Economic Change: Colonial New England

From Dependency to Independence: Economic Revolution in Colonial New England. By Margaret Ellen Newell. Cornell University Press, 1999. 329 pp + index.

Investigations into New England's economy have traditionally stressed the social consequences of economic change rather than the underlying mechanics of economic change itself. These older studies have collectively reiterated the point that not everyone possessed equal means to negotiate an emerging, increasingly complex economic world. As was the case throughout colonial British America, shades of dependency obscured the free and fair exchange of goods and services and, as land became less available, older seaboard towns subsequently experienced a bifurcation into an economic elite and a larger underclass of citizens. Dozens of social histories have documented with detailed demographic exactitude this basic economic consequence as it transpired in dozens of New England towns. Indeed, after three decades of assiduous research, these findings attained the status of conventional, if precarious, wisdom.(1)

More recently, however, several monographs have moved beyond the social historical focus to concentrate on the economy per se. Daniel Vickers' Farmers and Fishermen, for example, details the precise methods whereby Essex County settlers secured scarce labor in their ongoing effort to export cod and other goods to West Indian and Iberian markets. What Vickers did for labor, John Frederick Martin has done for land. His monograph explores the efforts of "settlement entrepreneurs" to incorporate a sprawling expanse of land into coherent, developed, and profitable townships. Other scholars, most notably Stephen Innes and Christine Heyrman, have elucidated the processes whereby colonists generated capital through ship building and export trading in increasingly vibrant maritime communities. Our understanding of New England's economy still lags behind that of colonial British America's staple producing regions, but these valuable interpretations are beginning to form a more complete picture of New England's economic development.(2)

Working squarely within this productive historiographical trend, Margaret Ellen Newell's From Dependency to Independence: Economic Revolution in Colonial New England traces the evolution of popular conceptualizations of political economy from settlement throughout the colonial era. Her approach hinges on several interpretive premises, all of them familiar to this historiographical camp. Like Innes, she accepts Max Weber's assertion that capitalism thrives as much on economic development as it does on cultural, social and ideological forces. She senses, as do McCusker and Menard, that an important connection existed between economic issues and the war for political independence. Finally, as with Christine Heyrman, she holds that New England's unique "development trajectory lay in the relationship between ideology and institutions." (p.8) Students of the colonial economy will inevitably quibble with these interpretive assumptions, but, on the whole, Newell sticks to them and effectively uses them to shape her extensive research into an accessible argument.

Applying these premises to a systematic examination of the ways in which leading inhabitants articulated and manipulated an increasingly public discourse of political economy, Newell advances a novel claim. The ongoing public debates over economic philosophy and policy, she argues, helped instill New England colonists with a cultural inclination towards economic independence. When prodded by invasive English regulations in the 1760s, this growing awareness of economic independence inspired the colonists to employ a "language of interest" which, in turn, imbued their ideals of development and prosperity with revolutionary zeal. As a result, once a conflict of interest between the metropolis and New England became overtly evident, she explains, "it was a short step for protesters to link economic concerns with constitutional and political arguments." (p.277)

Several economic factors substantiated this gradual political education, but the currency debates which raged between 1660 and 1750 played the most pivotal role in precipitating the "emergence of a more popular, partisan style of politics in New England." (p10) Accordingly, they comprise the bulk of Newell's analysis. In the past, historians have primarily focused on balance-of-trade issues and trans-Atlantic developments, and, as a result, have discussed paper money in terms of divisive rifts between inflationists and bullionists, debtors and creditors. Newell, in contrast, downplays trans-Atlantic attitudes about paper money and instead examines the issue as it played out within New England's evolving internal economy. By shifting the focus from the concerns of international merchants to the economic interests of local traders, land speculators and commercial farmers, she finds that "New Englanders attitudes were far more complex" than the common reduction to pro and anti-paper currency positions implies. Most notably, Newell's strategic contextualization of the paper currency debates within the internal economy reveals qualities that we typically associate with the rest of colonial British America, but not Puritan New England. Convincingly, she charts the rise of the pervasive support for a liberal monetary policy characterized by minimal governmental intervention, a widespread desire for a profitable internal trade, "the positive role of luxury," and the "benign effects of individuals' pursuit of economic betterment."(p.109) In the process of cultivating these economic inclinations, according to Newell, New England colonists "defined wealth and prosperity in terms closer to Adam Smith's than to those of mercantilist theorists." (238) Thus, even under the auspices of England's "benign neglect," tension with the metropolis quietly simmered over this increasingly divergent economic orientation.

In the book's final section, Newell examines the consequences of the "revolutionary transformation of economic discourse" perpetuated by the currency debates. When Parliament imposed the Revenue Acts on their American colonies between 1763 and 1765, New England pamphleteers shot back with positions honed during debates over paper money fought forty years earlier. The logic and language of "the paper legacy" provided recent historical precedent for the defense of, as Newell puts it, "commerce as a natural, complex system to which wrongheaded governmental intervention was inimical." (p. 238) Reactions to the Stamp Act and Townsend duties similarly revived and stoked "the ideological legacy of the currency debates" insofar as they stressed the need for further internal diversification and manufacturing competence. Thus, writes Newell, a "political economy of revolution provided a crucial framework through which the colonists interpreted British actions and formulated their responses after 1760." By the 1770s, she continues, "New Englanders involved in resistance had developed an economic ideology that simultaneously reinforced constitutional grievances against England and claimed that continued prosperity was compatible with--even contingent on--independence." (p.240)

To her credit, Newell carefully avoids reducing an event as multi-faceted as the American Revolution to an economic transition generated and sustained in a small (and some would say irrelevant) corner of colonial British America. Her conclusion, however, provides an unsatisfying payoff to an otherwise excellent book because she fails to explain how the economic "revolution" that she so thoroughly details interacted with concomitant social, political, and cultural changes feeding revolutionary developments throughout New England and the rest of the colonies. How, for example, do we make sense of the following assessment on the colonial relationship with England, in 1763, by Thomas Barnard, a Salem pastor intricately involved in Massachusetts' economic growth: "Here shall our indulgent Mother, who has most generously rescued and protected us, be served by growing numbers, with all Duty, Love, and Gratitude, till time shall be no more"?(3) How, in other words, do we integrate Newell's compelling argument into the larger contemporary reality that, on the eve of the Revolution, the men that she profiles were more culturally English than their ancestors had ever been? Of course, one monograph can't do it all, but a work of this stature should have at least addressed more directly prevailing contemporary themes such as Anglicization and republicanism.

----James E. McWilliams


1. John McCusker and Russell Menard summarize this literature in The Economy of British America (Chapel Hill, 1985, 1991) p. 101-103, esp. n.19.

2. Daniel Vickers, Farmers and Fishermen: Two Centuries of Work in Essex County, Massachusetts, 1630-1850 (Chapel Hill, 1994); John Frederick Martin, Profits in the Wilderness: Entrepreneurship and the Founding of New England Towns (Chapel Hill, 1991); Stephen Innes, Creating the Commonwealth: The Economic Culture of Puritan New England (New York, 1995); Christine Leigh Heyrman, Commerce and Culture: The Maritime Communities of Colonial Massachusetts, 1690-1750 (New York, 1984).

3. The quote is printed in Jack P. Greene, Understanding the American Revolution: Issues and Actors (Charlottesville and London, 1995) p. 50.