William G. Thomas III
Date of this Version
Jensen Alexander Humphrey. "Private Interests In The Public Sphere: The Evolution Of Private Interest Before And During The American Revolution." Bachelor's thesis, University of Nebraska at Lincoln, 2021.
From the mid-1600s to the mid-1700s, mercantilism was the dominant economic doctrine practiced in the politics of the English Empire. To balance foreign trade in favor of exports and bolster the national wealth, however, mercantilists argued in favor of centralizing private commercial interests in the public realm, effectively redefining the public interest as a composition of narrow merchant interests. Restrictive mercantilist policies directed at the American colonies worsened over time, and colonists turned to the theories of John Locke to argue that English mercantilism prohibited colonists from fully realizing their rights to liberty and property. This association of mercantilism with oppression was solidified in the post-7 Years’ War economic depression of the 1760s as England doubled down on efforts to extract wealth from the colonies. Seeing the productive potential of America held back by mercantilist practices and feeling the threat to their liberties posed by the Crown, colonists, increasingly open to the arguments of smugglers with longstanding anti-mercantilist sentiments, thus argued for free and uninhibited trade in the colonies. Free trade practices would alleviate the oppression that mercantilism became associated with and redefine the public interest as the sum of private interests competing in the marketplace. As the conflict between the Crown and the colonies came to a head, colonial thinkers eventually abandoned free trade ideals in favor of reviving republican ideas of the role of private interest in the public sphere, purporting for the success of the mounting revolutionary war effort that it was necessary to subjugate all private interests to the public good for the duration of the war while holding a place in the future for mercantilist or free trade conceptions of private interest.