Economic History of the United States

By Chester W. Wright | Go to book overview

CHAPTER III
THE EUROPEAN BACKGROUND OF COLONIAL ECONOMIC HISTORY

Introduction. Some knowledge of the economic, political, and social conditions in Europe during our colonial period is essential to an understanding of various factors that vitally shaped the course of economic development in the colonies. In the first place the stage of civilization, economic and cultural, which the people of western Europe had attained at the period of the discovery and settlement of America, not only was an important factor in determining the relations of the settlers to the native red men but it largely determined the type of the social institutions and the form of the economic order which they endeavored to establish in the New World. How the new environment reacted upon these institutions and played a part in molding their later development is one of the interesting problems of our study.

It was a combination of economic, political, and religious conditions in Europe that led to the establishment of the colonies and largely determined the character of the people who migrated to America. Politically the colonies were subject to European countries so that political events in Europe reacted upon them in various ways to a greater degree than would otherwise have been the case. Since the value of the colonies in the estimate of Europe lay chiefly in the advantages to be obtained from a control of their trade and commerce, it resulted in the relations between the colonies and the mother country being especially influenced by economic considerations. In consequence of these conditions there is no other period up to the first World War when events in Europe played so important a part in the course of our economic development as they did during the colonial period and the years immediately following down to 1815.

The Civilization of Western Europe near the Close of the Middle Ages. At the period of Columbus' discovery the people of western Europe enjoyed a civilization that was many, many centuries in development ahead of that of the Indians north of Mexico. The Germanic tribes of northern Europe had advanced beyond the primitive culture of the Indians over a thousand years before; in the Near East the so-called Iron Age had been introduced at least a thousand years before Christ, though the Indians, as we have seen, were still in a Stone Age culture. Although the civilization of western Europe was later in developing than

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