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Parent Category: 18th Century History Articles
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Commerce drives the modern world. Without the advent of commerce in its current form, the world would never have experienced the level of technology and freedom of information that exists today.

While trade and commerce have always been vital to human existence, the 18th century saw a massive turning point in how commerce was perceived and used. Many of the wealthiest nations on the planet earned their keep thanks to the commerce boom of the 18th century and continue to profit off of the system of commerce today. How exactly did commerce get to where it is today, and how was it different in the 18th century?

Taxation

While taxation is prevalent in many different forms in the United States today, the bulk of the ways in which American citizens are taxed are actually relatively new in the grand scheme of things. For instance, the sales tax has been around for less than a century and with technological developments like the internet and cryptocurrency, new tax laws are being written into law rather frequently. In the 18th century, taxation on the sale and purchase of goods and services was far less widespread than it is today.

 

A business owner in the 18th century didn’t really pay much in the way of taxes other than perhaps excise taxes or tariffs on raw materials they used to make products. The income tax wasn’t introduced until the early 19th century, and tax structure varied widely from colony to colony. Early settlers in the Americas still paid taxes, but for the most part, taxes were levied at a fixed rate and only rarely were taxes based on the valuation of an item.

 

In fact, the average tax rate in colonial America was between 1% and 5%, which is not only incredibly low by today’s standards but for the time as well, seeing as British tax rates in the same period were much higher—5-7%. Though it may seem appealing to have such a low tax rate, it is important to remember that there were essentially no government services available to colonists and infrastructure, if even in place, was poorly maintained.

Health & Safety

In the modern US, consumer protections are taken very seriously. It is not uncommon to see massive recalls of products either because they pose a danger when using, such as cars with faulty safety features, or food unsafe to consume because of potential contamination by harmful pathogens like Listeria monocytogenes, which can cause a host of health issues. While the debate over the regulation of consumer products is still alive and well, modern US citizens are no doubt safer because of the consumer protections put into place by federal and state governments.

 

The 18th century, however, had a much different take on consumer protections. The USDA wasn’t even formed until the early 19th century by Abraham Lincoln, and even then the goal was simply to produce the largest quantity of food possible with the least amount of land. It wasn’t until 1905, with the publication of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, that food safety became a priority in the US. Consumer protections in the 18th century were largely self-imposed through guild associations or left to the judgment of the consumers themselves.

 

This lack of consumer protections is perhaps one of the contributing factors to the lower life expectancy rates seen in the 18th century, along with overall poor public health practices and lack of adequate medical care. Consumer protections are vital to the continued success of commerce both domestically and internationally, and the improvements made to them over the last two centuries are something to be celebrated.

Efficiency

America in the 18th century saw a massive boom in its economic prowess, largely thanks to agricultural advancements, a strong and entrepreneurial-minded middle class, and advancements in shipping. It was a time of unprecedented technological advancement that led to huge increases in efficiency. Where early settlers struggled to get by, hoping to build a good life for themselves, the 18th century saw the rise of commercial success in the US that continues to this day.

 

Much of the improvements made to the overall efficiency of commerce in the US are due to the Industrial Revolution, which brought about technologies that made the production of goods infinitely easier than ever before. The modern factory, steam engines, textile mills, locomotives, improved road-building, and the invention of the telegraph all contributed to the economic explosion witnessed in the 18th century, making the production and distribution of products move at a pace never seen prior.

 

Today, we still reap the benefits of the efficiency milestones accomplished by the Industrial Revolution. Replaceable parts and high-tech factories allow for the quick repair of consumer vehicles, textiles are easily mass-produced and inexpensive, and communications technology has reached an all-time high allowing modern citizens to speak in real-time with people on the other side of the planet.

 

While it is no doubt that commerce standards have improved wildly since the 18th century, it is still important to look back so that we might understand how modern commerce evolved. The past informs the present which informs the inexorable march into the future. In the 23rd century, people might look at modern commerce as quaint as we now look back on the commerce standards of the 18th century. What is important is that we continue to learn and grow for the better of humanity.