England's success at colonizing what would become the United States was due in large part to its use of charter companies. Charter companies were groups of stockholders (usually merchants and wealthy landowners) who sought personal economic gain and, perhaps, wanted also to advance England's national goals. While the private sector financed the companies, the King provided each project with a charter or grant conferring economic rights as well as political and judicial authority. The colonies generally did not show quick profits, however, and the English investors often turned over their colonial charters to the settlers. The political implications, although not realized at the time, were enormous. The colonists were left to build their own lives, their own communities, and their own economy -- in effect, to start constructing the rudiments of a new nation.
What early colonial prosperity there was resulted from trapping and trading in furs. In addition, fishing was a primary source of wealth in Massachusetts. But throughout the colonies, people lived primarily on small farms and were self-sufficient. In the few small cities and among the larger plantations of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia, some necessities and virtually all luxuries were imported in return for tobacco, rice, and indigo (blue dye) exports.
Supportive industries developed as the colonies grew. A variety of specialized sawmills and gristmills appeared. Colonists established shipyards to build fishing fleets and, in time, trading vessels. The also built small iron forges. By the 18th century, regional patterns of development had become clear: the New England colonies relied on ship-building and sailing to generate wealth; plantations (many using slave labor) in Maryland, Virginia, and the Carolinas grew tobacco, rice, and indigo; and the middle colonies of New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware shipped general crops and furs. Except for slaves, standards of living were generally high -- higher, in fact, than in England itself. Because English investors had withdrawn, the field was open to entrepreneurs among the colonists.
By 1770, the North American colonies were ready, both economically and politically, to become part of the emerging self-government movement that had dominated English politics since the time of James I (1603-1625). Disputes developed with England over taxation and other matters; Americans hoped for a modification of English taxes and regulations that would satisfy their demand for more self-government. Few thought the mounting quarrel with the English government would lead to all-out war against the British and to independence for the colonies.
Like the English political turmoil of the 17th and 18th centuries, the American Revolution (1775-1783) was both political and economic, bolstered by an emerging middle class with a rallying cry of "unalienable rights to life, liberty, and property" -- a phrase openly borrowed from English philosopher John Locke's Second Treatise on Civil Government (1690). The war was triggered by an event in April 1775. British soldiers, intending to capture a colonial arms depot at Concord, Massachusetts, clashed with colonial militiamen. Someone -- no one knows exactly who -- fired a shot, and eight years of fighting began. While political separation from England may not have been the majority of colonists' original goal, independence and the creation of a new nation -- the United States -- was the ultimate result.
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This article is adapted from the book "Outline of the U.S. Economy" by Conte and Carr and has been adapted with permission from the U.S. Department of State.