Term Paper: Economy of Colonial America

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[. . .] " Using this formula, and plugging the math into 1980 dollars, per capita income for "free" colonists in 1650 was $572; for 1720 it was $826; and for 1774 it rose to $1,043, according to McCusker's research. There was a dramatic disparity between wealth in the "Upper and Lower South" and the New England and Middle Colonies (Table 3.3, 61). To wit, the "Net Worth per Free White Person" (NWPFWP) in New England (using Pounds Sterling) in 1774 was 33.00; in the Middle Colonies in the same year it was 51.00; but in the Upper and Lower South, it was 132.00 Pounds Sterling. One reason New England lagged behind in NWPFWP (92) was that those settlers "...lacked a major staple commodity to export" to the cities, and "yet they needed to import countless things from abroad."

In summary of this portion of the paper, McCusker points to two distinct "growth spurts" (60) during the colonial period. The first "and more rapid" economic spurt occurred in each "colonial region during the time of settlement as new inhabitants established working farms." The second spurt came about during the 1740s "and lasted to the Revolution." The push behind the second spurt (60) is attributed to "...a burgeoning metropolitan demand for American products...and a widening domestic market."

Legislation promoting manufacturing; natural resources available to colonies

Economic growth may have been a logical transition after the initial wintry survival techniques were learned, and settlers learned to harvest food for sustenance, but colonial governments were not shy about pushing manufacturing. For example, in 1661, a law was passed in Virginia (Clark, 1916) "...ordering each county to establish one or more public tanneries and to provide tanners, curriers, and shoemakers" (32). When any county failed to comply, that county was obliged to pay a fine of "5,000 pounds of tobacco." Meanwhile, in 1666, another law was enacted in Virginia requiring counties to (within two years of the decree) set up a "county loom with a weaver" (32). It is interesting to examine the preamble - the rationalization - to that legislation: "The present obstruction of trade and the nakedness of the country do sufficiently evidence the necessity of providing a supply of all our wants by improving all means of raising and promoting manufactures among ourselves."

Governments gave "bounties" to counties and communities, to encourage an increase in production. An example (33) in Maryland is the law of 1671, "which granted a bounty of a pound of tobacco for every pound of hemp raised in the province"; and also, a bounty of "2 pounds of tobacco" was given in return for "every pound of flax." This law was designed to promote self-sufficiency, as there were "great quantities of linen cloth and other wares wrought by manual occupation which are brought from foreign places" (33).

As to the natural resources available to New England colonists, Clark writes (73) that timber was so plentiful in some districts that lumbering preceded agriculture. Maine and New Hampshire, in particular, produced white oak containers for "rum and molasses," and for "fish, salt meats, four and biscuit." The pitch, tar and turpentine were useful in trades, while the "abundance of wood fuel gave America facilities for making iron, glass, brick and pottery." The very first commercial enterprises in Georgia were sawmills, Clark explains (73). And white pine was the "most valuable timber" in the colonies, supplying "masts and spars for the royal navy."

Indentured Servitude as part of the colonial economy

On the subject of morality, which was alluded to earlier in the paper, one enormous part of the economy of the American colonies in the 17th Century did not reach for the moral high ground, and that was the practice of indentured servitude. According to a book called White servitude in Colonial America (Galenson, 1981), within ten years of the first settlement at Jamestown, Virginia, the indenture system was well in place. One estimate used by Galenson asserts that "...between half and two-thirds of all white immigrants" (3) to the American colonies were indentured; another estimate was that 75% (4) of white immigrants were indentured servants. In Maryland, indentured servants made up 80% of the "bound labor" in the second half of the 1670s - and servants outnumbered black slaves "by a ratio of four to one." Indeed, Galenson writes that "white servitude was the historic base upon which Negro slavery was constructed."

Basically, an indentured servant came from Europe, and to pay for his or her passage across the Atlantic, the servant signed a contract promising to work for a designated master during an agreed-upon period of time. The contract could be sold to another master, but the servant was not a "slave" - because it was only the servant's work skills that were "owned" by the master, not the person per se.

Galenson (24) presents research which indicates that during the 17th Century, women made up 23.3% of indentured servants, and that number declined to 9.8% in the 18th Century. And some of those women (particularly in the 1600s) had their indentured contracts "purchased upon arrival by men for the purpose of marriage." On page 25, Galenson records the quote of an author from 1666: "The Women that go over into this Province as Servants...are no sooner on shoar, but they are courted into a Copulative Matrimony." Another quote from the Galenson book (25) illustrates the fate of female servants: "if they come of honest stock and have good repute, they may pick and chuse their Husbands out of the better sort of people."

What were the occupations that indentured servants were assigned to? In the city of Bristol, between 1654 and 1160, "...30% of the men bound were identified as farmers and 9% as laborers" (34). And, 1% of the males were identified as "gentlemen" - suggesting that they were used in a more formal or upscale fashion, perhaps as butlers or even suitors for well-to-do unmarried women. Meantime, 19% of indentured males during that period worked at a range of skilled crafts and trades, mostly in "clothing and textile" work, followed by "metal and construction crafts" and food and drink jobs. The remaining 41% had "no identifying occupational" term given to them.

It's important also to realize that indentured servitude, as part of the colonial economy (97), was a credit system. About 2,871 "different recruiters [of servants] are listed in the servant registrations made in Bristol during 1654-86," Galenson writes. And servants were traded - exchanged - for sugar, tobacco, rice, and other products. "The colonial planter's demand for indentured servants was based on his calculation of the discounted value of their net future earnings, after deducting the expected costs of the servant to him" (98).

Did the servant always have to go along with deals made involving him or her? No; in fact, Galenson's research indicates that (99) "...many potential servants were sufficiently well informed about currently available offers that they refused to accept inferior bargains." And what if servants attempted to run away from their masters? According to Galenson (101), all colonies "enacted legislation intended to discourage" servants from escaping; while some colonies punished runaways with corporal penalties, other colonies actually instituted capital punishment. However, since a standard provision of the indentured contract was a kind of pension - paid upon completion of the contract - most servants did not attempt to escape.

Slavery in the colonial period

According to the book Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America (Berlin, 1998), the first Atlantic creoles were sold as slaves to John Rolfe at Jamestown in 1619, after they got off a Dutch man-o'-war. During the first decades of 17th Century slavery in the Chesapeake settlements, discipline was handed out "through the courts" (32), and "slaves enjoyed the benefits extended to white servants..."

However, entering the 1700s, slave owners began to presume that "they were absolute sovereigns" over their slaves and they didn't hesitate to "spur productivity" (33) by "laying on the lash." Meantime, to get an idea of how fast the slave population grew in the northern colonies (New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania), author Berlin offers a chart (369) with specific data. In 1680, there were 1,895 slaves in the above-mentioned states: in 1700, 5,206; in 1720, 14,081; in 1750, 30,172; in 1770, 47,735; in 1790, 40,420; and by 1810 the number had decreased to 27,081.

In order to understand the positive economic impact that slaves had, particularly in the south where cotton was a key agricultural product, it is germane to point out how important cotton was during that period. In fact, New England in 1678 (Clark, 1916) imported 54,409 pounds of cotton (83), and by 1768, the colonies "imported 452,463 pounds of cotton, of which they shipped 64,822 pounds to Great Britain," which left the colonies with 387,641 pounds of foreign cotton for their own use. During the Revolution (Clark, 85) "the southern colonies turned promptly to [cotton's] cultivation in anticipation… [END OF PREVIEW]

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