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History of the United States by Charles A. Beard and Mary R. Beard

«·The Land and the Westward Movement · CHAPTER II·»

Industrial and Commercial Development

Though the labor of the colonists was mainly spent in farming, there was a steady growth in industrial and commercial pursuits. Most of the staple industries of to-day, not omitting iron and textiles, have their beginnings in colonial times. Manufacturing and trade soon gave rise to towns which enjoyed an importance all out of proportion to their numbers. The great centers of commerce and finance on the seaboard originated in the days when the king of England was “lord of these dominions.”

Domestic Industry: Dipping Tallow Candles
Domestic Industry: Dipping Tallow Candles

Textile Manufacture as a Domestic Industry.—Colonial women, in addition to sharing every hardship of pioneering, often the heavy labor of the open field, developed in the course of time a national industry which was almost exclusively their own. Wool and flax were raised in abundance in the North and South. “Every farm house,” says Coman, the economic historian, “was a workshop where the women spun and wove the serges, kerseys, and linsey-woolseys which served for the common wear.” By the close of the seventeenth century, New England manufactured cloth in sufficient quantities to export it to the Southern colonies and to the West Indies. As the industry developed, mills were erected for the more difficult process of dyeing, weaving, and fulling, but carding and spinning continued to be done in the home. The Dutch of New Netherland, the Swedes of Delaware, and the Scotch-Irish of the interior “were not one whit behind their Yankee neighbors.”

The importance of this enterprise to British economic life can hardly be overestimated. For many a century the English had employed their fine woolen cloth as the chief staple in a lucrative foreign trade, and the government had come to look upon it as an object of special interest and protection. When the colonies were established, both merchants and statesmen naturally expected to maintain a monopoly of increasing value; but before long the Americans, instead of buying cloth, especially of the coarser varieties, were making it to sell. In the place of customers, here were rivals. In the place of helpless reliance upon English markets, here was the germ of economic independence.

If British merchants had not discovered it in the ordinary course of trade, observant officers in the provinces would have conveyed the news to them. Even in the early years of the eighteenth century the royal governor of New York wrote of the industrious Americans to his home government: “The consequence will be that if they can clothe themselves once, not only comfortably, but handsomely too, without the help of England, they who already are not very fond of submitting to government will soon think of putting in execution designs they have long harboured in their breasts. This will not seem strange when you consider what sort of people this country is inhabited by.”

The Iron Industry.—Almost equally widespread was the art of iron working—one of the earliest and most picturesque of colonial industries. Lynn, Massachusetts, had a forge and skilled artisans within fifteen years after the founding of Boston. The smelting of iron began at New London and New Haven about 1658; in Litchfield county, Connecticut, a few years later; at Great Barrington, Massachusetts, in 1731; and near by at Lenox some thirty years after that. New Jersey had iron works at Shrewsbury within ten years after the founding of the colony in 1665. Iron forges appeared in the valleys of the Delaware and the Susquehanna early in the following century, and iron masters then laid the foundations of fortunes in a region destined to become one of the great iron centers of the world. Virginia began iron working in the year that saw the introduction of slavery. Although the industry soon lapsed, it was renewed and flourished in the eighteenth century. Governor Spotswood was called the “Tubal Cain” of the Old Dominion because he placed the industry on a firm foundation. Indeed it seems that every colony, except Georgia, had its iron foundry. Nails, wire, metallic ware, chains, anchors, bar and pig iron were made in large quantities; and Great Britain, by an act in 1750, encouraged the colonists to export rough iron to the British Islands.

Shipbuilding.—Of all the specialized industries in the colonies, shipbuilding was the most important. The abundance of fir for masts, oak for timbers and boards, pitch for tar and turpentine, and hemp for rope made the way of the shipbuilder easy. Early in the seventeenth century a ship was built at New Amsterdam, and by the middle of that century shipyards were scattered along the New England coast at Newburyport, Salem, New Bedford, Newport, Providence, New London, and New Haven. Yards at Albany and Poughkeepsie in New York built ships for the trade of that colony with England and the Indies. Wilmington and Philadelphia soon entered the race and outdistanced New York, though unable to equal the pace set by New England. While Maryland, Virginia, and South Carolina also built ships, Southern interest was mainly confined to the lucrative business of producing ship materials: fir, cedar, hemp, and tar.

Fishing.—The greatest single economic resource of New England outside of agriculture was the fisheries. This industry, started by hardy sailors from Europe, long before the landing of the Pilgrims, flourished under the indomitable seamanship of the Puritans, who labored with the net and the harpoon in almost every quarter of the Atlantic. “Look,” exclaimed Edmund Burke, in the House of Commons, “at the manner in which the people of New England have of late carried on the whale fishery. Whilst we follow them among the tumbling mountains of ice and behold them penetrating into the deepest frozen recesses of Hudson’s Bay and Davis’s Straits, while we are looking for them beneath the arctic circle, we hear that they have pierced into the opposite region of polar cold, that they are at the antipodes and engaged under the frozen serpent of the south.... Nor is the equinoctial heat more discouraging to them than the accumulated winter of both poles. We know that, whilst some of them draw the line and strike the harpoon on the coast of Africa, others run the longitude and pursue their gigantic game along the coast of Brazil. No sea but what is vexed by their fisheries. No climate that is not witness to their toils. Neither the perseverance of Holland nor the activity of France nor the dexterous and firm sagacity of English enterprise ever carried this most perilous mode of hard industry to the extent to which it has been pushed by this recent people.”

The influence of the business was widespread. A large and lucrative European trade was built upon it. The better quality of the fish caught for food was sold in the markets of Spain, Portugal, and Italy, or exchanged for salt, lemons, and raisins for the American market. The lower grades of fish were carried to the West Indies for slave consumption, and in part traded for sugar and molasses, which furnished the raw materials for the thriving rum industry of New England. These activities, in turn, stimulated shipbuilding, steadily enlarging the demand for fishing and merchant craft of every kind and thus keeping the shipwrights, calkers, rope makers, and other artisans of the seaport towns rushed with work. They also increased trade with the mother country for, out of the cash collected in the fish markets of Europe and the West Indies, the colonists paid for English manufactures. So an ever-widening circle of American enterprise centered around this single industry, the nursery of seamanship and the maritime spirit.

Oceanic Commerce and American Merchants.—All through the eighteenth century, the commerce of the American colonies spread in every direction until it rivaled in the number of people employed, the capital engaged, and the profits gleaned, the commerce of European nations. A modern historian has said: “The enterprising merchants of New England developed a network of trade routes that covered well-nigh half the world.” This commerce, destined to be of such significance in the conflict with the mother country, presented, broadly speaking, two aspects.

On the one side, it involved the export of raw materials and agricultural produce. The Southern colonies produced for shipping, tobacco, rice, tar, pitch, and pine; the Middle colonies, grain, flour, furs, lumber, and salt pork; New England, fish, flour, rum, furs, shoes, and small articles of manufacture. The variety of products was in fact astounding. A sarcastic writer, while sneering at the idea of an American union, once remarked of colonial trade: “What sort of dish will you make? New England will throw in fish and onions. The middle states, flax-seed and flour. Maryland and Virginia will add tobacco. North Carolina, pitch, tar, and turpentine. South Carolina, rice and indigo, and Georgia will sprinkle the whole composition with sawdust. Such an absurd jumble will you make if you attempt to form a union among such discordant materials as the thirteen British provinces.”

On the other side, American commerce involved the import trade, consisting principally of English and continental manufactures, tea, and “India goods.” Sugar and molasses, brought from the West Indies, supplied the flourishing distilleries of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. The carriage of slaves from Africa to the Southern colonies engaged hundreds of New England’s sailors and thousands of pounds of her capital.

The disposition of imported goods in the colonies, though in part controlled by English factors located in America, employed also a large and important body of American merchants like the Willings and Morrises of Philadelphia; the Amorys, Hancocks, and Faneuils of Boston; and the Livingstons and Lows of New York. In their zeal and enterprise, they were worthy rivals of their English competitors, so celebrated for world-wide commercial operations. Though fully aware of the advantages they enjoyed in British markets and under the protection of the British navy, the American merchants were high-spirited and mettlesome, ready to contend with royal officers in order to shield American interests against outside interference.

The Dutch West India Warehouse in New Amsterdam (New York City)
The Dutch West India Warehouse in New Amsterdam (New York City)

Measured against the immense business of modern times, colonial commerce seems perhaps trivial. That, however, is not the test of its significance. It must be considered in relation to the growth of English colonial trade in its entirety—a relation which can be shown by a few startling figures. The whole export trade of England, including that to the colonies, was, in 1704, £6,509,000. On the eve of the American Revolution, namely, in 1772, English exports to the American colonies alone amounted to £6,024,000; in other words, almost as much as the whole foreign business of England two generations before. At the first date, colonial trade was but one-twelfth of the English export business; at the second date, it was considerably more than one-third. In 1704, Pennsylvania bought in English markets goods to the value of £11,459; in 1772 the purchases of the same colony amounted to £507,909. In short, Pennsylvania imports increased fifty times within sixty-eight years, amounting in 1772 to almost the entire export trade of England to the colonies at the opening of the century. The American colonies were indeed a great source of wealth to English merchants.

Intercolonial Commerce.—Although the bad roads of colonial times made overland transportation difficult and costly, the many rivers and harbors along the coast favored a lively water-borne trade among the colonies. The Connecticut, Hudson, Delaware, and Susquehanna rivers in the North and the many smaller rivers in the South made it possible for goods to be brought from, and carried to, the interior regions in little sailing vessels with comparative ease. Sloops laden with manufactures, domestic and foreign, collected at some city like Providence, New York, or Philadelphia, skirted the coasts, visited small ports, and sailed up the navigable rivers to trade with local merchants who had for exchange the raw materials which they had gathered in from neighboring farms. Larger ships carried the grain, live stock, cloth, and hardware of New England to the Southern colonies, where they were traded for tobacco, leather, tar, and ship timber. From the harbors along the Connecticut shores there were frequent sailings down through Long Island Sound to Maryland, Virginia, and the distant Carolinas.

Growth of Towns.—In connection with this thriving trade and industry there grew up along the coast a number of prosperous commercial centers which were soon reckoned among the first commercial towns of the whole British empire, comparing favorably in numbers and wealth with such ports as Liverpool and Bristol. The statistical records of that time are mainly guesses; but we know that Philadelphia stood first in size among these towns. Serving as the port of entry for Pennsylvania, Delaware, and western Jersey, it had drawn within its borders, just before the Revolution, about 25,000 inhabitants. Boston was second in rank, with somewhat more than 20,000 people. New York, the “commercial capital of Connecticut and old East Jersey,” was slightly smaller than Boston, but growing at a steady rate. The fourth town in size was Charleston, South Carolina, with about 10,000 inhabitants. Newport in Rhode Island, a center of rum manufacture and shipping, stood fifth, with a population of about 7000. Baltimore and Norfolk were counted as “considerable towns.” In the interior, Hartford in Connecticut, Lancaster and York in Pennsylvania, and Albany in New York, with growing populations and increasing trade, gave prophecy of an urban America away from the seaboard. The other towns were straggling villages. Williamsburg, Virginia, for example, had about two hundred houses, in which dwelt a dozen families of the gentry and a few score of tradesmen. Inland county seats often consisted of nothing more than a log courthouse, a prison, and one wretched inn to house judges, lawyers, and litigants during the sessions of the court.

The leading towns exercised an influence on colonial opinion all out of proportion to their population. They were the centers of wealth, for one thing; of the press and political activity, for another. Merchants and artisans could readily take concerted action on public questions arising from their commercial operations. The towns were also centers for news, gossip, religious controversy, and political discussion. In the market places the farmers from the countryside learned of British policies and laws, and so, mingling with the townsmen, were drawn into the main currents of opinion which set in toward colonial nationalism and independence.


J. Bishop, History of American Manufactures (2 vols.).

E.L. Bogart, Economic History of the United States.

P.A. Bruce, Economic History of Virginia (2 vols.).

E. Semple, American History and Its Geographical Conditions.

W. Weeden, Economic and Social History of New England. (2 vols.).


1. Is land in your community parceled out into small farms? Contrast the system in your community with the feudal system of land tenure.

2. Are any things owned and used in common in your community? Why did common tillage fail in colonial times?

3. Describe the elements akin to feudalism which were introduced in the colonies.

4. Explain the success of freehold tillage.

5. Compare the life of the planter with that of the farmer.

6. How far had the western frontier advanced by 1776?

7. What colonial industry was mainly developed by women? Why was it very important both to the Americans and to the English?

8. What were the centers for iron working? Ship building?

9. Explain how the fisheries affected many branches of trade and industry.

10. Show how American trade formed a vital part of English business.

11. How was interstate commerce mainly carried on?

12. What were the leading towns? Did they compare in importance with British towns of the same period?

Research Topics

Land Tenure.—Coman, Industrial History (rev. ed.), pp. 32-38. Special reference: Bruce, Economic History of Virginia, Vol. I, Chap. VIII.

Tobacco Planting in Virginia.—Callender, Economic History of the United States, pp. 22-28.

Colonial Agriculture.—Coman, pp. 48-63. Callender, pp. 69-74. Reference: J.R.H. Moore, Industrial History of the American People, pp. 131-162.

Colonial Manufactures.—Coman, pp. 63-73. Callender, pp. 29-44. Special reference: Weeden, Economic and Social History of New England.

Colonial Commerce.—Coman, pp. 73-85. Callender, pp. 51-63, 78-84. Moore, pp. 163-208. Lodge, Short History of the English Colonies, pp. 409-412, 229-231, 312-314.

«·The Land and the Westward Movement · CHAPTER II·»