Albane Forestier

in Atlantic History

ISBN: 9780199730414
Published online May 2011 | | DOI:

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The term “mercantilism” is used to refer to a set of economic theories and policies that dominated in early modern Europe. There is to this day much debate as to what mercantilism exactly was. First, the definition of mercantilism appears relatively late, and after it had ceased to shape economic thinking and policymaking, with Adam Smith and his discussion of mercantilism as a system of economic thought and practice. Second, our understanding of mercantilist ideas is complicated by the fact that these were developed by numerous writers, and implemented in different sectors of the economy and in different national contexts over two centuries. The definition of mercantilism consequently became a hotly contested topic in political and economic theory. A debate followed Eli F. Heckscher’s book, Mercantilism (Heckscher 1955, first published in 1935, cited under General Overviews), which first brought mercantilism to the attention of a wider modern audience. It divided scholars between those who, following in the footsteps of Adam Smith, favored a liberal interpretation that saw in mercantilism a setback in the development of economic thought, and those who ascribed to mercantilism some logic and rationality by replacing it within a broader political and economic context. After this debate faded, there were few new books on mercantilism until Lars Magnusson’s study Mercantilism: The Shaping of an Economic Language (Magnusson 1994, cited under General Overviews), which led to a renewed interest in the topic. More recent scholarship has instead focused on the implementation of mercantilist ideas and the political economy of mercantilism, in particular the interaction between mercantilist systems and interest groups. The relevance of mercantilism to Atlantic history is twofold. First, mercantilist ideas influenced both European foreign trade and colonial strategies in America. This perspective shifts the debate away from the definition of mercantilism to the study of overseas trade and the economic and political impact of mercantilism on the development of American colonies. It also allows for works with a broader European scope, and for a comparison of the different mercantilist regimes in place. A by-product debate has concentrated on the importance of Atlantic trade and the American colonies to European nations. In addition, historians of the American Revolution have paid attention to the influence of mercantilism on the commercial and political formation of the early American Republic. By contrast, smuggling and the limits of mercantilist systems remain the least studied aspect of the workings of mercantilism in the Atlantic.

Article.  7081 words. 

Subjects: History of the Americas ; European History ; African History ; History ; Regional and National History

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