Understanding the American Past: American History and Its Interpretation

By Edward N. Saveth | Go to book overview

Mercantilism and the American Revolution

by LAWRENCE A. HARPER

[From The Canadian Historical Review, XXIII ( March 1942), 2-15. Reprinted by permission.]

Historians disagree concerning the role of the mercantilist system in causing the American Revolution. George Bancroft's account of the relationship between mercantilism and the American Revolution was expressive of the influence of the free-trade principles toward which he was favorably inclined in the 1840's. It was Bancroft's conclusion that the Navigation Acts and the mercantilist system were exploitative of the colonies, without the latter receiving any reciprocal advantages, and that the Acts were therefore a primary cause of the American Revolution.1

Some dissent from this point of view was registered by Mellen Chamberlain in 1889. The latter, while supporting Bancroft's conclusion, nevertheless saw the colonies deriving some economic benefit from the markets guaranteed them under the operation of the mercantilist system.2 In 1907, George Louis Beer's original researches in the British Foreign Office caused him to conclude that under the mercantilist system the American colonies occupied a relatively favored economic position.3

In 1935, Louis Hacker, taking an economic view of the American Revolution as a conflict between English merchant capitalism and nascent colonial capitalism, reached a conclusion not unlike Bancroft's concerning the influence of the Navigation Acts. According to Hacker, "The blows aimed at colonial merchant capitalism through the strengthening of the Acts of Trade and Navigation,

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