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Reviews in American History 28.3 (2000) 374-380

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North American Economies in the Early Modern Era

Kenneth Morgan

Marc Egnal. New World Economies: The Growth of the Thirteen Colonies and Early Canada. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. xix + 236 pp. Figures, tables, appendices, notes, and index. $49.95.

Margaret Ellen Newell. From Dependency to Independence: Economic Revolution in Colonial New England. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998. x + 329 pp. Illustrations, maps, notes, and index. $39.95.

Historians have deployed different methodological frameworks to explore the nature and pace of economic development in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century North America. A common interpretation has been to emphasize the "staples approach" to North American history, whereby backward and forward linkages occur to boost development as the result of the growth of a major export staple. Associated in the first instance with the work of Harold A. Innis on the fur trade and the cod fisheries, the staples theory has been featured regularly in mainstream literature on British North America. 1 A second approach to the North American economies in the early modern era links the growth of the colonies with the international flow of people, commodities, and credit throughout the Atlantic trading basin. In this approach emphasis has lain recently on the emergence of a "consolidated Atlantic economy" and "an empire of credit" as the transatlantic market economy developed. 2 A third approach has concentrated on the regional economies of North America, explaining how particular regions experienced economic change over a broad time period. Some examples of this scholarship select the individual colony as a unit for investigation; others concentrate on large port cities and their links with producers and consumers in their hinterlands. Some of the latter studies link the economy of a particular colony with commercial patterns in the wider Atlantic world, and then continue the analysis into the nineteenth century. 3

The two books under review draw upon these traditions of inquiry but each follows a distinct methodology. Marc Egnal's New World Economies: The Growth of the Thirteen Colonies and Early Canada analyzes the economic [End Page 374] performance of North America before 1800 in relation to fluctuations in the British and French economies and charts the close connection among them. North America, he contends, closely followed metropolitan patterns of growth. His book covers two distinct economies--the British North American colonies and New France--and is the first detailed study to do so. Margaret Newell's From Dependency to Independence: Economic Revolution in Colonial New England offers a different line of investigation. Despite a dustjacket that includes an illustration relating to New York, her book focuses on New England in general and Massachusetts in particular. It traces the economic policies pursued there by merchants, politicians, and other policy-makers from the Great Puritan migration of the 1630s to the aftermath of the American War of Independence. Newell analyzes a transition in the New England economy from an era of dependence upon the mother country to a situation after 1760 where ideas of economic independence gained wide currency, pointing toward a liberal, republican economy in the future. Her book is an in-depth treatment of New England's economic history over the first century and a half of white settlement.

In New World Economies, Egnal argues against the utility of the staples theory as an explanation for North American economic growth in the early modern era. He adduces four reasons to support his view. First, the staples thesis has proved more helpful in addressing qualitative issues than in providing quantitative exactitude. Second, to concentrate on the staples thesis is to focus on just one aspect of economic growth at the expense of other factors such as productivity gains, capital injected from the mother country, the supply of capital goods, and the non-staple sector. Third, the staples approach ignores the impact of cultural and business institutions; one needs to look, for instance, at specific labor and social structures associated with regions or commodities to explain economic development. Fourth, the staples thesis is not useful in investigating changes...


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