First, I would ask myself how did our ancestors build
America from an agricultural colony on the edge of civilization into the number
one manufacturing and commercial nation the world had ever known.
Why reinvent the wheel if round ones still roll?
The early American colonies of the British were founded
based upon the economic ideas of Mercantilism. Governmental regulation of industries, trade,
and commerce characterized Mercantilism as every aspect of the economy was
utilized for national policy. This was especially true with foreign trade,
which was determined more by national aims rather than individual or local
The definition of wealth began to change in the sixteenth
century. During the Middle Ages, wealth was defined by the
amount of productive land a nation possessed.
As transportation, especially by sea, improved so did the ability to
conduct foreign trade bringing with it an increase in the amount of cash generated
by that trade. The definition of wealth
came to be the amount of cash a nation possessed. Therefore every nation sought to have a
favorable balance of trade. They also
sought to develop monopolistic type environments wherein they provided their
own raw materials thus avoiding imports which meant money flowing out and
fostering the export of finished goods raising the level of money flowing
in. Defining wealth as the accumulation
of cash, the nations of Europe desired to
conduct foreign trade on a larger scale, and they began looking for foreign
sources of gold, silver, and raw materials.
This brings us to the British effort to developNorth Americaas a source of wealth.
colonies of Virginia and Maryland
were the first successful British colonies in what was to become the United States of America. Though the initial colonists came looking for
gold they soon learned that prosperity came not from a shovel but instead from
a plow. It was tobacco that primed the
pump and lifted the colonies from a burden to a benefit for the mother
country. After years of mounting
expenses for the British and years of starvation for the colonists the
cultivation of tobacco brought prosperity.
Virginia’s production of tobacco grew
from 200,000 pounds in 1624 to 3,000,000 pounds in 1638 overtaking the West
Indies as the number one supplier of tobacco for all of Europe thus boosting Britain’s
balance of trade.
The cultivation of tobacco fostered a plantation system
based upon indentured and slave labor. A
gentrified class of great planters sought to replicate the social structure of
Britain with a small number of very rich ruling a large number of small land
holders who prospered to a certain extent but never enough to challenge the
status quo. The wretched poor of Britain who had come to the Chesapeake colonies to find a better life did
find more opportunity and the ability to advance from the landless poor to the
ranks of yeoman farmer. However, there
was little opportunity to enter the ranks for the gentry which became a type of
New England, because of the
soil, the climate, and the fact that there was no major cash crop that grew
well in the area, did not lend itself to large plantations. Most farmers were operating at a subsistence
level. If they did generate a surplus it
was in crops that were not easily transported across the ocean, and they were
also crops that could be grown in England and were not needed as
This climatic and environmental adversity did not condemn
New England to being a poor relation to the Chesapeake nobility. Instead the New English diversified,
innovated, and used individual enterprise to not only match but to surpass
Chesapeake and every other colony in the British Empire. Those who settled New England were Puritans who sought to
purify the Anglican religion of ceremony and return it to what they saw as the
simplicity of early Christianity. They
did not believe that good works brought salvation but they did believe that
salvation brought good works. Therefore
they sought to occupy their time with productive activity to glorify God
through their labors. This was a
manifestation of what the sociologist Max Weber later called ,
“The Protestant work ethic.” Whatever
you choose to call it, it was this drive to succeed no matter what the
adversity that led the New English to look beyond the soil, beyond the climate
and to the opportunity.
First they exploited the fisheries of the Northeast. In 1641 the New English caught 600,000 pounds
of fish much of which was exported to Britain. By 1645 they were catching more than
6,000,000 pounds per year employing more than a thousand men on 440 ships. They came to dominate the fish trade shipping
not only to Britain and its
empire but also toSpain,Portugal, the Azores, Madeira, and theCanary Islands.
By the end of the 1600s the merchants of the New English
coast began to circle the globe trading the fish, surplus crops, and lumber of
their area to all parts of the British Empire. They became such shrewd traders that soon
American ships were carrying trade from one colony to another even when the
cargo didn’t originate in New England. This secondary carrying trade generated a
growing profit that in turn rebounded in a number of ways. The increased profits brought home financed
increased industry and growth at home, and it also spawned a shipbuilding
industry which exploited the vast resources of the northern forests.
Between 1674 and 1714 the New English built more than 1200
ships, totaling more than 75,000 tons.
By 1700 there were fifteen shipyards in Boston which produced more ships than all the
rest of the British colonies combined.
had more shipyards. This was a
significant engine of economic growth.
To build one 150 ton merchant ship required as many as 200 workers,
mostly skilled craftsmen. The shipyards
also supported the growth of numerous enterprises to supply their needs such as
saw mills, smithies, barrel makers, sail makers, iron foundries, and rope
makers. In addition, the farmers of New England benefited by feeding the
craftsmen, supplying the ships, and providing the timber.
By 1700 Bostonwas the third
city of the Empire behind only London and Bristol and the New
English shippers were earning freight charges for carrying produce and material
that was neither produced, shipped to, or shipped from their home colony. The enrichment of the area spread prosperity
far beyond the sphere of shippers, sailors, and their sundry suppliers. According to Boston’s
shipping register for 1697-1714 over 25% of the adult males in Boston owned shares in at
least one ship.
All of these linkages produced an economy filled with
diversification and development as opposed to the stratified monoculture of the
These trends continued as time went on leading to the
industrial North eventually overwhelming the agricultural South. The expansion and growth of America was based upon a foundation
of hard work and innovation born of adversity.
Finding themselves in a hard place Americans found a way to prosper and
grow like a young plant reaching for the sun.
Freed from the rigid restraints of the home country and then guaranteed
freedom by the constitution and the limited government it provided America
surged to the front ranks of nations.
Today, America labors under self-imposed adversity. We are in the grip of an oppressive
Progressive Movement that after 100 years of incremental advance is poised to transform America from
what she has always been into what they want her to be. America has traditionally been a
constitutionally limited Republic operating on democratic principles providing
individual liberty and economic opportunity.
The Progressives envision America as a centrally-planned highly
regimented social democracy
where the wealth is
spread around from each
according to their abilities to each according to their needs .
If I wanted to make Americaprosperous again I would
take off the self-imposed shackles of a central government on steroids, stop
imposing new regulations, and reduce taxes everywhere on everyone. Then I would stand back and watch our economy
takes off like a rocket and we take our place beside our ancestors as free
people with economic liberty and a will to succeed.
Dr. Owens teaches History, Political Science, and Religion
for Southside Virginia Community College. He is the Historian of the Future and the
author of the History of the Future @ http://drrobertowens.com
© 2012 Robert R. Owens [email protected] Follow Dr.
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