- Mercantilism Reimagined: Political Economy in Early Modern Britain and Its Empire ed. by Philip J. Stern, Carl Wennerlind
Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations mortally wounded the intellectual prestige of mercantilism, but arguments about trade balances, economic regulation, and public debt remain as relevant as ever. That makes this collection of essays on the political economy of early modern Britain and its empire particularly welcome. Building on Steve Pincus’s argument in “Rethinking Mercantilism” (2012) that we ought to see mercantilism as a “form of debate rather than a consensus,” Stern and Wennerlind make a strong case that early modern economic arguments and policies were not the product of “self-evident and narrow economic self-interest” (7), but “radical transformations and controversies in ways of thinking about the universe, the natural world, and the body politic” (4). This approach pays rich dividends, not only showing that mercantilism took on a variety of different forms, but also making clear that it was but one answer among many as Europeans grappled with the political and economic transformations of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Indeed, economic change, overseas expansion, and political conflict led to many different conclusions about the nature of wealth, population, money, and commerce. And in demonstrating that mercantilism was about far more than just the preservation of captive and colonial markets, the authors of these essays convincingly argue that it is impossible to understand the development of early modern Europe or its empires without paying close attention to the history of economic ideas, arguments, and practices.
In connecting economic and colonial policies to the pursuit of useful knowledge, this volume represents a much needed effort to bridge the gap between the history of political economy and the history of science. Essays by Carl Wennerlind on the Hartlib Circle and Thomas Leng on the evolution of mercantile epistemologies suggest that economic and scientific understanding developed in tandem. The implications of these new forms of knowledge for economic and imperial policy are particularly clear in the case studies offered by Abigail Swingen and Fredrik Jonsson. Swingen nicely links her own work on perceptions of the labor market in England to Ted McCormick’s reconstruction of changing understandings of population in the seventeenth century, arguing that the transition from indentured to enslaved labor in the Caribbean was not an “unthinking decision” (46, 63), but a response to changing conceptions of the economic benefits of slavery. Jonsson, on the other hand, shows how competing understandings of climate, soil fertility, and biological diversity informed rival projects for economic improvement and imperial expansion.
In addition to demonstrating how economic and scientific ideas shaped Britain and its empire, Mercantilism Reimagined sheds light on how different groups both exploited and challenged the early modern British state. Essays by Henry Turner, Philip Stern, and Niklas Frykman suggest the state’s important role in shaping commerce and colonies, while challenging the view that governments reliably defended mercantile interests. Stern’s discussion of the British East India Company, for example, shows that merchants frequently clashed with government officials. And while both Turner and Stern convincingly argue that such alternative forms of political organization as corporations and joint-stock companies exercised [End Page 541] sovereignty, they also demonstrate that these institutions developed as a result of their relationship with the state. Frykman’s discussion of piracy and smuggling likewise makes a strong case that Britain’s early modern state found itself competing with a variety of different actors and interests even as it expanded its power to regulate commerce and extract resources. At a time when many historians are inclined to see eighteenth-century commerce as the product of self-organizing networks, these essays convincingly argue that merchants, pirates, and smugglers adapted their behavior to the demands of the state, even if that state was, as Turner rightly observes, only “one of several jurisdictional entities in a political field” (169).
The importance of the state in shaping both commerce and empire is particularly clear in the pieces that focus on...