Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture

Leading Early American Scholarship Since 1943


William and Mary Quarterly

3d ser., 69, no. 1
January 2012

Rethinking Mercantilism:
Political Economy, the British Empire, and the Atlantic World in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries

By Steve Pincus

Mercantilism has been an important organizing concept not only for Atlantic and early American history but for the disciplines of sociology, economics, and political science as well. What do scholars mean by mercantilism? This article demonstrates that while there are a variety of definitions, most include two concepts. Most scholars argue that before the era of free trade there was a widespread consensus about economic goals. And, second, they contend that all mercantilists insist on the finite nature of the world’s wealth. Atlantic historians and early American historians have by and large maintained that because there was a mercantilist consensus in Europe the differences among empires had to do with the different endowments that the Europeans encountered on the periphery. They have also suggested that deviance from mercantilist goals must have derived from the structural weakness of early modern states. The British Empire in particular, we are told, was incapable of enforcing its mercantilist economic legislation. Against these claims, I suggest that there was a lively debate within the British Empire in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries about political economic issues. Far from accepting the finite nature of wealth, many Britons argued that property was based on human labor and that therefore there was the possibility for limitless economic growth. Because there was no mercantilist consensus about political economy, imperial policy both in Britain and the colonies was necessarily a politically contested issue. This essay contends therefore that Atlanticists and early Americanists need to reinsert accounts of party political debates over imperial political economy, both in the metropolis and in the colonies, into their accounts of Atlantic development and the origins of the American Revolution.

Forum: Rethinking Mercantilism

Cathy Matson, Christian J. Koot, Susan D. Amussen, Trevor Burnard, and Margaret Ellen Newell comment on Steve Pincus’s essay. The Forum concludes with Pincus’s reply.

The Plantation Hoe:
The Rise and Fall of an Atlantic Commodity, 1650–1850

By Chris Evans

The plantation hoe was ubiquitous in the early Atlantic world. Yet it has no history. Indeed, it appears not to need one. It was a crude, archaic tool requiring no explanation. This article argues otherwise. The records of manufacturers and planters in the Anglophone Atlantic reveal the hoe as a dynamic article; it was adapted to different plantation environments and underwent successive redesigns across the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In fact, the making of hoes relied upon product innovation, flexible manufacturing networks, and niche marketing targeted at (and responsive to) transatlantic customers—features more commonly associated with high-end consumer goods.

The hoe was indispensable in pushing forward the plantation frontier. Yet it never enjoyed prestige, and from 1750 the hoe began to be stigmatized as premodern and shameful. The reasons for this mounting ideological animosity, which affected the Chesapeake, the low country, and the Caribbean in turn, are recounted. An article of utility was recast as something abject. So successfully was this done that the hoe has never since been seen as worthy of historians’ attention, but the story of the hoe can challenge some of the assumptions that underlie current thinking about consumption in the Anglophone Atlantic.

Geopolitics and Intrigue:
James Wilkinson, the Spanish Borderlands, and Mexican Independence

By David E. Narrett

No figure in the early American Republic is more notorious than James Wilkinson for his involvement in intrigue, conspiracy, and political double-dealing in frontier environs. Knowing Wilkinson’s mercenary motives and his long period as a paid Spanish agent, historians have tended to examine his myriad tactical maneuvers without sufficiently analyzing his geopolitical strategizing. This article offers an original perspective by exploring the process by which Wilkinson shifted his attention from the Kentucky-Mississippi borderlands to Hispanic-American revolution and the emergence of an independent Mexico. Wilkinson’s aspirations hinged on his capacity to exceed his countrymen in knowledge of the corridors of power linking the United States to the Spanish borderlands and Mexico. His passageways were variously routes of communication, trade, and possible military conflict. They were also avenues of contact with Spanish or Mexican elites—those men who seemingly controlled the destinies of the frontier and the ways that land, mineral wealth, and other resources were to be developed. Wilkinson’s maneuverings maneuverings exemplify major tendencies in Anglo-American geographic, political, and cultural imperialism from the late 1780s to the 1820s. Rather than being consistently tied to U.S. nationalistic expansion, Wilkinson’s exploits had a highly personal character in which individualistic adventurism shaped public purpose.

Research Note

State Redemption of the Continental Dollar, 1779–90

By Farley Grubb

From 1775 through 1779 Congress financed the War for Independence (1775–83) largely by issuing paper money—the Continental dollar. A lot of dollars were issued and inflation ensued. In 1779 Congress discontinued emissions and shortly thereafter abandoned paper money. In 1780 Congress recommended that the states revoke the Continental dollar’s legal tender status, which the states quickly did. In 1781 Continental dollars ceased to circulate as a currency and markets for trading them soon disappeared. They were supposedly trashed and forgotten. “Not worth a Continental” became a common derogatory phrase. The history of the Continental dollar is important for understanding the financial development of the early Republic. If nothing else, that history shaped the debates and decisions at the 1787 Constitutional Convention regarding how monetary powers would be changed in the new U.S. Constitution. This essay examines yearly remittances of Continental dollars to the U.S. treasury by each state from 1779 through 1789. The states met their requirements after 1780 by significantly raising taxes and by taking Continental dollars at substantially depreciated rates. These actions helped destroy the usefulness of Continental dollars as a money.