The year 1776 was notable not only for the Declaration of Independence, but also for the publication of a notable work of scholarship that represented a dramatic change in not only the economic systems of the world but also the shape of the governmental arrangements of the United States, Britain, and other nations. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, by a Scottish academic, Adam Smith, was published at about the same time that the Continental Congress, thousands of miles away, considered a resolution to declare independence from Great Britain.[i]
Smith’s work is today largely considered an economic monograph extolling the virtues of capitalism, but in its own day its contribution was somewhat different. The word “capitalism” was not in wide use at that time. “Economics” was not considered an identifiable academic discipline or focus of study. Smith’s university teaching career was largely concerned with what was then called “natural philosophy.” In the Wealth of Nations, Smith suggested the free exchange of goods and services could promote not only material wealth, but also improve human well-being in a more general sense.
In making these arguments, Smith took the opportunity to attack human contrivances that thwarted free exchange. Slavery and colonialism were also criticized, and an extensive critique of the economic thinking and practices known as mercantilism became a central focus of the book. Mercantilism was a fundamental basis for colonial rule, and the opposition to mercantilist practices was part of the justification for the American Revolution. Similarly, the breakdown of mercantilism as a defensible basis for imperial control of territory led to British willingness to permit its colonies to gain their independence.
Mercantilism was an economic system that contended that national wealth was promoted by government interventions to encourage trade and investment in certain industries and enterprises. In particular, mercantilist advocates believed that the government should conserve national reserves of gold (and sometimes silver), which were used in international trade for goods and resources that could not be found within a nation. If a country controlled colonies, purchases could be made without using gold, thus sparing reserves that could be used for essential international transactions. The colonial power would dictate the permissible terms of trade in which its colonies could participate, usually compelling the colonies to trade only with the mother country or with other colonies within the same empire. Transactions with other countries would be forbidden or subject to very high tariffs.
Before the revolution, the American colonials chafed at the terms of trade dictated by the British. In 1774, the British imposed the Intolerable Acts as a punitive measure in response to the Boston Tea Party and other protests. The protests in the American colonies were largely demonstrations against some of the taxes (e.g., the Stamp Act) and the exclusive monopolies over many import enterprises given to the East India Company. That same year, the First Continental Congress enacted the Articles of Association as a trade boycott against the British. Many American colonial enterprises, including that owned by John Hancock, circumvented British trade restrictions by doing business with Dutch firms and other colonies. In the Declaration of Independence, two of the complaints prominently noted were the claims that the British were “cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world” and “imposing Taxes on us without our Consent.”[ii] These complaints were common among colonial people throughout the world, not only within the British Empire but within the colonies of all the imperial powers.
After the revolution, the Founders made strategic choices that affected the international trade practices that the new nation would follow. Tariffs and trade restrictions were still permissible, but procedural constraints limited their use. Within the United States Constitution, the Founders established a particular process by which taxes, including tariffs, would be enacted. Only Congress could approve taxes, and all money bills would originate in the House of Representatives, the only offices at that time filled through popular election.[iii] Foreign entanglements presumably could be minimized by the requirement that all treaties must be approved by a two-thirds vote of the present members of the Senate.[iv] The Senate was filled with representatives of the states originally chosen by the legislatures of the states. The requirement that a two-thirds vote of the members of the Senate consent to a treaty guaranteed that any treaty that took effect would have broad support among the various states. A measure that had the support of a simple majority of the general population would not be sufficient. A super-majority of the members of the representatives of states in the Senate was required. It is important to note that the equal representation of states in the Senate is one aspect of the Constitution that was regarded so essential that it could never be changed through constitutional amendment.[v]
British colonialism continued long after the American Revolution, but its economic underpinnings gradually eroded over time. Shortly after the end of the Napoleonic wars, Britain imposed a high tariff on imported agricultural products. This was reversed in 1846 with the repeal of the so-called “Corn Laws,” beginning a general trend toward freer international trade and away from protectionism.[vi] There was a short-term return to protectionist practices in the 1930s after the United States enacted the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act, but Britain returned to a freer trade position after World War II.[vii]
Suffrage within Britain expanded throughout the nineteenth century, and the British found it harder philosophically to defend its dictating of the terms of trade with its colonies without granting them a voice in their own affairs. These denials of both economic and political freedoms seemed particularly unfair when the colonized peoples differed racially, ethnically, religiously, and culturally from the British. In fairness, it should be said that the British, more so than many imperial powers, did permit colonial peoples to elect the members of their representative assemblies and to retain the use of their native languages in schools and government offices.[viii] In general, the British colonies fared better economically than the colonies of many other European nations.[ix]
In terms of geographic territory, the British Empire reached its peak around 1920, but it had already loosened its control over many of its colonies and some, such as the United States, had already gained their independence. After World War II, many British colonies and protectorates separated from British control, even though most remained within the British Commonwealth. The Bretton Woods Accord established the American dollar as the primary currency to be used in international exchange. The British faced pressure from both its allies and from international organizations, such as the United Nations, to decolonize. New international economic institutions, such as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and its successor organization, the World Trade Organization, encouraged trade liberalization. A few pieces of territory remain British colonies in far-flung parts of the globe, but the old empire has been dismantled as the economic and political basis for its existence has disappeared.
James C. Clinger is a professor in the Department of Political Science and Sociology at Murray State University. Dr. Clinger teaches courses in state and local government, Kentucky politics, intergovernmental relations, regulatory policy, and public administration. Dr. Clinger is also a member of the Murray-Calloway County Transit Authority Board and a past president of the Kentucky Political Science Association. He currently resides in Hazel, Kentucky.
[i] Smith, Adam, and Edwin Cannan. The Wealth of Nations. New York, N.Y.: Bantam Classic, 2003.
[ii] Declaration of Independence
[iii] United States Constitution, Article I, Section 7
[iv] United States Constitution, Article 2, Section 2
[v] United States Constitution, Article V
[vi] O’Rourke, Kevin H. 2000. “British Trade Policy in the 19th Century: A Review Article.” European journal of Political Economy 16:: 829-842.
[vii] de Bromhead, Alan, Alan Fernihough, Markus Lampe, and Kevin Hjortshøj O’Rourke. 2019. “When Britain Turned Inward: The Impact of Interwar British Protection.” American Economic Review 109 (2): 325–52.
[viii] Lange, Matthew, Tay Jeong, and Charlotte Gaudreau. 2022. “A Tale of Two Empires: Models of Political Community in British and French Colonies.” Nations & Nationalism 28 (3): 972–89.
[ix] Lange, Matthew, James Mahoney, and Matthias vom Hau. 2006. “Colonialism and Development: A Comparative Analysis of Spanish and British Colonies.” American Journal of Sociology 111 (5): 1412–62.