Economic history of the United States
The economic history of the United States is about characteristics of and important developments in the U.S. economy from colonial times to the present. The emphasis is on economic performance and how it was affected by new technologies, especially those that
The colonial economy differed significantly from that of most other regions in that land and natural resources were abundant in America but labor was scarce.
From 1700 to 1775 the output of the thirteen colonies increased 12 fold, giving the colonies an economy about 30% the size of Britain's at the time of independence. Population growth was responsible for over three-quarters of the economic growth of the British American colonies. The free white population had the highest standard of living in the world. There was very little change in productivity and little in the way of introduction of new goods and services.
Initial colonization of North America was extremely difficult and the great majority of settlers before 1625 died in their first year. Settlers had to depend on what they could hunt and gather plus what they brought with them and on uncertain shipments of food, tools and supplies until they could build shelters and forts, clear land and grow enough food and build gristmills, sawmills, iron works and blacksmith shops to be self-supporting. They also had to defend themselves against raids from hostile Indians. After 1829 population growth was very rapid due to high birth rates (8 children per family versus 4 in Europe) and lower death rates than in Europe, and immigration. The long life expectancy of the colonists was due to the abundant supplies of food and firewood and the low population density that limited spread of infectious diseases. The death rate from diseases, especially malaria, was higher in the warm, humid southern colonies than in cold New England.
The higher birth rate was due to better employment opportunities. Many young adults in Europe delayed marriage for financial reasons. Also there were many servants in Europe who were not permitted to marry. The population of white settlers grew from an estimated 40,000 in 1650 to 235,000 in 1700. In 1690, there were an estimated 13,000 black slaves. The population grew at an annual rate of over 3% throughout the 18th century, doubling every 25 years or less. By 1775 the population had grown to 2.6 million, of which 2.1 million were white, 540,000 black and 50,000 Native American, giving the colonies about one third of the population of Britain. The three most populated colonies in 1775 were Virginia, with a 21% share, and Pennsylvania and Massachusetts with 11% each.
The colonial economy of what would become the United States was pre-industrial, primarily characterized by subsistence farming. Farm households also were engaged in handicraft production, mostly for home consumption, but with some goods sold.
The colonies depended on Britain for many finished goods, partly because laws prohibited making many types of finished goods in the colonies. These laws achieved the intended purpose of creating a trade surplus for Britain. The colonial balance trade in goods was heavily in favor of Britain; however, American shippers were able to offset roughly half of the goods trade deficit with revenues earned by shipping between ports within the British Empire.
Exports and related services accounted for about one-sixth of income in the decade before revolution. Just before the revolution, tobacco was about a quarter of the value of exports. Also at the time of the revolution the colonies produced about 15% of world iron, although the value of exported iron was small compared to grains and tobacco. The mined American iron ores at that time were not large deposits and were not all of high quality; however, the huge forests provided adequate wood for making charcoal. Wood in Britain was becoming scarce and
Settlement was sparse during the colonial period and transportation was severely limited by lack of improved roads. Towns were located on or near the coasts or navigable inland waterways. Even on improved roads, which were rare during the colonial period, wagon transport was very expensive. Economical distance for transporting low value agricultural commodities to navigable waterways varied but was limited to something on the order of less than 25 miles. In the few small cities and among the larger
By the 18th century, regional patterns of development had become clear: the
The benefits of growth were widely distributed in New England, reaching from merchants to farmers to hired laborers. The rapidly growing population led to shortages of good farm land on which young families could establish themselves; one result was to delay marriage, and another was to move to new lands farther west. In the towns and cities, there was strong entrepreneurship, and a steady increase in the specialization of labor. Wages for men went up steadily before 1775; new occupations were opening for women, including weaving, teaching, and tailoring. The region bordered New France, and in the numerous wars the British poured money in to purchase supplies, build roads and pay colonial soldiers. The coastal ports began to specialize in fishing, international trade and shipbuilding—and after 1780 in whaling. Combined with growing urban markets for farm products, these factors allowed the economy to flourish despite the lack of technological innovation.
The Connecticut economy began with subsistence farming in the 17th century, and developed with greater diversity and an increased focus on production for distant markets, especially the British colonies in the Caribbean. The American Revolution cut off imports from Britain, and stimulated a manufacturing sector that made heavy use of the entrepreneurship and mechanical skills of the people. In the second half of the 18th century, difficulties arose from the shortage of good farmland, periodic money problems, and downward price pressures in the export market. In agriculture there was a shift from grain to animal products. The colonial government from time to time attempted to promote various commodities such as hemp, potash, and lumber as export items to bolster its economy and improve its balance of trade with Great Britain.
There were few cities in the entire South, and Charleston (Charles Town) and New Orleans were the most important before the Civil War. The colony of South Carolina was settled mainly by
On the eve of the Revolution, 95 percent of the American population lived outside the cities—much to the frustration of the British, who were able to capture the cities with their Royal Navy, but lacked the manpower to occupy and subdue the countryside. In explaining the importance of the cities in shaping the American Revolution, Benjamin Carp compares the important role of waterfront workers, taverns, churches, kinship networks, and local politics. Historian
The colonial economies of the world operated under the economic philosophy of
Spain clung to old style mercantilism, primarily concerned with enriching the Spanish government by accumulating gold and silver. The Dutch and particularly the British approach was more conducive to private business.
A mercantile policy that affected the British American colonies was the
Important features of the Navigation Acts are:
Although the Navigation Acts were enforced, they had a negligible effect on commerce and profitability of trade.
On the eve of independence Britain was in the early stage of the
The domestic economy of the British American colonies enjoyed a great deal of freedom, although some of their freedom was due to lack of enforcement of British regulations on commerce and industry.
Some colonies, such as Virginia, were founded principally as business ventures. England's success at colonizing what would become the United States was due in large part to its use of
The colonial governments had few expenses and taxes were minimal.
Although the colonies provided an export market for finished goods made in Britain or sourced by British merchants and shipped from Britain, the British incurred the expenses of providing protection against piracy by the British Navy and other military expenses. An early tax was the
In the 1760s the London government raised small sums by new taxes on the colonies. This occasioned an enormous uproar, from which historians date the origins of the American Revolution. The issue was not the amount of the taxes—they were quite small—but rather the constitutional authority of Parliament versus the colonial assemblies to vote taxes. New taxes included the
Americans in the Thirteen Colonies demanded their
Britain's war against the Americans, French and Spanish cost about £100 million. The Treasury borrowed 40% of the money it needed and raised the rest through an efficient system of taxation. Heavy spending brought France to the
Congress and the American states had no end of difficulty financing the war. In 1775 there was at most 12 million dollars in gold in the colonies, not nearly enough to cover existing transactions, let alone on a major war. The British made the situation much worse by imposing a tight blockade on every American port, which cut off almost all imports and exports. One partial solution was to rely on volunteer support from militiamen, and donations from patriotic citizens. Another was to delay actual payments, pay soldiers and suppliers in depreciated currency, and promise it would be made good after the war. Indeed, in 1783 the soldiers and officers were given land grants to cover the wages they had earned but had not been paid during the war. Not until 1781, when
Congress used four main methods to cover the cost of the war, which cost about 66 million dollars in specie (gold and silver). Congress made two issues of paper money, in 1775–1780, and in 1780–81. The first issue amounted to 242 million dollars. This paper money would supposedly be redeemed for state taxes, but the holders were eventually paid off in 1791 at the rate of one cent on the dollar. By 1780, the paper money was "not worth a Continental", as people said, and a second issue of new currency was attempted. The second issue quickly became nearly worthless—but it was redeemed by the new federal government in 1791 at 100 cents on the dollar. At the same time the states, especially Virginia and the Carolinas, issued over 200 million dollars of their own currency. In effect, the paper money was a hidden tax on the people, and indeed was the only method of taxation that was possible at the time. The skyrocketing inflation was a hardship on the few people who had fixed incomes—but 90 percent of the people were farmers, and were not directly affected by that inflation. Debtors benefited by paying off their debts with depreciated paper. The greatest burden was borne by the soldiers of the Continental Army, whose wages—usually in arrears—declined in value every month, weakening their morale and adding to the hardships suffered by their families.
Starting in 1776, the Congress sought to raise money by loans from wealthy individuals, promising to redeem the bonds after the war. The bonds were in fact redeemed in 1791 at face value, but the scheme raised little money because Americans had little specie, and many of the rich merchants were supporters of the Crown. Starting in 1776, the French secretly supplied the Americans with money, gunpowder and munitions in order to weaken its arch enemy, Great Britain. When France officially entered the war in 1778, the subsidies continued, and the French government, as well as bankers in Paris and Amsterdam loaned large sums to the American war effort. These loans were repaid in full in the 1790s.
Beginning in 1777, Congress repeatedly asked the states to provide money. But the states had no system of taxation either, and were little help. By 1780 Congress was making requisitions for specific supplies of corn, beef, pork and other necessities—an inefficient system that kept the army barely alive.
The cities played a major role in fomenting the American Revolution, but they were hard hit during the war itself, 1775-83. They lost their main role as oceanic ports, because of the blockade by the British Navy. Furthermore, the British occupied the cities, especially New York 1776-83, and the others for briefer periods. During the occupations they were cut off from their hinterland trade and from overland communication. When the British finally departed in 1783, they took out large numbers of wealthy merchants who resumed their business activities elsewhere in the British Empire.