Regional Economy and the American Revolution

Regional Economy and the American Revolution

Advancements in transportation and communication within colonial America in the 18th century helped create the conditions for independence.


3 - 12


Social Studies, Civics, U.S. History

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Throughout human history, inventions and new developments in transportation and communication have brought about tremendous changes in economic, social, and political conditions. Very few events illustrate this principle more dramatically than the American Revolution against British colonial rule. While political idealism and ecomic interests were the principle driving factors for the Revolution itself, the revolutionaries' success in uniting the 13 British colonies against the British would not have been possible if not for decades' worth of improvements to transportation infrastructure and lines of communication that helped lay the foundations for the first 13 United States.

In the early decades of colonial America, the continent bore no resemblance whatsoever to a national community. The first settlers occupied distant outposts on the Atlantic coast or upon navigable coastal waterways. At the outset, survival was their overwhelming task. Gradually, the British colonists progressed beyond mere subsistence toward an agricultural economy based on trade with their mother country. Their settlements remained separated by large areas of dense wilderness.

The early colonists did much of their traveling over water. Waterways such as the Massachusetts and Chesapeake bays and the Long Island Sound made for relatively easy passage along coastal regions. By the early 1700s, many harbor towns had sprung up, and a modest coastal trade had developed. Land routes were cleared more gradually as inland areas were settled, back country opened up, and the colonial population grew. Throughout the 18th century, a number of important cities developed on or near the Atlantic coast, as did a spreading infrastructure of roads between them.

Postal service was one of the main means of communication in colonial North America. However, this primarily meant transatlantic correspondence between the immigrant colonists and the European countries they had left behind (which primarily included the Netherlands, Germany, Sweden, and the British Isles). Only in the mid-1700s was a reliable network of post roads established between the 13 colonies and into Canada. This achievement was overseen by Benjamin Franklin, who was appointed in 1753 as one of two postmasters general for the colonies on the North American mainland.

Franklin was also deeply involved in his era's other primary medium of communication: printing. The story of the American newspaper begins with a single sheet published in 1690 by a Boston coffeehouse owner named Benjamin Harris. The British crown shut the paper down after only one issue. Franklin was in the newspaper business for a quarter century, beginning as a teenage apprentice to his older brother James, who published the New-England Courant in the 1720s. Franklin also founded one of the first American magazines in 1741. By the 1750s, the British authorities had relaxed their efforts to license printers and censor the content of newspapers. They did, however, attempt to impose a tax on the printing trade through the Stamp Act of 1765. This legislation sparked an angry uprising in the colonies that forced its repeal within a few months. American resistance to the Stamp Act is generally considered to be the beginning of the American Revolution.

By 1765, with settlement expanding westward, a network of overland travel routes was being developed in the regions inland of the seaboard and between maritime connections. Bridges, causeways, bridle paths, and carriage roads were built. The post roads and other large graveled roads would soon comprise viable intercolonial highways. These improved roads facilitated a substantial growth in trade between the colonies.

Of equal importance, newspapers (often called "gazettes") were by then operating in every colony. They freely exchanged news items between gazettes to create an informal information network. The gazettes no longer focused chiefly on information conveyed from the British government, but now sought to keep colonists informed of events and trends occurring elsewhere in their fellow colonies and across the North American continent.

As colonists from Maine to Georgia became increasingly acquainted with one another through the weekly gazettes, they began to recognize the common interests between themselves and other British subjects in North America. A sense of a shared collective identity as Americans began to take shape for the first time. The gazette publishers and pamphlet printers also circulated the writings of commentators such as Samuel Adams, John Dickinson, and Thomas Paine, who eventually rose to the status of opinion leaders. Many thousands of people across British North America read and discussed their opinions, in the coffeehouses and market squares, sparking lively public debate and conversation. Colonists' exposure to the same arguments and articles gave rise to a shared political vocabulary, expressed in slogans such as "no taxation without representation". This common vocabulary helped spread regional sentiment and support for both the patriotic and royalist causes. Participation in the broad community of thought ushered in by print communication drew the colonists together into a growing sense of common destiny.

The effects of these thriving trade and communications networks were vital to the success of the American Revolution and to the young United States of America. Early in the Revolution, reliable communications networks helped establish regional economic solidarity as colonists boycotted British goods in protest of the imposed duties and taxes. Following the 1776 Declaration of Independence, these same communication networks became vital to the aspiring nation's success not only at home but abroad, as the 13 states sought recognition from foreign powers as an independent nation. The Revolutionary War offically ended with the British surrender in 1783, by which time the United States had already gained recognition by several world powers (including Morocco, France, the Netherlands, Spain, and Sweden). As a newly-minted nation, the United States was swift to use its growing trade and communication networks to establish treaties and commercial trade routes, all of which bolstered the regional economy and gave the former British colony a strong economic start to its independence. Interstate commerce would continue to grow into the 19th century, and the United States' nationwide market would grow through industrialization later that century, further cementing America's economic power both at home and abroad.

Media Credits

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Tyson Brown, National Geographic Society
National Geographic Society
Production Managers
Gina Borgia, National Geographic Society
Jeanna Sullivan, National Geographic Society
Program Specialists
Sarah Appleton, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Margot Willis, National Geographic Society
Clint Parks
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

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