This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History. Please check back later for the full article.
A long revolutionary era beginning in the 1770s and continuing into the 1820s profoundly altered North American commerce. The North American movement for independence from the British empire disrupted channels of trade in people and goods as embargoes and blockades shut down major transition points between continents or islands and the Atlantic Ocean, privateering crews of different empires seized vessels, wartime activities challenged the slave trade, and the economic fortunes of many international traders forced them to migrate, find new avenues of commerce, or retire altogether. Only a handful of well-placed merchants prospered during the North American Revolution by securing military supply contracts or engaging in illicit commerce, especially in the French and Spanish Caribbean.
Despite many North Americans’ expectations for a rapid recovery after the Peace of Paris, recovery and new prosperity emerged slowly. Old connections to England, despite the revolutionary separation, recovered most quickly; but these connections were available to a small percentage of well-placed merchants, and often they were built on new foundations with new immigrants to North America. Moreover, England’s policy makers were intent upon limiting North American trade to parts of the world—especially the Caribbean—where the British empire hoped to control markets. A spike in vessel and crew seizures ensued during the 1780s. Within the Western Hemisphere, the French and Haitian revolutions also deeply unsettled many essential ties to British, French, and Spanish Caribbean markets, so that by the end of the 1790s North American merchants who wished to stay in commerce had been compelled to diversify their ports of call and seek new markets in South America, the Gulf Coast, and northern Europe. Meanwhile, the slave trade revived. When North American commerce began to flourish after the 1790s, revolutions in South America had a far less deleterious effect on the movement of goods and people. By then, the demand for provisions during the global spread of the Napoleonic wars, the opening of markets in the Far East, the expanding exporting potential of North Americans (especially flour and cotton), and their re-export commerce (especially sugar) rose above some of the constraints of earlier years.
Christian J. Koot
Smuggling was a regular feature of the economy of colonial British America in the 17th and 18th centuries. Though the very nature of illicit commerce means that the extent of this trade is incalculable, a wide variety of British and colonial sources testify to the ability of merchants to trade where they pleased and to avoid paying duties in the process. Together admiralty proceedings, merchant correspondence and account books, customs reports, and petitions demonstrate that illicit trade enriched individuals and allowed settlers to shape their colonies’ development. Smuggling formed in resistance to British economic and political control. British authorities attempted to harness the trade of their Atlantic colonies by employing a series of laws that restricted overseas commerce (often referred to as the Navigation Acts). This legislation created the opportunity for illicit trade by raising the costs of legal trade. Hampered by insufficient resources, thousands of miles of coastline, and complicit local officials, British customs agents could not prevent smuggling. Economic self-interest and the pursuit of profit certainly motivated smugglers, but because it was tied to a larger transatlantic debate about the proper balance between regulation and free trade, smuggling was also a political act. Through smuggling colonists rejected what they saw as capricious regulations designed to enrich Britain at their expense.