By the eighteenth century, a competition emerged among a number of European states for control over various parts of Europe, and over colonies in the Americas and around the world. Though not clearly understood or fully defined until the end of the eighteenth century, mercantilism emerged as the governing principle between home states and their colonies, through which Spain, France, and England attempted to maintain a favorable balance of trade. For England and France in particular, competition in trade arising from mercantilism led to military confrontation. New European diplomatic alliances responded to Prussias challenge to Austria in central Europe. When the Seven Years War and its North American expansion, the French and Indian Wars, ended in 1763, Austria and France were seriously weakened, while Prussia placed itself among the great powers of Europe. The greatest gains went to Britain, but its successful bid for North American supremacy sowed the seeds of the struggle for American independence. The taxation necessary in Great Britain and her North American possessions to pay for the wars and for the enlarged costs of administering the newly won territories was a direct and fundamental cause of the American revolt against Great Britain. The Americans simply could not accept Parliaments interpretation of what was now necessary for the British Empire. By employing arguments that had influenced British political thought over the previous century, and by steadfastly refusing to submit to British authority, the colonies marshaled public opinion against George IIIs government, which in turn effectively declared war. Thomas Paines Common Sense (1775) expressed a new concept of independence, which the Declaration of Independence built upon the following year. After eight years of intermittent fighting, Britain recognized the independence of its seaboard colonies as the United States of America, which had already become and would remain for some decades a laboratory for experiments in government reflecting the Enlightenment and the unique character of American frontier life. The ideas these experiments produced became a key part of the Western heritage. A far more problematic element of the Western heritage, slavery, was essential to the plantation system that developed in the Atlantic economy. Africans were forcibly transported to the New World, especially along the Atlantic seaboard from the Chesapeake Bay in North America to Brazil in the south. Slaves provided the uncompensated labor on which the production of sugar, cotton, and other products depended.
After reading this chapter you should understand:
- Europes concept of mercantilism and empire-building.
- The nature and decline of Spains vast colonial empire in the Americas.
- The structure of slavery in the Americas, and the role of slave labor
in the Atlantic economy's plantation system.
- The wars in Europe and the colonies, particularly the Seven Years
- The conflict between Britain and its colonies, and its outcome in the War
of American Independence.