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While there are numerous interesting facets to life in 18th century America, one of the easiest ones to spot is the transformation of a group of minor colonies into a robust new country that possessed a powerful, economically wealthy middle class and a boundless economic potential. 

A Brief History of U.S. Commerce in the 1700s

The European settlement of North America initially came about from a flurry of various settlers looking for adventure, better lives, and religious freedom. And yet, another important element that factored into many colonist’s minds was the desire to create their own commercial success. In its earliest form, this was typically accomplished by the ability to establish a self-sustaining farm, while a minority found further fortune via things like trapping, furring, or fishing.


However, as the colonists, especially those in Britain’s 13 colonies, continued to improve their lives, their commercial success began to evolve. Here are a few of the various ways — some ethical and others less so — that the fledgling U.S. economy of the 1700s shifted, developed, and grew over time.

The Middle Class and a War

One of the defining moments of the 18th century in North America was the Revolutionary War that birthed the United States. While most accounts of the war itself largely focus on the battles and the politics, commerce also had an important part to play.


The growing commercial success of the American colonies had created a strong middle class of entrepreneurs. In an attempt to protect their ever-growing, diamond-studded fortunes, this wealthy bourgeoisie in many ways became the epicenter from which the declaration and promulgation of freedom from the control of Great Britain stemmed. Classic stories like the dumping of tea into Boston harbor and taxation without representation proved to be just the tip of the iceberg as the soon-to-be United States citizens flexed their muscles and demanded life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.


However, while it certainly played a large role in the future commercial success of the United State, the Revolutionary War wasn’t the only thing moving commerce forward in 18th century America.


While the early settlement of the U.S. may have revolved around subsistence farming, as the success of the colonies — and soon the new nation — grew, the agricultural focus began to shift. Instead of growing basic subsistence foods, larger farms began to cultivate other things, such as hemp for shipping or cash crops for trade on the world market.


Land in New England was used to raise large quantities of meat products. The middle colonies soon boasted of huge swaths of land that grew various grains — by 1700 Philadelphia alone was exporting over 350,000 bushels of wheat and over 18,000 tons of flour per year. Further down the coast, the southern colonies tended to focus on single-crop economies like tobacco and indigo.


Much of the shift in agricultural focus was made possible by the development of a host of new agricultural tools as well. From implementing a crop rotation system to the invention of devices like the horse hoe and the cotton gin, the 18th century in America saw a huge boom in agricultural growth from one end to the other.


But, of course, the new focus on single-crop economies brought another, unsettling development along with it, too: an uptick in slavery.

The Slave Trade

One of the greatest impacts that the 1700s had on U.S. commerce was the ever-increasing use of slaves, which allowed for a consequential increase in crops like tobacco, sugar, rice, and eventually cotton.


In the early 1600s plantations had begun to dominate a fair portion of the America agricultural scene, especially in southern colonies like Virginia and the Carolinas. This, in turn, ratcheted up what had previously been a comparatively small demand for African slaves.


The sudden increase in demand nudged slavers to capitalize on the lucrative demand of human cargo, launching the long-held, inhumane practice of slave labor into the limelight of the American agricultural system. Its center-stage position would remain for the next two and a half centuries until the catastrophic climax came in the form of the American Civil War, an event that took place not long after the 1700s ended.


The larger quantities of capital required for purchasing slaves also pushed European merchants to further develop complex financial systems capable of leveraging cash, commodities, and bills of credit along with providing increasingly intricate levels of insurance.


Finally, with Americans turning from self-subsistence to a new focus on producing products for an increasingly hungrier world market, commercial shipping also became a critical element of the United States economy.


Towns like Boston, Philadelphia, New York City, Baltimore, and Charleston served as booming centers of commerce. Each of these busy 18th-century American ports was a busy place of global trade and commerce as everything from crops, to jewelry, to human beings were traded in ever-increasing quantities.

A Transformative Century

While there are numerous ways that U.S. commerce changed throughout the 18th century, one common thread is the fact that everything was growing. From a shift to mass production and single-crop systems (along with the tools to keep them operating), to a vast increase in shipping and overseas trade, to a huge influx of slaves, everything was scaling at dramatic speeds.


Americans themselves entered the century as humble British colonists living on family farms or still hunting for pelts and furs. They left the century as citizens of a commercially explosive new nation that was only poised to continue its economic success for decades and even centuries to come.

About the Author:

Frankie Wallace contributes to a wide variety of blogs and writes about many different topics, including politics and the environment. 
Wallace currently resides in Boise, Idaho and is a recent graduate of the University of Montana.