Economic History of Antebellum US


The U.S. began as a nearly total agrarian economy. At the signing of the  Declaration of Independence in 1776, approximately 90 percent of the people in all 13 colonies were farmers. The Southeast region specialized  in cash crops of tobacco and rice, and later, cotton. Geographic and economic forces led the southern regions to evolve into a plantation  economy, supplemented by a highly developed set of export/import markets and self-sufficient farms. Underlying the development of the Southern economy lay the legal, cultural and economic institution of slavery. This system powerfully influenced the economic framework of the antebellum Southern regions. This class will explore the economics of slavery, its effects on the profitability of Southern plantations and self-sufficient farms, and its effects on the economic structure and growth of the Southern and national economy.

In the Northern states a light manufacturing economy began to grow and blossom. The Industrial Revolution, which began in Great Britain in the late 18th century, threatened to cripple American industrial development,
but through political forces and clever intellectual maneuvering, the U.S. avoided this outcome and transformed itself into an industrial powerhouse. We will examine the geographic and economic forces that crafted this foundation of manufacturing, developed a set of transportation networks, established export and financial markets and built an industrial economy.

Interweaving through the economic evolution of the nation was the newly formed federal government. We will discuss how this quasi-democratic assembly of men made decisions about taxation, government spending,
infrastructure building and industrial clearances that both enabled and constrained markets and helped build the economic edifice of the new nation.

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