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17th Century English Mercantilism

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Mercantilism Essay

England in the 17th century adopted the policy of mercantilism, exercising control over the trade of the colonies, thus greatly affecting their political and economical development. Mercantilism was the policy in Europe throughout the 1500's to the 1700's where the government of the mother country controlled the industry and trade of other, weaker settlements with the idea that national strength and economic security comes from exporting more than what is imported. Possession of colonies provided the countries with sources of raw materials and markets for their manufactured goods. This system had political and economical repercussions on the inflicted because it inspired many new laws and acts for the colonies, and it restricted the colonies trade to England, reducing the revenue that the colonies received.
The thirteen colonies were influenced by the mercantilism policy of England due to the numerous trading prohibitations and taxes that were placed on them and the goods they trafficked. The first extensive code of mercantile regulations was the Acts of Trade and Navigation which established three main rules for colonial trade. First being trade between the colonies and England could only be transported on English or colonial-built ships, operated by English or colonial crews; second that all goods, excluding some perishables, could only pass through English ports; third, certain enumerated goods from the colonies could only be exported to England, including tobacco and sugar. The only positive effect of this act was that English military forces protected the colonies from potential threats from rivaling countries. Similar acts to those of trade and navigation, such as the Staple Act of 1663, the Duty Act of 1673, and the Wool Act of 1699 limited trade of goods such as indigo and wool and forced the payment of duties. This did not stop countless instances of the colonies smuggling to other, unapproved countries. To try to put an end to the smuggling, Parliament, in 1696, established a system of courts to hear the cases and deliver justice without juries. London also created a Board of Trade whose job it was to watch over governors and customs official to avoid corruption and lax enforcement. Despite the Glorious Revolution, when new leadership altered the conditions in England, the mercantile limitations remained, so that in the 18th century there were more English officials in the colonies than at any other time, creating friction between those loyal and compliant with the crown and those wishing for personal gain and freedom. The restrictions in colonial trade, although poorly implemented, were resented and opposed; moreover, this illegal expanse of productive activity would become associated with political rights and self-government.
Mercantile regulations also influenced the American colonies economical development through tariffs, limited trading partners, and smuggling. Before the mercantilistic idea came about, numerous monopolies prevailed in trade. These monopolies were discouraged and eventually declined because it was thought that monopolies privileged only a few traders and prevented competition or expansion of trade. English merchants sought extensive government intervention in the economy to protect rising economic interest. The laws, acts, and duties imposed by the British to increase their own revenue and make them a more powerful nation made importing goods inconveniently expensive for the average colonist. The Duty Act of 1673 required captains of colonial ships to post bond that guaranteed they would deliver all enumerated goods to England or else pay a "plantation duty" before sailing. To avoid costly exportation to a country that paid minimum value for maximum product many merchants in the colonies resorted to smuggling goods to foreign ports. The smuggling network greatly undermined British authority, but self-interested customs officials and governors were often corrupt and turned a blind eye on the illicit activities of the colonists. Some colonists tried a "technically" legal approach by exporting items such as grain, flour, fish, livestock, dairy products, and small agricultural surpluses that were never covered by mercantile laws. In some cases for the colonies having severely limited trading partners was harmful for colonial success, like that of the Chesapeake farmers who received low prices for their crops; however, Chesapeake tobacco benefited from the limited trade because it had a monopoly in England. England also encouraged home manufacturing of goods to help increase their own revenue; after receiving the raw material from the colonies, they would manufacture them, and then return the transformed goods back to the colonies, suppressing colonial manufacturing. Mercantile optimists believed that one day the English Empire would become independent of all foreign ports with the system in which raw goods were sent to the mother country, where they would be manufactured and then sent back to the colonies, with the home country receiving the most benefit since finished goods were generally worth more than raw goods, thus everyone working for the good of the country.
The English intended for mercantilism to benefit them and make the colonies work with England independent of foreign countries. This idea backfired, causing the stimulation of independent political ideas due to the unsatisfactory economical gain that mercantilism placed on the colonies. The laws and acts put on the colonies inspired new political movements and the search for financial gain elsewhere. English mercantilists believed that inhabitants needed a wise government to harness production, to curb the greedy and destructive tendencies of competition, and to promote and channel the exchange of goods through regulation, but it is because of this greed and destructive tendencies that the mercantile system could never work because people really just want to benefit themselves.

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