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, improvements in transportation and communication have brought about enormous changes in economic, social, and political conditions. This is illustrated dramatically by the American Revolution. 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—roads and bridges—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 lived in scattered outposts along the Atlantic coast or by inland rivers. At the outset, survival was their overwhelming task. Slowly, the British colonists progressed beyond mere survival. They developed an agricultural economy based on trade with Britain, the mother country. However, their settlements remained separated from each other by large areas of dense wilderness.

Harbor Towns Bring Coastal Trade

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 some coastal trade had developed. Land routes were slowly cleared as inland areas were settled and the colonial population grew. Throughout the 18th century, a number of important cities developed along the Atlantic coast. As these cities grew, new roads were built to connect them.

Postal service was one of the main means of communication in colonial North America. However, this primarily meant transatlantic correspondence between the colonists and European countries. Only in the mid-1700s was a reliable network of post roads established between the 13 colonies. This achievement was overseen by Benjamin Franklin. In 1753, Franklin had been appointed one of two postmasters general for the North American colonies.

Stamp Act of 1765 Sparks Uprising

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 control the content of newspapers. They did, however, attempt to institute a tax on the printing trade through the Stamp Act of 1765. This legislation sparked an angry uprising in the colonies that forced the British to drop the tax within a few months. Here was the first clear sign of American resistance to British rule.

By 1765, a network of overland travel routes was being developed as settlement expanded westward. Bridges, bridle paths, and carriage roads were built. Over time, a network of post roads and other large graveled roads grew into intercolonial highways. These improved roads made possible a dramatic growth in trade between the colonies.

Informal Information Network

Of equal importance, newspapers—often called "gazettes"—were now operating in every colony. They freely exchanged news items between them to create an informal information network. The gazettes no longer focused chiefly on information conveyed from the British government. Instead, they tried to keep colonists informed of events and trends occurring elsewhere on the North American continent.

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 identity as Americans began to take shape for the first time.

Commentators such as Samuel Adams, John Dickinson, and Thomas Paine also found an audience during this time, thanks to the gazette publishers and pamphlet printers. Their words were read by many thousands of people across British North America. Soon, their ideas were being discussed in homes and market squares. A shared political vocabulary began to develop, expressed in slogans such as "no taxation without representation." For the first time, the colonists had a growing sense of common destiny.

One Vast Nationwide Market

The effects of this transformation were revolutionary. To protest excessive duties and taxes, the colonists joined forces and vowed to stop buying British goods. In 1776, the colonists took the final step and declared their independence. Following the successful revolution, the new United States set out to shift away from dependence on trade with Britain. It swiftly established commercial relations with other countries and rapidly developed its domestic trade. As interstate commerce grew in the early 19th century, the United States became one vast nationwide market. The wealth this generated made the country into a worldwide power.

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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