If I Wanted to Make America Prosperous Again
By: Dr. Robert R. Owens
First, I would ask myself how did our ancestors build America from an agricultural colony on the edge of civilization into the number one manufacturing and commercial nation the world had ever known.
Why reinvent the wheel if round ones still roll?
The early American colonies of the British were founded based upon the economic ideas of Mercantilism. Governmental regulation of industries, trade, and commerce characterized Mercantilism as every aspect of the economy was utilized for national policy. This was especially true with foreign trade, which was determined more by national aims rather than individual or local interests.
The definition of wealth began to change in the sixteenth century. During the Middle Ages, wealth was defined by the amount of productive land a nation possessed. As transportation, especially by sea, improved so did the ability to conduct foreign trade bringing with it an increase in the amount of cash generated by that trade. The definition of wealth came to be the amount of cash a nation possessed. Therefore every nation sought to have a favorable balance of trade. They also sought to develop monopolistic type environments wherein they provided their own raw materials thus avoiding imports which meant money flowing out and fostering the export of finished goods raising the level of money flowing in. Defining wealth as the accumulation of cash, the nations ofEurope desired to conduct foreign trade on a larger scale, and they began looking for foreign sources of gold, silver, and raw materials.
This brings us to the British effort to developNorth Americaas a source of wealth.
The Chesapeake colonies ofVirginia andMaryland were the first successful British colonies in what was to become theUnited States of America. Though the initial colonists came looking for gold they soon learned that prosperity came not from a shovel but instead from a plow. It was tobacco that primed the pump and lifted the colonies from a burden to a benefit for the mother country. After years of mounting expenses for the British and years of starvation for the colonists the cultivation of tobacco brought prosperity. Virginia’s production of tobacco grew from 200,000 pounds in 1624 to 3,000,000 pounds in 1638 overtaking the West Indies as the number one supplier of tobacco for all of Europe thus boostingBritain’s balance of trade.
The cultivation of tobacco fostered a plantation system based upon indentured and slave labor. A gentrified class of great planters sought to replicate the social structure of Britain with a small number of very rich ruling a large number of small land holders who prospered to a certain extent but never enough to challenge the status quo. The wretched poor ofBritainwho had come to theChesapeakecolonies to find a better life did find more opportunity and the ability to advance from the landless poor to the ranks of yeoman farmer. However, there was little opportunity to enter the ranks for the gentry which became a type of American nobility.
New England, because of the soil, the climate, and the fact that there was no major cash crop that grew well in the area, did not lend itself to large plantations. Most farmers were operating at a subsistence level. If they did generate a surplus it was in crops that were not easily transported across the ocean, and they were also crops that could be grown inEnglandand were not needed as imports.
This climatic and environmental adversity did not condemn New England to being a poor relation to the Chesapeakenobility. Instead the New English diversified, innovated, and used individual enterprise to not only match but to surpass Chesapeake and every other colony in the British Empire. Those who settled New England were Puritans who sought to purify the Anglican religion of ceremony and return it to what they saw as the simplicity of early Christianity. They did not believe that good works brought salvation but they did believe that salvation brought good works. Therefore they sought to occupy their time with productive activity to glorify God through their labors. This was a manifestation of what the sociologist Max Weber later called , “The Protestant work ethic.” Whatever you choose to call it, it was this drive to succeed no matter what the adversity that led the New English to look beyond the soil, beyond the climate and to the opportunity.
First they exploited the fisheries of the Northeast. In 1641 the New English caught 600,000 pounds of fish much of which was exported toBritain. By 1645 they were catching more than 6,000,000 pounds per year employing more than a thousand men on 440 ships. They came to dominate the fish trade shipping not only toBritainand its empire but also toSpain,Portugal, the Azores, Madeira, and theCanary Islands.
By the end of the 1600s the merchants of the New English coast began to circle the globe trading the fish, surplus crops, and lumber of their area to all parts of theBritish Empire. They became such shrewd traders that soon American ships were carrying trade from one colony to another even when the cargo didn’t originate inNew England. This secondary carrying trade generated a growing profit that in turn rebounded in a number of ways. The increased profits brought home financed increased industry and growth at home, and it also spawned a shipbuilding industry which exploited the vast resources of the northern forests.
Between 1674 and 1714 the New English built more than 1200 ships, totaling more than 75,000 tons. By 1700 there were fifteen shipyards inBostonwhich produced more ships than all the rest of the British colonies combined. OnlyLondonhad more shipyards. This was a significant engine of economic growth. To build one 150 ton merchant ship required as many as 200 workers, mostly skilled craftsmen. The shipyards also supported the growth of numerous enterprises to supply their needs such as saw mills, smithies, barrel makers, sail makers, iron foundries, and rope makers. In addition, the farmers of New England benefited by feeding the craftsmen, supplying the ships, and providing the timber.
By 1700Bostonwas the third city of the Empire behind onlyLondonandBristoland the New English shippers were earning freight charges for carrying produce and material that was neither produced, shipped to, or shipped from their home colony. The enrichment of the area spread prosperity far beyond the sphere of shippers, sailors, and their sundry suppliers. According toBoston’s shipping register for 1697-1714 over 25% of the adult males inBostonowned shares in at least one ship.
All of these linkages produced an economy filled with diversification and development as opposed to the stratified monoculture of theChesapeakecolonies.
These trends continued as time went on leading to the industrial North eventually overwhelming the agricultural South. The expansion and growth ofAmericawas based upon a foundation of hard work and innovation born of adversity. Finding themselves in a hard place Americans found a way to prosper and grow like a young plant reaching for the sun. Freed from the rigid restraints of the home country and then guaranteed freedom by the constitution and the limited government it providedAmericasurged to the front ranks of nations.
Today, America labors under self-imposed adversity. We are in the grip of an oppressive Progressive Movement that after 100 years of incremental advance is poised to transform America from what she has always been into what they want her to be. America has traditionally been a constitutionally limited Republic operating on democratic principles providing individual liberty and economic opportunity. The Progressives envision America as a centrally-planned highly regimented social democracy where the wealth is spread around from each according to their abilities to each according to their needs .
If I wanted to makeAmericaprosperous again I would take off the self-imposed shackles of a central government on steroids, stop imposing new regulations, and reduce taxes everywhere on everyone. Then I would stand back and watch our economy takes off like a rocket and we take our place beside our ancestors as free people with economic liberty and a will to succeed.
Dr. Owens teaches History, Political Science, and Religion for Southside Virginia Community College. He is the author of the History of the Future @ http://drrobertowens.com © 2011 Robert R. Owens firstname.lastname@example.org Follow Dr. Robert Owens on Facebook or Twitter @ Drrobertowens