The Growth of the American Economy: An Introduction to the Economic History of the United States

By Robert G. Albion; Harold F. Williamson | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 4
Colonial Commerce and Commercial Regulation

IN THE OLD DAYS, it was the customs ledger, rather than the map, that determined the desirability of a colony. The time was far distant when whole deserts or vast stretches of wilderness would be annexed simply to bolster national pride by map-coloring. The choicest colonial possessions were often mere dots upon the map; but as long as they furnished their mother country with exotic goods that she could not produce at home and in turn consumed her exports, they were bones of contention in war and rich sources of profit in peace. For that reason England, at the close of her second naval war with Holland in 1667, almost took a tiny spice island instead of New York and New Jersey. That was also why, a century later, after the Seven Years' War with France, she debated long over the relative value of the little sugar island of Guadeloupe as compared with the whole of Canada.

The potential offerings of America were one of England's chief reasons for planting colonies across the Atlantic. Although these might not match the rich spice trade that the Portuguese had found in the East or the silver flood that poured into Spain from her mines in Mexico and Peru, her hopes ran high of obtaining other non-European products to render herself commercially independent of her rivals and to give her a surplus for sale abroad, to the enrichment of the nation. The glowing prospectuses of Virginia contained long lists of such economic dreams, while even the Puritans who came to more northern homes "for the good of their souls" anticipated profits from the sale of their Colonial products.


Dutch Commerce and Empire

During the half-century from 1600 to 1650, when England was establishing the foundations of her American empire, she was thoroughly overshadowed on the seas by Holland, a nation in her heydey as a maritime power. Those years of Dutch ascendancy must be taken into account, for in several ways they influenced deeply the growth of England's colonization. Holland and England had fought together to break Spain's monopoly of overseas activity; but once the Armada was shattered, Holland got off to a much quicker start. Not only did she crowd the English out of the spice islands, but all over the known world the Dutch were soon trading all things with all people. On the whole,

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