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date: 29 May 2017

North America’s Commerce in a Revolutionary Era

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.