SOME merchants ran factories, from which came metals, glass and candles, among many other products.
Others, in New England and New York, sponsored whaling expeditions and owned facilities that reduced the whale carcass to meat, bones and whale oil.
From the ranks of merchants came the first true factory owners in the new nation.
Sedentary merchants often had partners, or at least family members, who worked with them, whereas shopkeepers tended to be sole proprietors.
Partners were desirable when each brought something to the business, such as capital, connections, experience or knowledge.
In some cases, one partner would remain in the shop while the other signed on as super cargo on one of the shipping missions and went from port to port making purchases.
Or he might go to another city or part of the nation where he would explore business opportunities.
The ‘corporate’ form, though known, was usually not employed.
Colonial Americans were accustomed to sole proprietorships and partnerships, but not to corporations, which were not trusted.
The concept of limited liability was troublesome to a people who had no experience with it, and shareholding and the separation of ownership and management posed another problem.
Besides, in this period, it was necessary to obtain passage of legislation in order to incorporate.
In any case, few corporations were organised during the colonial period.
Lotteries were a big business in colonial America, with merchants organising them or selling tickets.
During the Middle Ages, banks would send relatives to capital centres to represent the family interests.
There was relatively little of this in colonial America. Instead, sedentary merchants relied on agents, especially in London.
Agents were expected to have a deep knowledge of the merchant’s business and concerns, purchasing lots of merchandise when likely ones came to market.
They would arrange financing and make investments if called on to do so.
What this meant, in a period when communications were poor, was that each had to trust the other.
It also indicated that a merchant going to the docks to take possession of his cargo often had no clear idea of what it might contain.
By the mid-18th Century, a New York merchant advertised as ‘Just Imported and to be Sold’ at his store the following: “A parcel of choice Irish beef and pork, Cork rose butter, dpt candles, fine green and Bohea tea, silk, cotton and kenting handkerchiefs, muslin cravats and Scotch gauze,choice old claret in bottles and hogsheads, with the following Scotch bonnets, women’s stays, shoes, printed and broad cloths, silk and hair button, camlets and frizzes of all sorts.
Damasks of sundry colour for vests, etc.
Poplin, stock tape, cardinals, cloaks, cotton allapeens, flowered dimity plaid forest cloths, kersey, duffels, baize, horn and ivory combs, metal and steel buckles, knives and forks, hinges and a parcel of choice barley.”
The presence of such merchants and small manufacturers did not mean there was a thriving urban life in the colonies.
There was no census in this period.
The first such counting took place in 1790, at which time there were 3,9 million Americans, 3,7 million of whom lived in areas considered rural, which is to say they were farmers.
Of the 202 000 who lived in ‘urban’ areas, only 62 000 were in places with populations of between 25 000 and 50 000.
A majority of Americans lived on farms in the 19th Century as well.
As late as 1900, there were three rural Americans for every two urban dwellers.
The America that emerged from the Revolution was populated by farmers, those who fabricated goods from farm products and others who carried them to markets or created the means to do so.
Such was America in its rural age.
The American merchants were similar to those who once lived in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, the Hellenistic Age, Rome and the Middle Ages.
Sedentary merchants were ever on the prowl for the main chance, the opportunity to turn a profit.
In time, the world would become their marketplace.
Merchants with good relations in London might learn of opportunities in the Caribbean and switch some operations there, and eventually the Orient as well.
Since competent and honest agents in such areas were more difficult to locate than in London, partners shipping out as super cargo to Havana or Hong Kong became more common than before.
Ever more reluctant to call upon Parliament for grants, knowing the price would be to relinquish additional powers, the Crown sought other ways to raise capital. One was to oblige the American colonies to behave in a manner more in tune with mercantilist philosophy; to perform so to add wealth to the parent.
This thinking was present from the start, and the approach both assisted colonial enterprise and attempted to throttle those who might discourage the realisation of the Crown’s mandates.
In response to the conflict between the Netherlands and England, Parliament passed laws regulating commerce, most notably in acts passed in 1649 and 1651.
These laws tacitly recognised that the Dutch were superior in finance, shipbuilding as well as the carrying trade, and that the only way to compete was to exclude them from the English colonies.
Under the terms of the measures, goods could be carried to and from any colony in English ships with crews that were three-quarters English.
Any products destined for non-English ports had to be imported into England first.
These measures were consolidated in the Navigation Acts of 1660 and 1663, passed by the government of the newly restored monarchy under King Charles II, which also stipulated that certain colonial commodities could be exported only to England.
These included tobacco, sugar, raw cotton, indigo and ginger.
Other products were later added, including lumber, furs, copper ore, naval stores, hemp and iron.
Further Acts followed.
In 1699, England prohibited the export of colonial woolens.
Subsequent legislation forbade Englishmen with knowledge of woolen manufacture from leaving England and banned the export of tools used in textile manufacture.
For their part, some colonies passed laws encouraging the manufacture of woolens, thus indicating a mercantilist view of economics that clashed with the interests of the mother country.
The Molasses Act of 1733 placed a heavy duty on molasses, rum and other products imported into the colonies from non-English possessions.
Dr Michelina Andreucci is a Zimbabwean-Italian researcher, industrial design consultant and is a published author in her field.
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