the interests of British audiences if they wanted to sell their writings widely. Some writers, following the example of painters West and Copley, traveled to Britain for greater opportunities. Poet Phillis Wheatley even obtained the patronage of English nobility.

Theatrical arts were embraced and rejected by various segments of colonial society. In Annapolis and Charles Town, British theatrical troupes played to welcoming audience drawn from the wealthy secularized leisure class. Plays by British writers such as William Shakespeare, John Dryden, Joseph Addison, and William Congreve were performed by professional actors such as the famous Thomas Kean, as well as students. In other cities, such as Boston and Philadelphia, which were heavily influenced by Puritans and Quakers respectively, huge protests resulted from attempts to bring theatrical performances to the colonies. Despite this, the first play by a native-born American, The Prince of Parthia, was written by a Philadelphia poet, Thomas Godfrey, and produced in 1767. Music developed along two paths - the sacred and the secular. Ministers, concerned about the future of church music, called for an improvement in musical education. The response to this call was the rise of the singing-school movement, in which independent American singing instructors would travel across the colonies to provide the musical education. From this movement emerged the New England School of Composers in the 1770's. These composers, including figures like William Billings, Daniel Read, Jacob French, Jacob Kimball, Samuel Holyoke, and Oliver Holden, used the distinctive "Yankee" feature of the "fuging tune." They would begin a choral hymn with the melody in tenor voice, then allow the other voices to enter in turn, creating a fugue-like sound without strict adherence to the compositional practices of such European composers as J. S. Bach. In 1770, Billings published a collection of his hymns, which became popular with churches both in and outside New England.

Beyond the sphere of the church, secular ballads became a popular form of entertainment, sometimes imported from England, sometimes created by Americans. The first recorded performance of an opera in the British colonies was the ballad opera Flora, or Hob in the Well., performed in 1735 in the courtroom at Charleston, South Carolina. Other British ballad operas, such as John Gay's The Beggar's Opera, became popular, although more "refined" Italian operas would not come to North America until the nineteenth century. What seems to be the first American opera, James Hewitt's Tammany, was not staged until 1794. Nevertheless, more and more urbanites became interested in hearing performances of European art music. Public concerts with foreign performers began in New York, Boston, and Charleston, and organizations such as the St. Cecilia Society of Charleston, begun in 1762, sponsored musical events and increasingly called upon home-grown talent.

Once revolutionary fervor began to sweep the colonies, the practical bent in the emerging American persona embraced the arts as propaganda. Patriotic writings were published and discussed among the literate: pamphlets and essays such as James Otis' Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved of 1764 and Thomas Paine's Common Sense of 1776 were widely read and exerted an important influence on the solidification of patriot support. For the illiterate masses, Republican lyrics were added to new and familiar ballads, spreading the themes of the revolution. Political cartoonists supported the struggle for independence by depicting England as an old ogre of the past, while showing the emerging nation to be unfairly oppressed, but nevertheless full of hope and potential. In addition to Paul Revere's deliberately inaccurate depiction of the Boston "Massacre," one of the most famous political images of the war was Benjamin Franklin's "Join or Die" drawing, published in his Philadelphia Gazette on the eve of the Albany Congress, showing a snake split into sections with the names of each colony labeling each segment. Such words, songs, and images, often depicting actual stories of the courageous acts of patriotic Americans or vital issues of the day, served to rally widespread support for the Continental troops and their cause. Art was even involved in espionage. Patience Lovell Wright, a sculptor who modeled her wax figures after famous contemporaries, smuggled secret information to American forces in Philadelphia, concealed in her works of art.

Despite the strong influence of the "Old Country" on the emerging colonial arts, a beginning attempt was made to forge a homegrown artistic culture. The republican ideals of the revolution, in many ways diverging from European social and political structures, led the way for a uniquely American style. This conflict and interaction between European and American, as well as the related issue of "highbrow" and "lowbrow" culture, was to influence the entire history of art and culture in the United States.