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Published by EH.Net (September 2023).

Jeremy Land. Colonial Ports, Global Trade, and the Roots of the American Revolution, 1700–1776. Leiden: Brill, 2023. xiv + 239 pp. $134 (hardback), ISBN 978-9004542693.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Benjamin L. Carp, Department of History, Brooklyn College.

 

Most students of the American Revolution have a sense that the northern cities—particularly Boston and Philadelphia—played an important political role in the coming of the American Revolution. In Colonial Ports, Global Trade, and the Roots of the American Revolution, 1700–1776, Jeremy Land demonstrates that the commercial interests of these cities, as well as New York City, were vital to the American colonies’ mobilization against Great Britain.

Land, currently Postdoktor in the Economic History research unit in the Department of Economy and Society at the University of Gothenburg and a visiting scholar at the University of Helsinki, has painstakingly researched the commercial world of northern American merchants in the eighteenth century. He makes thorough use of key merchant records, such as the Caleb Davis Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society and the Tench Francis Invoice Book at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. He also uses vital secondary sources, which help to generate some (though not all) of the extensive tabular information throughout the book.

The American Revolution is the climax of the book but not its primary focus. Instead, Land lays the groundwork for understanding the economic motivations that eventually launched worldwide political and military turmoil. After decades of fights among scholars taking ideological, material, imperial, and emotional approaches to the origins of the Revolution, Land offers a convincing material explanation of the cause of American independence. Tight, well-organized, and quite readable, Land’s book presents an argument that is both straightforward and sophisticated. He successfully argues against several prior interpretations of the political economy of eighteenth-century British North America.

First, he argues that scholars should understand Boston, New York City, and Philadelphia, as well as the smaller towns in their orbit, as a complex, integrated “port complex” or “port system” rather than fetishizing them as entrepôts for distinct regions (15). “While at times they competed,” he writes, “merchants in these three cities more often complemented and cooperated with one another, creating intricate networks of credit, business, and trade” (2). Land traces their business structures and commercial connections and emphasizes their networks and political connections to one another (15). Together they formed a “nodal center” that was independent of the British metropole (3).

Second, with that in mind Land argues that these cities’ mercantile interests developed and deployed their own resources, rather than acting as handmaidens to British sources of capital. Indeed, he argues, the metropole often stumbled as an inadequate manager of colonial economic interests. By contrast, since American merchants owned a third of the empire’s merchant marine tonnage, “colonial investment was quite capable of sustaining itself without being dependent on British capital” (51). As a result, North America’s globally connected merchants successfully competed with “English merchants and the English mercantilist agenda” (4).

Third, the British didn’t actively opt for a policy of “salutary neglect” toward the colonies (151). Imperial officials went through earnest phases of trying to enforce mercantilism, particularly after incurring debts during the Seven Years’ War, but these officials also went through phases of accommodating local merchants or leaving them alone. Ultimately, a lack of imperial capacity to enforce customs laws or provide sufficient specie forced the American cities to go outside the British Empire for circulating currency, specie, and trade routes.

Trade with the Caribbean and outside the empire was on the whole more important to American merchants than was trade with Great Britain. By referring to “trans-imperial trade networks,” Land avoids any romantic, Han Solo-esque associations we might have with smuggling and takes a clearer look at American trading networks outside the British Empire (2). While illegal trade can be difficult to document, Land finds plenty of suggestive evidence. As perhaps the best example, he draws from an earlier co-authored article to demonstrate that Lisbon records show 73% more trade with Philadelphia than the Philadelphia customs house records (Land and Dominguez, 2019, 148–49).

By trading outside the empire, northern merchants had mounted a “resistance” to British mercantile policy long before the 1760s, and the customs service was essentially powerless to enforce its Navigation Acts (2). Although the British Empire ramped up its enforcement efforts after 1763, these efforts backfired. American merchants decided that “membership in the British Empire … was not worth the effort” (3).

Land has read the literature extensively and is particularly keen on reviving classic works of economic history, but he also misses opportunities to cite some of the recent work on marine insurance, British political economy, and the historiography of the American Revolution.

Still, Land successfully makes his case. Readers will appreciate his extensive efforts to document northern American commerce in the eighteenth century and they will find his well-constructed arguments thoroughly persuasive.

References

Land, Jeremy, and Rodrigo da Costa Dominguez. “Illicit Affairs: Philadelphia’s Trade with Lisbon before Independence, 1700-1775.” Ler Historia 75 (2019): 179–204.

 

Benjamin L. Carp is the Daniel M. Lyons Professor of American History at Brooklyn College and teaches at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His most recent book is The Great New York Fire of 1776: A Lost Story of the American Revolution (Yale University Press, 2023).

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