An economic history of the United States that devotes its first volume to "The Colonial Era" runs an obvious risk. All too easily, one can fall into the trap of assuming that the pre-history of the US is to be found only in the history of the 13 colonies that broke away from the British Empire to form the new nation. Historians now stress that the 13 colonies were part of a much wider Atlantic trading world. In the 17th century and even for much of the 18th, this world included colonial powers besides England or Britain.
But by 1763, conquest had made this in essence a British system, encompassing the whole Atlantic seaboard of North America, the British Isles, the West Indies and West Africa and shaped by British commercial legislation. The editors pay due respect to this imperial dimension. While the bulk of this volume deals with the colonies that went on to become the United States, there are some glances at Quebec and Nova Scotia.
More significantly, one of the nine chapters is given over to the Caribbean islands, which historians now appreciate played a vital role in the colonies' economy. The rum distilleries of New England used Caribbean molasses; and the islands imported timber and foodstuffs from the mainland. In its early years, South Carolina was in effect a colony of Barbados; even in the mid-18th century its plantation system and reliance on slave labour meant it had more in common with the islands than with the northern mainland colonies.
The volume reflects modern scholarly trends in another key way. Recently there has been a much greater awareness that the history of colonial America is not simply the story of European settlement. The first colonists encountered and had to find ways to deal with the indigenous population. And within a few decades, African slaves were being brought to the English colonies in large numbers. Opening chapters on the Native Americans and the African and European backgrounds demonstrate a commitment to this multicultural approach.
Some readers might think that "The Colonial Era" is interpreted rather loosely. Neal Salisbury's chapter on Native Americans begins before the arrival of the Europeans and goes up to the American civil war; B. W. Higman's essay on the British West Indies considers the subject right through to slave emancipation in the 1830s; and Cathy Matson's contribution provides coverage of the new United States in the revolution, the war of independence and the early national period. This long chronological perspective is as welcome as the broad geographical vision because even after a long and damaging war had secured political independence, the US remained for many years in an economic relationship with Britain that can best be described as "colonial".
This volume is a well-designed and skilfully executed introduction to the economic history of colonial North America. The essays are scholarly yet accessible. Brief bibliographical essays accompany each chapter and provide a helpful guide to further reading. Stanley Engerman and Robert Gallman and their team of authors have produced a book that will surely become required reading for all teachers and students of early America.
Stephen Conway is reader in history, University College London.
Cambridge Economic History of the United States, Volume One: The Colonial Era
Editor - Stanley L. Engerman and Robert E. Gallman
ISBN - 0 521 39442 2
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £55.00
Pages - 481