Economic History of the United States

By Chester W. Wright | Go to book overview

CHAPTER X
THE GOVERNMENT AND ECONOMIC LIFE

Introduction. Our attention thus far has been centered upon the more purely economic activities and development of the colonies. It was pointed out at the start that an understanding of the economic life of any people involves some consideration of the interaction between the economic conditions and the political, religious, and other social conditions, partly because those other conditions exercise an influence in shaping the economic life and partly because the economic life in turn reacts upon and helps to shape the character of the other phases of social development. Of especial importance among these other phases of social life from the point of view of their influence on economic life are the political institutions, which we may summarize under the term of "the state."

In fact the state plays a part in our economic life in so many and in such direct ways that it might well be considered an economic as well as a political institution. It functions in a positive way by itself providing many of the economic goods and services that society wants as well as in what may be called a negative way through the regulation and control of innumerable lines of economic activity. Without the state, the economic life of modern society would be impossible. We have previously, as occasion arose, pointed out numerous illustrations of the interaction between the economic and the other phases of social life; in this chapter we can touch only briefly on a few of the most important of these interactions, chiefly those concerned with political institutions, for the subject is as broad and complex as all social life.

The outstanding feature in the development of the political institutions in the colonies was the relatively high degree of local autonomy and self-government that was attained. This was the result of many interacting causes--economic, political, psychological, geographic, and social. In the first place England never exercised extensive control over the colonies. The distance from England and the extremely slow and uncertain means of communication made supervision of the innumerable details of government impossible. The colonies were largely the product of private enterprise and individual initiative, only mildly encouraged rather than actively developed by the government in England; in the seventeenth century they were looked upon as unimportant outposts of the rising empire; in the following century, under the policy of "salutary

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