Causes of the Revolutionary War – Economic

Because records are limited for early Lenox, we probably will not be able to draw conclusions about why Lenox in particular took up the cause of independence from Great Britain.  However, we can look at the issues that energized the colonies as a whole and guess which would have been most relevant to Lenox residents in the period leading up to 1775.

Getting Harder and Harder to Meet Basic Household Needs

It’s doubtful that the few hundred Lenox residents would have articulated economic policy as a rationale for war, but it is very likely they were feeling the effects of Great Britain’s increasingly heavy-handed attempts to make the colonies profitable for the mother country.

They struggled to acquire enough cash to pay taxes, pay debts, and buy English goods. They probably were acutely aware of growing pocketbook pain, and they knew it somehow was connected with the control distant lords of commerce seemed to be exerting over their daily economic lives.

Particularly after the French and Indian Wars, it was getting harder to satisfy household needs  in the Berkshires.  it is estimated it took 50 acres to support a family and the land available was increasingly marginal (particularly in Lenox!).  It has also been etimated that it took an acre of trees a year to heat a household.  In early days, that probably would have been hard work but doable in Lenox, but families would have had to go further and further to find wood and eventually would have to resort to the purchase of wood or coal.  To the degree Lenox farmers could raise livestock or cut wood to sell for the hard currency needed they would have to face the additional challenge of getting to their goods to relatively inaccessible cash markets (Springfield? Albany?).

Why the English Did What They Did

In these early days of international trade the English came to excel at the practice of mercantilism. This meant protecting domestic industry and agriculture by charging duties on goods manufactured by any other country – making everyone else’s goods more expensive. If, like Great Britain, you have colonies even better – you can pay them a low price for raw materials and force them to buy your higher priced goods.

This was accomplished by requiring  that all goods from the colonies be shipped to or through England – effectively eliminating the opportunity to shop internationally for the highest bidder. Also, if you’re England, you can choose to require the use of money backed by gold and silver to pay for land, repay debts and buy manufactured goods. If you’re the colony, you have to get that “hard” English currency by trading with other English colonies (including the West Indies) or hoarding what little hard currency you have by making as many exchanges as possible by using commodities.  The clever colonists figured out how to acquire much needed hard currency by transporting slaves to the West Indies and the North American colonies, converting West Indian sugar to run and selling the rum and  other raw materials to Great Britain or the English Carribean colonies.  (More on this when we discuss the growth of slavery in the northern colonies.) They also started building their own ships.

2008 December WFA
Turning Raw Materials and Slaves into Hard Currency for Import Commodities and Manufactured Goods

The earliest attempt at colonial economic management was with the Navigation Acts of 1651 which required all goods that entered England be carried on English or Colonial ships.  In 1660 further acts specified certain goods that colonies could only ship to England.  In 1675 The Lords of Trade were established in an early attempt to enforce these laws.  In the 17th century the royal succession was still pre-occupying Great Britain and the colonists were able to largely ignore any trade limitations that didn’t serve their purposes.

The Colonists’ Needs

However, over the course of the 18th century, colonial demand for goods imported from England or the southern colonies such as tea and sugar as well as manufactured items — particularly books, cloth, china, and fine metal goods picked up.   Increased enforcement of trade laws and increased colonial demand doomed the colonies to constantly racing to keep up. And it left the colonies with few alternatives when demand for their trade goods and services cycled up and then down. The French and Indian wars – particularly the last – interrupted trade and inflated prices as demand spiked to feed, cloth, and house the military; and when the war ended the colonists suddenly had less demand for their goods.

Boston Harbor at Sunset
Boston Harbor at Sunset

And to add insult to injury, everything the English did after the French and Indian War worsened the economic bite.  The peace settlement included outlawing settlement west of the Appalachians – cutting off expansion to the fertile Ohio River Valley.   They (Currency Acts) cut out the colonies’ attempt to make up for the lack of currency by minting their own. And the English raised taxes on their North American colonies to try to cover the cost of the war and the continued policing of western boundaries; hence the Sugar Acts, the Stamp Act, and the Townshend Acts (see Non Importation Agreement.)

For further information see:

Revolutionary War Timeline, History.org

The American People, Creating a Nation and a Society Volume One, Third Edition, Nash, Jeffrey, Howe, Frederick, Davis, Winkler, Harper Collins

The Marketplace of Revolution, How Consumer Politics Shaped the American Independence, T.H. Breen, Oxford University Press, 2004

The New England Merchants in the Seventeenth Century, Bernard Bailyn

The Glorious Cause, The American Revolution 1763-1789, Robert Middlekauff, Oxford University Press, 1982

An Economic History of the United States from 1607 to the Present, Ronald E. Seavoy, Taylor and Francis Group 2006

 

Seavoy, Ronald (2013-10-18). An Economic History of the United States: From 1607 to the Present (p. 65). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.

 

 

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