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The Economics of the American Revolutionary War

Ben Baack, Ohio State University

By the time of the onset of the American Revolution, Britain had attained the status of a military and economic superpower. The thirteen American colonies were one part of a global empire generated by the British in a series of colonial wars beginning in the late seventeenth century and continuing on to the mid eighteenth century. The British military establishment increased relentlessly in size during this period as it engaged in the Nine Years War (1688-97), the War of Spanish Succession (1702-13), the War of Austrian Succession (1739-48), and the Seven Years War (1756-63). These wars brought considerable additions to the British Empire. In North America alone the British victory in the Seven Years War resulted in France ceding to Britain all of its territory east of the Mississippi River as well as all of Canada and Spain surrendering its claim to Florida (Nester, 2000).

Given the sheer magnitude of the British military and its empire, the actions taken by the American colonists for independence have long fascinated scholars. Why did the colonists want independence? How were they able to achieve a victory over what was at the time the world’s preeminent military power? What were the consequences of achieving independence? These and many other questions have engaged the attention of economic, legal, military, political, and social historians. In this brief essay we will focus only on the economics of the Revolutionary War.

Economic Causes of the Revolutionary War

Prior to the conclusion of the Seven Years War there was little, if any, reason to believe that one day the American colonies would undertake a revolution in an effort to create an independent nation-state. As apart of the empire the colonies were protected from foreign invasion by the British military. In return, the colonists paid relatively few taxes and could engage in domestic economic activity without much interference from the British government. For the most part the colonists were only asked to adhere to regulations concerning foreign trade. In a series of acts passed by Parliament during the seventeenth century the Navigation Acts required that all trade within the empire be conducted on ships which were constructed, owned and largely manned by British citizens. Certain enumerated goods whether exported or imported by the colonies had to be shipped through England regardless of the final port of destination.

Western Land Policies

The movement for independence arose in the colonies following a series of critical decisions made by the British government after the end of the war with France in 1763. Two themes emerge from what was to be a fundamental change in British economic policy toward the American colonies. The first involved western land. With the acquisition from the French of the territory between the Allegheny Mountains and the Mississippi River the British decided to isolate the area from the rest of the colonies. Under the terms of the Proclamation of 1763 and the Quebec Act of 1774 colonists were not allowed to settle here or trade with the Indians without the permission of the British government. These actions nullified the claims to land in the area by a host of American colonies, individuals, and land companies. The essence of the policy was to maintain British control of the fur trade in the West by restricting settlement by the Americans.

Tax Policies

The second fundamental change involved taxation. The British victory over the French had come at a high price. Domestic taxes had been raised substantially during the war and total government debt had increased nearly twofold (Brewer, 1989). Furthermore, the British had decided in1763 to place a standing army of 10,000 men in North America. The bulk of these forces were stationed in newly acquired territory to enforce its new land policy in the West. Forts were to be built which would become the new centers of trade with the Indians. The British decided that the Americans should share the costs of the military buildup in the colonies. The reason seemed obvious. Taxes were significantly higher in Britain than in the colonies. One estimate suggests the per capita tax burden in the colonies ranged from two to four per cent of that in Britain (Palmer, 1959). It was time in the British view that the Americans began to pay a larger share of the expenses of the empire.

Accordingly, a series of tax acts were passed by Parliament the revenue from which was to be used to help pay for the standing army in America. The first was the Sugar Act of 1764. Proposed by England’s Prime Minister the act lowered tariff rates on non-British products from the West Indies as well as strengthened their collection. It was hoped this would reduce the incentive for smuggling and thereby increase tariff revenue (Bullion, 1982). The following year Parliament passed the Stamp Act that imposed a tax commonly used in England. It required stamps for a broad range of legal documents as well as newspapers and pamphlets. While the colonial stamp duties were less than those in England they were expected to generate enough revenue to finance a substantial portion of the cost the new standing army. The same year passage of the Quartering Act imposed essentially a tax in kind by requiring the colonists to provide British military units with housing, provisions, and transportation. In 1767 the Townshend Acts imposed tariffs upon a variety of imported goods and established a Board of Customs Commissioners in the colonies to collect the revenue.

Boycotts

American opposition to these acts was expressed initially in a variety of peaceful forms. While they did not have representation in Parliament, the colonists did attempt to exert some influence in it through petition and lobbying. However, it was the economic boycott that became by far the most effective means of altering the new British economic policies. In 1765 representatives from nine colonies met at the Stamp Act Congress in New York and organized a boycott of imported English goods. The boycott was so successful in reducing trade that English merchants lobbied Parliament for the repeal of the new taxes. Parliament soon responded to the political pressure. During 1766 it repealed both the Stamp and Sugar Acts (Johnson, 1997). In response to the Townshend Acts of 1767 a second major boycott started in 1768 in Boston and New York and subsequently spread to other cities leading Parliament in 1770 to repeal all of the Townshend duties except the one on tea. In addition, Parliament decided at the same time not to renew the Quartering Act.

With these actions taken by Parliament the Americans appeared to have successfully overturned the new British post war tax agenda. However, Parliament had not given up what it believed to be its right to tax the colonies. On the same day it repealed the Stamp Act, Parliament passed the Declaratory Act stating the British government had the full power and authority to make laws governing the colonies in all cases whatsoever including taxation. Policies not principles had been overturned.

The Tea Act

Three years after the repeal of the Townshend duties British policy was once again to emerge as an issue in the colonies. This time the American reaction was not peaceful. It all started when Parliament for the first time granted an exemption from the Navigation Acts. In an effort to assist the financially troubled British East India Company Parliament passed the Tea Act of 1773, which allowed the company to ship tea directly to America. The grant of a major trading advantage to an already powerful competitor meant a potential financial loss for American importers and smugglers of tea. In December a small group of colonists responded by boarding three British ships in the Boston harbor and throwing overboard several hundred chests of tea owned by the East India Company (Labaree, 1964). Stunned by the events in Boston, Parliament decided not to cave in to the colonists as it had before. In rapid order it passed the Boston Port Act, the Massachusetts Government Act, the Justice Act, and the Quartering Act. Among other things these so-called Coercive or Intolerable Acts closed the port of Boston, altered the charter of Massachusetts, and reintroduced the demand for colonial quartering of British troops. Once done Parliament then went on to pass the Quebec Act as a continuation of its policy of restricting the settlement of the West.

The First Continental Congress

Many Americans viewed all of this as a blatant abuse of power by the British government. Once again a call went out for a colonial congress to sort out a response. On September 5, 1774 delegates appointed by the colonies met in Philadelphia for the First Continental Congress. Drawing upon the successful manner in which previous acts had been overturned the first thing Congress did was to organize a comprehensive embargo of trade with Britain. It then conveyed to the British government a list of grievances that demanded the repeal of thirteen acts of Parliament. All of the acts listed had been passed after 1763 as the delegates had agreed not to question British policies made prior to the conclusion of the Seven Years War. Despite all the problems it had created, the Tea Act was not on the list. The reason for this was that Congress decided not to protest British regulation of colonial trade under the Navigation Acts. In short, the delegates were saying to Parliament take us back to 1763 and all will be well.

The Second Continental Congress

What happened then was a sequence of events that led to a significant increase in the degree of American resistance to British polices. Before the Congress adjourned in October the delegates voted to meet again in May of 1775 if Parliament did not meet their demands. Confronted by the extent of the American demands the British government decided it was time to impose a military solution to the crisis. Boston was occupied by British troops. In April a military confrontation occurred at Lexington and Concord. Within a month the Second Continental Congress was convened. Here the delegates decided to fundamentally change the nature of their resistance to British policies. Congress authorized a continental army and undertook the purchase of arms and munitions. To pay for all of this it established a continental currency. With previous political efforts by the First Continental Congress to form an alliance with Canada having failed, the Second Continental Congress took the extraordinary step of instructing its new army to invade Canada. In effect, these actions taken were those of an emerging nation-state. In October as American forces closed in on Quebec the King of England in a speech to Parliament declared that the colonists having formed their own government were now fighting for their independence. It was to be only a matter of months before Congress formally declared it.

Economic Incentives for Pursuing Independence: Taxation

Given the nature of British colonial policies, scholars have long sought to evaluate the economic incentives the Americans had in pursuing independence. In this effort economic historians initially focused on the period following the Seven Years War up to the Revolution. It turned out that making a case for the avoidance of British taxes as a major incentive for independence proved difficult. The reason was that many of the taxes imposed were later repealed. The actual level of taxation appeared to be relatively modest. After all, the Americans soon after adopting the Constitution taxed themselves at far higher rates than the British had prior to the Revolution (Perkins, 1988). Rather it seemed the incentive for independence might have been the avoidance of the British regulation of colonial trade. Unlike some of the new British taxes, the Navigation Acts had remained intact throughout this period.

The Burden of the Navigation Acts

One early attempt to quantify the economic effects of the Navigation Acts was by Thomas (1965). Building upon the previous work of Harper (1942), Thomas employed a counterfactual analysis to assess what would have happened to the American economy in the absence of the Navigation Acts. To do this he compared American trade under the Acts with that which would have occurred had America been independent following the Seven Years War. Thomas then estimated the loss of both consumer and produce surplus to the colonies as a result of shipping enumerated goods indirectly through England. These burdens were partially offset by his estimated value of the benefits of British protection and various bounties paid to the colonies. The outcome of his analysis was that the Navigation Acts imposed a net burden of less than one percent of colonial per capita income. From this he concluded the Acts were an unlikely cause of the Revolution. A long series of subsequent works questioned various parts of his analysis but not his general conclusion (Walton, 1971). The work of Thomas also appeared to be consistent with the observation that the First Continental Congress had not demanded in its list of grievances the repeal of either the Navigation Acts or the Sugar Act.

American Expectations about Future British Policy

Did this mean then that the Americans had few if any economic incentives for independence? Upon further consideration economic historians realized that perhaps more important to the colonists were not the past and present burdens but rather the expected future burdens of continued membership in the British Empire. The Declaratory Act made it clear the British government had not given up what it viewed as its right to tax the colonists. This was despite the fact that up to 1775 the Americans had employed a variety of protest measures including lobbying, petitions, boycotts, and violence. The confluence of not having representation in Parliament while confronting an aggressive new British tax policy designed to raise their relatively low taxes may have made it reasonable for the Americans to expect a substantial increase in the level of taxation in the future (Gunderson, 1976, Reid, 1978). Furthermore a recent study has argued that in 1776 not only did the future burdens of the Navigation Acts clearly exceed those of the past, but a substantial portion would have borne by those who played a major role in the Revolution (Sawers, 1992). Seen in this light the economic incentive for independence would have been avoiding the potential future costs of remaining in the British Empire.

The Americans Undertake a Revolution

1776-77

British Military Advantages

The American colonies had both strengths and weaknesses in terms of undertaking a revolution. The colonial population of well over two million was nearly one third of that in Britain (McCusker and Menard, 1985). The growth in the colonial economy had generated a remarkably high level of per capita wealth and income (Jones, 1980). Yet the hurdles confronting the Americans in achieving independence were indeed formidable. The British military had an array of advantages. With virtual control of the Atlantic its navy could attack anywhere along the American coast at will and would have borne logistical support for the army without much interference. A large core of experienced officers commanded a highly disciplined and well-drilled army in the large-unit tactics of eighteenth century European warfare. By these measures the American military would have great difficulty in defeating the British. Its navy was small. The Continental Army had relatively few officers proficient in large-unit military tactics. Lacking both the numbers and the discipline of its adversary the American army was unlikely to be able to meet the British army on equal terms on the battlefield (Higginbotham, 1977).

British Financial Advantages

In addition, the British were in a better position than the Americans to finance a war. A tax system was in place that had provided substantial revenue during previous colonial wars. Also for a variety of reasons the government had acquired an exceptional capacity to generate debt to fund wartime expenses (North and Weingast, 1989). For the Continental Congress the situation was much different. After declaring independence Congress had set about defining the institutional relationship between it and the former colonies. The powers granted to Congress were established under the Articles of Confederation. Reflecting the political environment neither the power to tax nor the power to regulate commerce was given to Congress. Having no tax system to generate revenue also made it very difficult to borrow money. According to the Articles the states were to make voluntary payments to Congress for its war efforts. This precarious revenue system was to hamper funding by Congress throughout the war (Baack, 2001).

Military and Financial Factors Determine Strategy

It was within these military and financial constraints that the war strategies by the British and the Americans were developed. In terms of military strategies both of the contestants realized that America was simply too large for the British army to occupy all of the cities and countryside. This being the case the British decided initially that they would try to impose a naval blockade and capture major American seaports. Having already occupied Boston, the British during 1776 and 1777 took New York, Newport, and Philadelphia. With plenty of room to maneuver his forces and unable to match those of the British, George Washington chose to engage in a war of attrition. The purpose was twofold. First, by not engaging in an all out offensive Washington reduced the probability of losing his army. Second, over time the British might tire of the war.

Saratoga

Frustrated without a conclusive victory, the British altered their strategy. During 1777 a plan was devised to cut off New England from the rest of the colonies, contain the Continental Army, and then defeat it. An army was assembled in Canada under the command of General Burgoyne and then sent to and down along the Hudson River. It was to link up with an army sent from New York City. Unfortunately for the British the plan totally unraveled as in October Burgoyne’s army was defeated at the battle of Saratoga and forced to surrender (Ketchum, 1997).

The American Financial Situation Deteriorates

With the victory at Saratoga the military side of the war had improved considerably for the Americans. However, the financial situation was seriously deteriorating. The states to this point had made no voluntary payments to Congress. At the same time the continental currency had to compete with a variety of other currencies for resources. The states were issuing their own individual currencies to help finance expenditures. Moreover the British in an effort to destroy the funding system of the Continental Congress had undertaken a covert program of counterfeiting the Continental dollar. These dollars were printed and then distributed throughout the former colonies by the British army and agents loyal to the Crown (Newman, 1957). Altogether this expansion of the nominal money supply in the colonies led to a rapid depreciation of the Continental dollar (Calomiris, 1988, Michener, 1988). Furthermore, inflation may have been enhanced by any negative impact upon output resulting from the disruption of markets along with the destruction of property and loss of able-bodied men (Buel, 1998). By the end of 1777 inflation had reduced the specie value of the Continental to about twenty percent of what it had been when originally issued. This rapid decline in value was becoming a serious problem for Congress in that up to this point almost ninety percent of its revenue had been generated from currency emissions.

1778-83

British Invasion of the South

The British defeat at Saratoga had a profound impact upon the nature of the war. The French government still upset by their defeat by the British in the Seven Years War and encouraged by the American victory signed a treaty of alliance with the Continental Congress in early 1778. Fearing a new war with France the British government sent a commission to negotiate a peace treaty with the Americans. The commission offered to repeal all of the legislation applying to the colonies passed since 1763. Congress rejected the offer. The British response was to give up its efforts to suppress the rebellion in the North and in turn organize an invasion of the South. The new southern campaign began with the taking of the port of Savannah in December. Pursuing their southern strategy the British won major victories at Charleston and Camden during the spring and summer of 1780.

Worsening Inflation and Financial Problems

As the American military situation deteriorated in the South so did the financial circumstances of the Continental Congress. Inflation continued as Congress and the states dramatically increased the rate of issuance of their currencies. At the same time the British continued to pursue their policy of counterfeiting the Continental dollar. In order to deal with inflation some states organized conventions for the purpose of establishing wage and price controls (Rockoff, 1984). With its currency rapidly depreciating in value Congress increasingly relied on funds from other sources such as state requisitions, domestic loans, and French loans of specie. As a last resort Congress authorized the army to confiscate property.

Yorktown

Fortunately for the Americans the British military effort collapsed before the funding system of Congress. In a combined effort during the fall of 1781 French and American forces trapped the British southern army under the command of Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia. Under siege by superior forces the British army surrendered on October 19. The British government had now suffered not only the defeat of its northern strategy at Saratoga but also the defeat of its southern campaign at Yorktown. Following Yorktown, Britain suspended its offensive military operations against the Americans. The war was over. All that remained was the political maneuvering over the terms for peace.

The Treaty of Paris

The Revolutionary War officially concluded with the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783. Under the terms of the treaty the United States was granted independence and British troops were to evacuate all American territory. While commonly viewed by historians through the lens of political science, the Treaty of Paris was indeed a momentous economic achievement by the United States. The British ceded to the Americans all of the land east of the Mississippi River which they had taken from the French during the Seven Years War. The West was now available for settlement. To the extent the Revolutionary War had been undertaken by the Americans to avoid the costs of continued membership in the British Empire, the goal had been achieved. As an independent nation the United States was no longer subject to the regulations of the Navigation Acts. There was no longer to be any economic burden from British taxation.

THE FORMATION OF A NATIONAL GOVERNMENT

When you start a revolution you have to be prepared for the possibility you might win. This means being prepared to form a new government. When the Americans declared independence their experience of governing at a national level was indeed limited. In 1765 delegates from various colonies had met for about eighteen days at the Stamp Act Congress in New York to sort out a colonial response to the new stamp duties. Nearly a decade passed before delegates from colonies once again got together to discuss a colonial response to British policies. This time the discussions lasted seven weeks at the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia during the fall of 1774. The primary action taken at both meetings was an agreement to boycott trade with England. After having been in session only a month, delegates at the Second Continental Congress for the first time began to undertake actions usually associated with a national government. However, when the colonies were declared to be free and independent states Congress had yet to define its institutional relationship with the states.

The Articles of Confederation

Following the Declaration of Independence, Congress turned to deciding the political and economic powers it would be given as well as those granted to the states. After more than a year of debate among the delegates the allocation of powers was articulated in the Articles of Confederation. Only Congress would have the authority to declare war and conduct foreign affairs. It was not given the power to tax or regulate commerce. The expenses of Congress were to be made from a common treasury with funds supplied by the states. This revenue was to be generated from exercising the power granted to the states to determine their own internal taxes. It was not until November of 1777 that Congress approved the final draft of the Articles. It took over three years for the states to ratify the Articles. The primary reason for the delay was a dispute over control of land in the West as some states had claims while others did not. Those states with claims eventually agreed to cede them to Congress. The Articles were then ratified and put into effect on March 1, 1781. This was just a few months before the American victory at Yorktown. The process of institutional development had proved so difficult that the Americans fought almost the entire Revolutionary War with a government not sanctioned by the states.

Difficulties in the 1780s

The new national government that emerged from the Revolution confronted a host of issues during the 1780s. The first major one to be addressed by Congress was what to do with all of the land acquired in the West. Starting in 1784 Congress passed a series of land ordinances that provided for land surveys, sales of land to individuals, and the institutional foundation for the creation of new states. These ordinances opened the West for settlement. While this was a major accomplishment by Congress, other issues remained unresolved. Having repudiated its own currency and no power of taxation, Congress did not have an independent source of revenue to pay off its domestic and foreign debts incurred during the war. Since the Continental Army had been demobilized no protection was being provided for settlers in the West or against foreign invasion. Domestic trade was being increasingly disrupted during the 1780s as more states began to impose tariffs on goods from other states. Unable to resolve these and other issues Congress endorsed a proposed plan to hold a convention to meet in Philadelphia in May of 1787 to revise the Articles of Confederation.

Rather than amend the Articles, the delegates to the convention voted to replace them entirely with a new form of national government under the Constitution. There are of course many ways to assess the significance of this truly remarkable achievement. One is to view the Constitution as an economic document. Among other things the Constitution specifically addressed many of the economic problems that confronted Congress during and after the Revolutionary War. Drawing upon lessons learned in financing the war, no state under the Constitution would be allowed to coin money or issue bills of credit. Only the national government could coin money and regulate its value. Punishment was to be provided for counterfeiting. The problems associated with the states contributing to a common treasury under the Articles were overcome by giving the national government the coercive power of taxation. Part of the revenue was to be used to pay for the common defense of the United States. No longer would states be allowed to impose tariffs as they had done during the 1780s. The national government was now given the power to regulate both foreign and interstate commerce. As a result the nation was to become a common market. There is a general consensus among economic historians today that the economic significance of the ratification of the Constitution was to lay the institutional foundation for long run growth. From the point of view of the former colonists, however, it meant they had succeeded in transferring the power to tax and regulate commerce from Parliament to the new national government of the United States.

TABLES
Table 1 Continental Dollar Emissions (1775-1779)

Year of Emission Nominal Dollars Emitted (000) Annual Emission As Share of Total Nominal Stock Emitted Specie Value of Annual Emission (000) Annual Emission As Share of Total Specie Value Emitted
1775 $6,000 3% $6,000 15%
1776 19,000 8 15,330 37
1777 13,000 5 4,040 10
1778 63,000 26 10,380 25
1779 140,500 58 5,270 13
Total $241,500 100% $41,020 100%

Source: Bullock (1895), 135.
Table 2 Currency Emissions by the States (1775-1781)

Year of Emission Nominal Dollars Emitted (000) Year of Emission Nominal Dollars Emitted (000)
1775 $4,740 1778 $9,118
1776 13,328 1779 17,613
1777 9,573 1780 66,813
1781 123.376
Total $27,641 Total $216,376

Source: Robinson (1969), 327-28.

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