A Perkins Review

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The Economy Of Colonial America
Published in Hardback by University Presses of California, Columbia and Princeton (November 1, 1980)
Author: Edwin J. Perkins
Average review score:
Economic background of the United States before Independance

This book is a scholarly work that manages to keep the reader interested while at the same time tieing together colonial facts. Perkins covers population, trade, occupational groups, money and taxes while giving the reader a good sense of life in Colonial America.

A summary of some of the interesting facts he brings to light:

  • Economic growth in the Colonies outpaced population growth so much and taxes were low enough that by 1770 the standard of living in the colonies exceeded that of the rest of the world, even that of England at almost the height of Empire.
  • While foreign trade only made up 20-30% of the economy over the few hundred years before Independance, the wealthiest colonials were the ones heavily involved in trade and also had the free time to participate heavily in politics, tending to amplify the effect of trade disputes into political ones.
  • Most workers were involved in agriculture and most agriculture and exports were food staples. While many areas had cash crops like tobacco and indigo, even the largest tobacco plantations grew twice as much food as tobacco.
  • Indentured servitude was an accepted part of society, attaching no stigma to the servant. A servant was treated more like a traditional apprentice than a slave. Indentured Servants, male and female, used a labor contract for 5-7 years as a way to be able to save money, learn skills, get to America and move up in the world.
  • Women owned property and made their own decisions once they were adults (over 21), until they married, at which point their husband had essentially veto power. However, pre-(and even post)nuptial agreements were common and enforced and widows also held full legal status in the disposition and management of their property, subject only to the possible eventual demands of their former husband's heirs.
  • Paper money was used successfully by many of the colonies. It started as a method to pay for wars until England could reimburse a colony. Paper money was treated as a mix between present-day government bonds and fiat money.
  • There was never much of a rational economic basis for the Colonies to revolt, but a mixture of economic signals from the English Parliment, combined with successful colonial boycotts and protests led to a revolt that actually resulted in higher taxes for the inhabitants.

If you like economics and history, you'll enjoy this book. It's a fairly easy read with a lot of substance. The 2nd edition contains updates based on more research done in the 1980's that exposes some topics that had been misinterpreted in the past. - Thomas Sewell