Money, Mercantilism and Empire in the Early English Atlantic, 1607-1697

Jonathan Barth

Advisor: Cynthia A. Kierner, PhD, Department of History and Art History

Committee Members: Rosemarie Zagarri, Michael O'Malley, Christian Koot

Johnson Center, F
April 29, 2014, 09:30 AM to 08:30 AM


Money was one of the most contested issues between England and its American colonies in the seventeenth century:  the common denominator impelling each side of a great transatlantic drama. The currency-rooted conflict was a principal offshoot of mercantilism, the most foundational theory of empire in the early modern period. Money dictated the rules of the imperial game, and money, too, inspired colonial efforts to combat the same.

Mercantilism was a theory of economic nationalism that emphasized the role of the state in managing trade so as to maximize the accumulation of silver and gold within the nation or kingdom. Money was the prime-mover of imperial economic and political policy because money ensured national power and prestige. Trade begot money, and money begot power, which in turn begot more money, more trade, and more power. Colonial settlements played an integral role in this new economic order, and English imperial officials molded colonial commerce so as to privilege the pecuniary interests of London.

From the beginning of English colonial settlement, this imperial drive to center money in London beckoned the animus of England’s American inhabitants. Colonials, too, desired money, and recurrently engaged in all sorts of economic and political resistance to an imperial standard of monetary subordination. Smuggling, piracy, currency devaluation, colonial manufacturing, and even occasional political revolt, all shared a common monetary root.

This imperial conflict manifested fully after the English Civil War with the Restoration of King Charles II in 1660, picking up with particular speed after 1675. A metaphorical tug-of-war ensued:  the English government and merchants pulling money their way, the colonists pulling money the opposite direction. Only after the Glorious Revolution of 1688 did the conflict partially resolve itself. After 1688, the royal Protestant succession and a new paradigm of imperial protection from a common French enemy profoundly transformed the colonists’ view of empire. Monetary subordination, from the colonial point of view, became more tenable than at any time preceding it, as the British Empire now persuasively offered colonists protection in return for allegiance, the latter of which included economic obedience to the mercantilist system. Colonists, by and large, accepted the deal, though, of course, only temporarily.