British Colonial Mercantilism

A historiography of the economic system of mercantilism between England and the British American Colonies.

The paper shows that historians have used mercantilism to measure the fairness of the mother country toward the American colonies. Surprisingly, the word was unknown prior to the late eighteenth century and the phrase “mercantile system” first become commonplace in the writings of Adam Smith. This paper explains how, in Smith’s view, mercantilism was a commercial minority’s scheme to gain a monopoly of the home market for manufacturers by regulation, trade and ostensibly to secure a favorable balance in the national interest. The paper traces how mercantilism acquired popular usage and has since been widely disagreed upon between nineteenth and twentieth century writers.
An entire generation of Americans formed their ideas of the British mercantilist system on the basis of Bancroft’s writings. Before he wrote, few mentioned the Navigation Acts in connection with the Revolution. But Bancroft insisted that British economic restriction had caused the break between the colonies and mother country. Indeed, in his second volume he stated, American Independence, like the great rivers of the country, had many sources; but the head-spring which colored all the streams was the Navigation Act.