The Economy of British America

Cathy D. Matson

in Atlantic History

ISBN: 9780199730414
Published online July 2012 | | DOI:
The Economy of British America

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  • History of the Americas
  • European History
  • African History
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  • Regional and National History


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From its earliest settlement in the early 1600s by small groups of British individuals to the conclusion of the American Revolution, when some five million people were poised to sprawl across a continent, British America had a dual economy. On the one hand, it was a colonial economy that depended on its ability to export commodities to the home country of England, the other colonies of the Western Hemisphere, and the eager buyers from foreign empires. Exporting, in turn, fostered deepening networks of credit, ability to import necessary and desirable goods from other sources, and systems of payment throughout the Atlantic world. On the other hand, British Americans developed a thriving internal economy in which they cleared land, grew much of their own food, provided their own housing and most of their tools, and expanded interdependent markets between regions and among myriad local places within the colonies. Although officials at the hub of the British Empire in London established navigation laws to regulate the markets of British American colonial commerce and to restrict British American manufacturing, the economies of farms, plantations, and towns grew steadily. Collectively known as the Acts of Trade, the laws embodied policies founded on the goal of bringing colonies securely under the economic wing of England, but also of curtailing the potential for British Americans to develop parallel economies. By the early 1700s some sectors of the British American economy were growing by leaps and bounds, aided by the Acts of Trade somewhat, but increasingly prospering outside the acts. During the next decades, British American per capita incomes would steadily rise, and the accumulation of household goods by middling people as well as the maturity of their markets for colonial and imported goods would provide visible evidence of colonial economic growth. Nevertheless, a paradox of economic development persisted for British Americans. Throughout the colonial era they lived in distinctive regions marked by the agricultural and commercial systems that evolved in each of them over the colonial era, and marked as well by the dominant labor systems and economic cultures that suited these different regional economies. Yet, they were also actively engaged in Atlantic, occasionally global, connections that brought goods and people together in mutually dependent relationships that stretched far beyond the settled areas of British America.

Article.  9252 words. 

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

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