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.
Robert G. Parkinson
According to David Ramsay, one of the first historians of the American Revolution, “in establishing American independence, the pen and press had merit equal to that of the sword.” Because of the unstable and fragile notions of unity among the thirteen American colonies, print acted as a binding agent that mitigated the chances that the colonies would not support one another when war with Britain broke out in 1775.
Two major types of print dealt with the political process of the American Revolution: pamphlets and newspapers. Pamphlets were one of the most important conveyors of ideas during the imperial crisis. Often written by elites under pseudonyms and published by booksellers, they have long been held by historians as the lifeblood of the American Revolution. There were also three dozen newspaper printers in the American mainland colonies at the start of the Revolution, each producing a four-page issue every week. These weekly papers, or one-sheet broadsides that appeared in American cities even more frequently, were the most important communication avenue to keep colonists informed of events hundreds of miles away. Because of the structure of the newspaper business in the 18th century, the stories that appeared in each paper were “exchanged” from other papers in different cities, creating a uniform effect akin to a modern news wire. The exchange system allowed for the same story to appear across North America, and it provided the Revolutionaries with a method to shore up that fragile sense of unity. It is difficult to imagine American independence—as a popular idea let alone a possible policy decision—without understanding how print worked in colonial America in the mid-18th century.
Described as a “chief among chiefs” by the British, and by his arch-rival, William Henry Harrison, as “one of those uncommon geniuses which spring up occasionally to produce revolutions and overturn the established order of things,” Tecumseh impressed all who knew him. Lauded for his oratory, military and diplomatic skills, and, ultimately, his humanity, Tecumseh presided over the greatest Indian resistance movement that had ever been assembled in the eastern half of North America. His genius lay in his ability to fully articulate religious, racial, and cultural ideals borne out of his people’s existence on fault lines between competing empires and Indian confederacies. Known as “southerners” by their Algonquian relatives, the Shawnees had a history of migrating between worlds. Tecumseh, and his brother, Tenskwatawa, converted this inheritance into a widespread social movement in the first decade and a half of the 19th-century, when more than a thousand warriors, from many different tribes, heeded their call to halt American expansion along the border of what is now Ohio and Indiana. Tecumseh articulated a vision of intertribal, pan-Indian unity based on revitalization and reform, and his ambitions very nearly rewrote early American history.
The United States–Mexico War was the first war in which the United States engaged in a conflict with a foreign nation for the purpose of conquest. It was also the first conflict in which trained soldiers (from West Point) played a large role. The war’s end transformed the United States into a continental nation as it acquired a vast portion of Mexico’s northern territories. In addition to shaping U.S.–Mexico relations into the present, the conflict also led to the forcible incorporation of Mexicans (who became Mexican Americans) as the nation’s first Latinos. Yet, the war has been identified as the nation’s “forgotten war” because few Americans know the causes and consequences of this conflict. Within fifteen years of the war’s end, the conflict faded from popular memory, but it did not disappear, due to the outbreak of the U.S. Civil War. By contrast, the U.S.–Mexico War is prominently remembered in Mexico as having caused the loss of half of the nation’s territory, and as an event that continues to shape Mexico’s relationship with the United States. Official memories (or national histories) of war affect international relations, and also shape how each nation’s population views citizens of other countries. Not surprisingly, there is a stark difference in the ways that American citizens and Mexican citizens remember and forget the war (e.g., Americans refer to the “Mexican American War” or the “U.S.–Mexican War,” for example, while Mexicans identify the conflict as the “War of North American Intervention”).