Book Review: The New England Merchants In The Seventeenth Century

The New England Merchants In The Seventeenth Century, by Bernard Bailyn

It likely does not need to be said at this point that I love the historiography of Bernard Bailyn and find it both fascinating in its attention to historical detail and context and its unforced and implicit contemporary relevance to contemporary sociopolitical matters.  As someone who has read a fair amount of the author’s work before [1], it is pretty easy to appreciate what Bailyn is doing here even if the book is highly technical and (unsurprisingly) quite challenging in that it deals with a subject few people care about–the complexity of business and family relationships among generations of New England merchants, exploring their origins, their integration with the colonial governments as well as the imperial government based on London, and the establishment of local and international trade relationships that provided a high degree of wealth as well as social tension within New England societies.  These are subjects I find interesting, but admittedly they are not something that many people seem to care about, which means that this book is likely to be an obscure work mainly of interest to those who are fond of early American economic history.

This particular book is about 200 pages and consists of seven chapters after two prefaces.  The author begins by looking at the origins of trade in the period when England was trying to profit off of New England before establishing permanent colonies (1).  After this Bailyn discusses the establishment of the Puritan merchants (2), a situation complicated by the struggles in finding profitable trade goods especially after the beaver trade collapsed and the tension between the desire of the merchants to make money and issues of social control on the part of the Puritan ministry.  Then there is a discussion of adjustments and early failures (3) that demonstrated failed attempts at establishing iron works and efforts on the part of New England to find ways out of their specie shortage.  After this comes a discussion of the legacy of the first generation of Puritan merchants (4) and the introduction of New England merchants to empire through the establishment of the triangular trade as well as the passing of the ambiguous Navigation Acts (5).  AFter this there are discussions of the elements of change both economically and politically as Puritan culture declined and as colonial leadership became involved with British imperial patronage (6) before the book closes with a discussion of the merchant group of New England at the end of the eighteenth century (7).

There are at least a few angles of relevance of this book that appear highly implicit and are dealt with in Bailyn’s usually subtle way.  For one, the tension between moral greatness and slavish devotion to wealth, as well as the tension between freedom and the belief that government knows best were definitely very early tensions within our society that show themselves to have developed early in American history.  Likewise, the tension between the well-being of peripheral regions and the desire of control the part of imperial centers is certainly an issue that has retained a great deal of force whether we look at internal or external patterns of colonial trade that still exist in the present world.  This is a history that demonstrates how it was that people solved issues of trust and how the ambiguities of laws allowed for a great deal of freedom for colonial merchants who sought to ensure their own livelihood and the well-being of their regions by providing themselves with the means through their own trading capacity for purchasing trade goods that they were unable to manufacture for themselves.  All in all, this is a great book that provides a thoughtful view of economic history in the United States and also manages to encourage the historian that there are many questions that remain unanswered and many aspects of historical research that remain unexamined.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, Book Reviews, History and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Book Review: The New England Merchants In The Seventeenth Century

  1. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Reblogged this on James' Ramblings.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s