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Joseph Kaminski

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November 21, 2019

Book Review: The Economy of Colonial America by Edwin J. Perkins

Edwin J. Perkins, a leading figure in American economic history and one of the main three authors that depict the economic situations of the colonial era, is an emeritus professor at the University of Southern California. He currently resides in Laguana Woods in California, where he pursues his own research despite being “retired”, and spends his free time playing golf and tennis. Born on May 16th, 1939, Edwin J. Perkins has dedicated his life to the history of American economics, business practices, and finances – a rather obscure niche of what average men and women would consider part of history. You see, when it comes to history – it’s more than memorizing dates and facts; in fact, it’s more than analyzing and comprehending sociological epochs and understanding the domino effect of history itself. History is the story of everything – from the beginning of time to the modern day. Thus, Edwin J. Perkins is studying a part of history that not only matters to every day daily life, but coincides with running themes such as democracy and capitalism.

Just as history is more than what the average person thinks of, the same can be said towards a class focused on British History. While most people would think British History would focus specifically on the movements and problems going on within the British Isles, it is important to note than the theme extends across the world. As we all know, the sun never set in the British Empire. From there, we can examine one of Perkins’ greatest works – one that was a “pioneer” in the field and has gone down as a rather important and incredibly detailed piece of research  – The Economy of Colonial America.

Perkins is a rather respected member in the field of history, having been a member of the American Historical Association since 1969. According to his miniscule interview on the American Historical Association’s Member Spotlight, published on February 25th, 2016,  most of his current research goes into book reviews throughout his field. An interesting point to note about Perkins would be where he started. Every historian has their own story, and Perkins traced his love for history back to his senior year in high school – back in 1957. According to his quips, his interest in history came from his high school history teacher. In a sense, many historians seem to root their interest back to a similar interaction.

Perkins graduated from the College of William and Mary in 1961 with a Bachelor’s Degree in History. He went on to get his Masters from the University of Virginia in 1963, and his PhD from Johns Hopkins University in 1972. With such an extensive academic career, along with several books dawning his name on the front cover, it should be known from the beginning that Edwin J. Perkins not only understands his field of interest, but that he is dedicated to it as well.

When it comes to bias, there is very little to work with to decide on whether or not he could have been influenced in his book The Economy of Colonial America. He begins the book by explaining his initial interest in the study of colonial economic history, linking it back to how he realized that there was a lack of knowledge on the subject in terms of printed books.

He expresses his frustration in realizing that “no other historian had then published a(n) […] interpretation of recent scholarship in the field [of colonial economic history]. With a drive dedicated to expanding the written “record” of a specific – and perceived “niche” – of history, bias isn’t the first thing to come to mind. While it is impossible to create a work without some sort of objectivity, Perkins does a fantastic job of placing pure statistical knowledge and an immense amount of references over any form of bias.

Perkins uses a writing style that I completely endorse. His sentences are structured in a way that anyone can understand them, no matter what level of knowledge one may have. His sentences are not choppy and cut-short, and they are nowhere near as long and dull as the other (very few) books that discuss the same topics at hand. I found myself not only comprehending but enjoying his brief history on colonial economics, mostly due to his ability to transfer his extensive knowledge and research into one-hundred-and-seventy short pages.

I personally chose this book because it aligned with my own personal research concerning the evolution of American economics. Since the early forms of American economics belonged not to the United States but instead England and its initial mercantilist form of government, the book covered many bases for my own interests. That being said, I came into the book expecting it to be a dull collection of statistics and sources. The history of economics doesn’t quite sound like a rather captivating subject; but Perkins does a fantastic job of making it easy enough for lower leveled students of history to understand, yet in-depth enough to keep higher leveled students of history interested.

The Economy of Colonial America by Edwin J. Perkins is one of the most – if not the most – valid works on the subject of economics that I’ve ever read. Not only does the author present an accurate and reliable account on the subject, he does so in a way where no historian or economist could discredit his writing. The early pages are littered with tables depicting balances of trade alongside the imports and exports of the colonies when compared to the mother country of England and the rivaling continental forces; and each table is followed up by a three-to-four line excerpt depicting the source of where the information in the charts come from. Should one be inclined enough to look into the sources, one would find that the books sourced are considered the foundational fundamentals of the research at hand.

The author has a really unique style – at least compared to modern historical works – in which footnotes and endnotes are replaced by a short bibliographical essay at the end of every chapter. Rather than cluttering the pages of his central focus with longwinded footnotes, Edwin J. Perkins instead ends every chapter with a one-to-three page bibliographical essay. Each of these not only reference the resources used for his research, but go as far as breaking them down and discussing their relative significance. This style of implementing his bibliography throughout the entire piece is a fantastic method. Not only does it boost the credibility of every chapter, it makes it easier to track the information and quickly find similar books on the different topics of each section within The Economics of Colonial America.

The book is split into three separate sections – a preface composed of three units, and six units broken down into two separate sections. The initial preface opens up the book and explains the research at hand, giving extensive background information and explaining the set-up of the book. From there, the socioeconomics behind the population growth of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries becomes the first major point in the book.

Perhaps one of the greatest explanations in the work comes from these crucial few pages, where Perkins underlined the tensions that were growing between the colonies and the “mother country” of England. Perkins relies on a pamphlet, written in 1760 by eventual founding father Benjamin Franklin, to highlight the initial struggle between the men and women living in North America and the so-called “elitists” that lived overseas in the capital of the empire. It is important to note that this period of time, despite going down in many history books as “American”, Benjamin Franklin – alongside any other colonial historian, economist, artisan, merchant, or civilian – is at this point in his life British.

“A man must know very little of the trade of the world,” Franklin wrote in his 1760 pamphlet concerning the foreign trade at the time, “who does not know that the greater part of [it] is carried on between countries whose climate differs very little. England has far more to gain than to lose from the expansion of colonial manufacturing.” (Perkins, 23-24).

Essentially, Franklin – at the time of the inception of this work of writing – could be considered a moderate at the time. To Britain, the rising forces of manufacturing in their colonies weakened the centralized economics of the entire empire. One must put themselves in the place of the government at the time to understand where that thought came from. In the 1760’s, there was a (rather radical and unpopular) thought in the colonies that was attempting to move the government of the empire from London to Philadelphia – as the state of Pennsylvania was proving to be a rapidly growing and stabilizing “state” for economic purposes. Some very loud colonists even proclaimed in writing that the government of the English Empire would be safe overseas rather than staring at the edge of the continental powers of Europe. We can see this pattern in history again when the Portuguese Empire ideologically fought against their “New Portugal” community in Brazil.

However, to the colonials who weren’t endorsing or even interested in that thought process, the mother country’s style of shutting down (or at least attempting to limit) colonial enterprises was not good for the empire as a whole. This running theme lasts throughout the book. As the government of the mother land became more and more paranoid in an economic sense, they began making more and more mistakes that eventually led to the “radical” idea of a revolution. Even after the Navigation Acts, the colonies weren’t actually negatively affected enough to cause much harm. But, as time goes on, the breakdown of statistics portrayed in the book showcases the eventual riff between the empire.

Sections 1 and 2 are where the micro economic theory is put aside for more macro descriptions. Essentially, Perkins begins the book after the first 40 pages (which seem to exist simply to explain the backstory through statistics and historical records). The rest of the book – composed of six chapters – is split into two distinct sections. The first focuses around the “occupational groups” of the colonies, while the second focuses on the marriage between taxes and politics between the motherland and the local colonial governments.

Personally, I found several sociological notations scattered throughout the remainder of this book. One could go as far to notice a neo-Marxist position as Perkins discussed the problems between taxes, and later money in general, in the political system at the time. In modern day studies, one would find this proto-libertarian pseudo-socialist theory as a different spectrum entirely on the political compass in terms of economic thought. However, as the book discusses the economics at the time of the colonial days of British America, the references at hand are contemporary at best.

The Economy of Colonial America does a fantastic job of merging all three sectors of the book through description on theory and practice. One has a hard time understanding the occupational groups in section one and the political practices of section two if they don’t get through the backstory presented in the preface and the two chapters prior to the introduction to his overall thesis. The sections lean on each other, calling back to previous statistics to show the differences between decades leading up to the revolutionary era.

The book ends its economic history in around 1774 – two years prior to the revolution itself. Thus, the entire work focuses on the economics of a part of the British Empire – an interesting concept when modern day history might also consider this history as “American”. Overall, the book brings up enough detail and reference to satisfy any information present between the early 17th century and the mid-to-late 18th century.

Professional editorial reviews have fallen in love with this 1980 piece of economic research by Edwin J. Perkins. The Business History Review wrote: “His study is excellent: a concise and readable synthesis loaded with facts and figures about the colonial economy.” I love the use of the word “readable” in this review. Even if someone doesn’t have the background in this field, they can easily gain a background through the easy-to-decipher pages that Edwin Perkins has presented us. The Journal of Economic History also reviewed The Economics of Colonial America, writing that “anyone who keeps up with the literature on colonial [economic] history will find Perkins’ overview useful and insightful… Perkins has moved us further out of the statistical ‘dark age’.” As stated prior, Perkins did a fantastic job of merging statistics with description and sources everything within his work.

As for a “final verdict” for this book, I do in fact recommend this book. I would recommend this book to any historian, economist, or close friend looking to get into the subject. As stated previously, I chose this book because it happened to coincide with this review and my own personal research. It did more than help me understand, it got me more interested than I ever expected. As for understanding this course, I’m sure it will benefit my knowledge on the decades leading up to the revolution itself – when the colonies technically commit treason over some economic misunderstandings.

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