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Reconstructing Mercantilism: Consensus and Conflict in British Imperial Economy in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries

Jonathan Barth
The William and Mary Quarterly
Vol. 73, No. 2 (April 2016), pp. 257-290
DOI: 10.5309/willmaryquar.73.2.0257
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5309/willmaryquar.73.2.0257
Page Count: 34
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Reconstructing Mercantilism: Consensus and Conflict in British Imperial Economy in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries
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Abstract

Mercantilism is a term that has withstood enormous scrutiny from historians since the middle of the twentieth century. The fact that economic thinkers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries so ardently disagreed on a wide range of policy proposals has led many historians to question whether we can truly speak of a coherent mercantilist ideology. This historiographical turn, though usefully reminding historians of the diversity of economic thought, has regrettably obscured the distinctive elements that united most early modern economic thinkers. Mercantilist diversity was grounded on a common consensus that assigned a particular importance to the quantity of money. This specie objective contributed in turn to a mercantilist fixation on the balance of trade, provoking fervent debate over the most effective means to ensure a general trade surplus. Mercantilism crumbled only after a new generation of economic writers in the latter half of the eighteenth century insisted that the quantity of money bore no relation to power and plenty. Until then, the cardinal philosophy of empire was mercantilism, a diverse system of thought founded upon a meaningful consensus about money and trade.

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