Mercantilism and economic exchange between Great Britain and the American colonies gradually created a wedge between them. This wedge was not built by just one act, but several over many years. These acts would confine and restrict the colonists in many ways and eventually these restrictions, paired with the Enlightenment would lead the colonists closer to emancipation from Britain. In the 1660’s, British government implemented a policy of mercantilism in international trade with the colonies.
Mercantilism requires one to export more than it imports. The way that Britain had it set up, Colonial America would provide an export of specific raw goods such as tobacco and sugar to Britain only and in turn, they would use the raw goods to produce manufactured goods that were then sold in European markets as well as back in the colonies. Essentially the colonies were a supplier of raw goods only and could not compete in manufacturing with Britain but were allowed with restriction to manufacture within the colonies on a small scale.
Initially started remove the competing Dutch traders, the English Parliament passed several Navigation Acts that were meant to secure the proper trade balance between the colonies and Britain alone. Starting in 1651, the acts stated that only English ships import or export to the colonies on British ships only, which included ships built in the colonies. Second, enumerated commodities produced in the colonies could be shipped only to England.
Those commodities yielded the greatest profit to merchants and highest revenues to the customers, like sugar and tobacco. Aside from the specified products, colonists could take other products they produce and trade wherever they wanted and to whomever, as long as it was in British ships. Third, the act stated that all goods going to the colonies had to go through a British port first, where they paid customs duties before sailing to the colonies.
Along with the Navigation Acts, there were the Wool Act of 1699, Staples Act of 1663, and the Iron Act of 1750 all would limit what could be exported or traded even within the colonies. Essentially the Acts were to increase revenue, ship building, and employment of sailors, but all were to only benefit England and not so much the colonies. The impact varied among the regions; in New England, they provided the ships and ship building materials England needed and received “bounties” which was a special pay or bonus which helped to offset New England’s debt.
New England depended on the Triangle Trade with rum, slaves, and molasses which was hurt by the Molasses Act of 1733. New England’s way around it was to smuggle when necessary. The middle colonies were impacted the least until the Molasses Act and the Iron Act which prohibited Pennsylvania from exporting iron ware. The southern colonies suffered the greatest blow. Most of what the southern colonies produced were on the list of goods needed by England for manufacturing.
Many colonists quickly went into debt and through off the trade balance. In 1700 the balance trade was a positive 54,700 lbs and by 1750, the colonists were in debt by -1,850,700 lbs. With the ever increasing restriction for the colonists during a time of cultural and social growth through the Enlightenment movement, the colonists would unit with each other more and slowly separate from England’s stranglehold.
By 1760, colonists reached their highest debt of over 2 million pounds and began to show a decrease in imports. By the time the Tea Act of 1773 was enforced, the balance trade was at a positive 1,371,250 lbs, only importing only about 2500 lbs worth of goods. This was a sure sign of a break in the relationship between the colonies and England through balance and trade and a century of an unfair amount of restrictions and tariffs.