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Thursday, December 16, 2004

An Empire Under Strain: Britain's Wars for Empire and Her American Economic Policies

Written August 23, 2004.
Prompt: To what extent is the following statement true?
Britain's wars for empire, more than her mercantilist policies, were responsible for the attitudes and conditions that created the American Revolution.

By the mid-18th-century, a shifting had occurred in Britain’s imperialist design. Strategic trade was no longer its sole purpose, and American and British officials were now supporting gaining land for land’s sake. This was Britain’s motivating mindset during the French and Indian War, and at its conclusion, Britain owned nearly a third of the North American continent, all land east of the Mississippi River (save New Orleans) having been ceded by the French in the Treaty of Paris of 1763. But after nearly a decade of operations, Britain had also gained a staggering war debt. This led to the sharply increased taxation and stronger enforcement of the mercantilist trade policies in Britain’s colonies. The war would have far reaching implications for America. Ultimately, it was Britain’s wars for empire that dictated the economic fortunes of her American colonies, more than her mercantilist policies.

Mercantilism, the political economic system based on national accumulation of wealth through a favorable balance of trade, was the prevalent system in Europe after the decline of feudalism. Rather than import materials from other nations, Spain, Portugal, England, and the other powers of the European world began establishing colonies as a means of producing resources and markets for the nation’s products. America was one such colony of England, and, consequently, mercantilist trade restrictions had always applied to the American colonists. Mainly, Americans were permitted to trade only with other British companies and ships, in order to keep as much wealth as possible within England.

Although these policies were in place throughout the history of colonial America, they were not always enforced. During most of the eighteenth century, Britain did not even have the means to. The bureaucracy in London was so large and inefficient that no department really had much control over colonial affairs. In America, what would later be regarded as smuggling was practiced openly and as the norm. Furthermore, there was little accountability among the royal duty collectors, who often collected bribes rather than duties. Although each royal colony had a governor appointed by the king, the colonies had each established strong, independent representative governments and were largely left to their own devices.

After the French and Indian War, however, the British sentiment quickly changed. The government had huge war debts to pay, and the wealthy English aristocracy was not keen on having them passed on to them. A new king, George III had ascended the throne in 1760, and in 1763 he appointed George Grenville prime minister, a man convinced that America owed much of that debt. Moreover, after nine years of warfare on the continent, Britain now had a well established military force in the colonies very capable of enforcing British trade policies. Navy ships began patrolling American ports and waterways searching for smuggling, and industry was heavily regulated so as to not compete with the expanding industry of Great Britain. Britain raised the duties on household goods such as sugar and tea, and imposed revenue generating taxes such as the Stamp Act of 1765, which required a tax to be paid on most printed documents. England was soon collecting yearly from the American colonies more than ten times what it had before 1763.

New taxes and trade regulations continued to be passed and imposed upon the colonies, and by 1765 a few radical Americans were already discussing revolution and independence. For the first time in their histories, the separate colonies began the process of unification to oppose what they considered British tyranny. Although directly it was Britain’s mercantilist policies that dictated America’s economic fortunes, it was ultimately the cost of her wars for empire that required the strict enforcement of those policies. Had Britain not amassed such debts, the requirement for fast profit from the colonies would not have been nearly as urgent, and many of the profit generating mercantile laws would not have been imposed. The war debts dictated a quick source of revenue, and because of its role in the mercantilist system, America was an expedient source of the needed revenue. Had England not been involved in the French and Indian War, British officials would not have a reason nor means of imposing the taxes and regulations.


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