It Came in the First Ships: Capitalism in America

The Virginians in Jamestown, the Puritans in Massachusetts Bay, the Quakers in Pennsylvania and other early settlers of what later became the United States all brought with them elements of capitalism, precursors of the future nation's market-driven direction. In this excerpt from his article "American Capitalism" in Creating Modern Capitalism: How Entrepreneurs, Companies, and Countries Triumphed in Three Industrial Revolutions, HBS Professor Thomas K. McCraw looks at the early years of capitalism on the North American continent.
by Thomas K. McCraw
Book Cover: Creating Modern Capitalism  

"Capitalism came in the first ships."
—Carl N. Degler, Out of Our Past

No nation has been more market-oriented in its origins and subsequent history than the United States of America. The very settling of the country, from the Atlantic to the Pacific and onward to Alaska and Hawaii, was one long entrepreneurial adventure. Even down to the present day, more Americans have probably made fortunes from the appreciation of real estate values than from any other source. But land is only the starting place for the epochal drama of American capitalism. That story, in comparison with the long-term business histories of all other large countries, has been one of intense and incessant competition. Americans have persistently shown themselves willing to follow market forces with relatively little hesitation.

In the early years, Americans' ravenous appetite for land was born of European deprivation confronting New World opportunity. Demand, which had been pent up for centuries, suddenly encountered plentiful supply. The settlers' hunger for more and more territory thrust them relentlessly westward, where they could establish farms and ranches that they themselves could own. This was the American Dream in its earliest form, and for the people living the dream, it had an aura of double-edged incredulity. There was disbelief not only at their own good fortune, but also at the backbreaking work required to capitalize on it.

From the colonial period through the early national years, and on into the nineteenth century, everything seemed up for grabs in the new country. Vast, apparently unlimited tracts of land were given away by the government or sold at irresistibly low prices. To get the best land, neither the first colonists nor the pioneers pressing across the frontier had much compunction about dispossessing Native Americans or each other. Sometimes they resorted to outright murder. The movement west constituted a great epic, but in its details was not a pretty story.

Land was available in prodigal abundance in early American history, but it is only one of the classic economic "factors of production." The others are labor, capital, and entrepreneurship. As the earlier chapters of this book have shown, modern capitalism fuses these four factors into operational systems for the conduct of economic life, most notably through the ingenious device of the business corporation.

There are several million corporations in the United States today, and a handful existed at the nation's official birth in 1776. The device became integral to the American economy only in the middle nineteenth century, but it was actually present at the creation 250 years earlier. In 1607, the settlers at Jamestown arrived under the charter of the Virginia Company of London. Puritans founded Boston in 1630 under the auspices of another English corporation, the Massachusetts Bay Company.

The proprietors of the Virginia Company soon were interested primarily in revenues from tobacco. Those of the Massachusetts Bay Company cared less about profit than about setting up what their leader John Winthrop called a "City upon a Hill." They wanted to demonstrate for all humanity the virtues of clean Christian living. If some of the Puritan merchants among them became moderately wealthy, then that might be a sign of God's grace, so long as customers were not cheated or overcharged. The line between virtuous profit and damnable avarice was blurry then, as it remains today. But the Puritans had an unmistakably capitalist turn of mind.

So did William Penn and his community of Friends. Persecuted in England for their religious beliefs, they acquired in 1681 a royal grant of land in America, and proceeded to develop their new colony on both religious and commercial principles. The Quaker merchants of Pennsylvania become prosperous international traders. Like the Puritan merchants of New England, they used their familial and religious connections to form a tight network of trustworthy relationships stretching over long distances. This kind of system for making credible business commitments is one of the essential conditions of strong economic development. In most capitalist economies today, it is embedded in the intricate law of contracts enforced by governments through courts.

Still another English corporation instrumental in populating the New World was the Royal African Company. Chartered in 1672, this company proceeded to take a significant though not dominant part in the slave trade. For the profit of shareholders, it brought to the western hemisphere masses of men and women who had been taken from Africa against their will. Eventually, many thousands of white merchants and seamen on both sides of the Atlantic participated in this commerce, including several hundred from Massachusetts and Rhode Island. The total number of Africans transported to the New World was about 10 million. Their destination was usually Brazil or one of the Caribbean sugar islands, but some 596,000, or about one of every 17, went to areas that became part of the United States.

In 1776, the 13 colonies that made up the original United States declared their independence after almost 170 years of British colonial status. Even at that early date, the new country's population of 2.5 million included plentiful examples of capitalism's many faces. Then as now, capitalism could serve despicable ends, noble ones, or some mixture of the two.

In between the oppressed slaves on the one hand and free yeoman farmers and entrepreneurs on the other stood a large number of whites who had come to America as indentured servants. Between one-half and two-thirds of all white immigrants before the Revolution arrived under these terms. They flocked to America mainly from England, but also from Scotland, Ireland, and Germany. (Germans tended to come in family groups, the others as single adults.) A few were abducted and taken aboard ship by force, but most made the trip voluntarily. They exchanged four to seven years' labor for passage to the New World.

So capitalism did come in the first ships, and in many different forms: legitimate commerce, legal cover for religious freedom, the slave trade, and individuals' exchange of labor for a ticket to America. Yet none of these examples represented modern capitalism. Few had much to do with the First Industrial Revolution, let alone the Second or Third. Each concerned farming, commerce, and trading, not technology and manufacturing. But all contained powerful elements of capitalism, and that proved to be momentous for the nation's future.