Taxes, Tariffs, and Slavery: Thoughts on the American Revolution and Economic Growth
As a historian who enjoys teaching and writing economic history, I am very appreciative of the work that Vincent Geloso and Antoine Noël did in their initial essay. We American historians have long assumed that the American Revolution, with its emphasis on market liberalism, rule of law ingrained in the Constitution, and establishment of pro-growth institutions, led to more economic growth than would have occurred had the American colonists remained British subjects. Geloso and Noël have provided a quantitative analysis to confirm, albeit with some key qualifiers, what so many of us have long believed.
In trying to determine how much the revolution benefited the economic growth of the United States, Geloso and Noël use Quebec as a proxy for what economic growth might have looked like had the American colonists not established their own nation. Quebec offers them “a group of colonists in North America that became British subjects and chose to remain British subjects.” By using this comparison, Geloso and Noël find that the Revolution increased annual growth between 39 percent and 48 percent.
The use of Quebec as a proxy raises some questions. First, were the institutions, culture, and residents of Quebec comparable to what existed in the British colonies to the South? After all, as Geloso and Noël note, “in 1759, Quebec was still a French colony with an exclusively Catholic population” that numbered less than 100,000 (compared to around 1.5 million in the British North American colonies). When Britain took control of Quebec in 1763, they guaranteed the traditional rights and customs of the colony and even after the Quebec Act (1774) the Crown maintained the use of French civil law. Were there more, and perhaps more important, institutional differences between the two? Further, Geloso and Noël might consider what effect culture differences might have in this comparison. Do they think there is anything to Max Weber’s protestant work ethic thesis? Were the Americans more entrepreneurial than their counterparts in Quebec?
Once Geloso and Noël finish their comparison between Quebec and the United States, they subtract “the main costs of the revolution from the ‘total net effect.’” The colonies in the British Empire had enjoyed a large amount of market integration. After the Revolution, however, trade barriers were imposed by both Britain and the United States. The cost of such protectionism was significant, reducing American economic growth by .4 percent per year (or about half of the economic growth that Geloso and Noël document for the U.S. from 1790 to 1860).
It seems clear to me that freer trade leads to greater economic growth. As economist Frank Taussig concluded in his The Tariff History of the United States, “Little, if anything, was gained by the protection which the United States maintained” during the early 19th century. But not all historians (or economists for that matter) agree with Taussig’s analysis. Geloso and Noël should address the argument that tariffs protected infant industries in the United States from British firms—with their first mover advantage, their better and more established business practices, their increased access to capital, and their own protections from the British mercantilist economic model. After all, almost any American history college textbook argues that America’s infant textile industry emerged during Jefferson’s embargo and grew because of the tariff of 1816. With the rise of national conservativism and resurgence of protectionist rhetoric on both the left and right, many may not simply accept that trade barriers hurt U.S. economic growth in the 19th century.
Another aspect of British rule that Geloso and Noël should address are the regulations and taxes that were placed on the British American colonists prior to the revolution, that might have remained had the colonists not gained independence. After the French and Indian War, King George III established the Proclamation Line of 1763 designed to keep the British colonists from settling west of the Appalachian Mountains. Would U.S. western expansion, which in part drove economic growth, have happened under continued British rule? Would the upper Midwest have remained part of Quebec? Would it have been developed? Would treaties with native peoples have been respected, to a larger extent, under British rule? What effects would all this have had on American economic growth?
In addition to restrictions that the British might have placed on western expansion, there is the question of taxation. Around the time of the Revolution, British citizens who lived in Britain paid around 26 shillings a year in taxes whereas their New England counterparts paid 1 shilling. After the Revolution, many American states had to raise taxes to pay for war debts, but if we compare the tax rates in the early American Republic to those in Great Britain, Americans continued to pay less. If the revolution had failed would the United States have enjoyed low tax rates? Or would they have paid an amount more on par with British citizens living in Britain?
Without a successful revolution, another open question is what the role of the U.S. economy to the mother country would have been? After all, the British embraced mercantilism until at least the middle of the 19th century. Before the revolution, the British placed restrictions on what goods the American colonists could produce, required them to transport their commodities on British ships, imposed import duties, and limited the American colonists trade with other nations.
Many American colonists, including John Dickinson, accepted the tenets of mercantilism. As Dickinson explained in his second letter in Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, “The Parliament unquestionably possesses a legal authority to regulate the trade of Great Britain and all her colonies. Such an authority is essential to the relation between a mother country and her colonies, and necessary for the common good of all.” Dickinson was upset with the Stamp Act because it was an explicit attempt to raise revenues rather than promote the general welfare under the existing mercantilist system. As he explained, “All before are calculated to regulate trade and preserve or promote a mutually beneficial intercourse between the several constituent parts of the empire; and though many of them imposed duties on trade, yet those duties were always imposed with design to restrain the commerce of one part that was injurious to another, and thus to promote the general welfare.”
So, the question remains what effect would such restrictions have had on U.S. economic growth? Would the nature of the relationship between the Crown and its North American subjects have changed? Or would the failure of the American Revolution have limited the emergence of U.S. industries searching for their comparative advantage due to the restrictive regulations imposed by the British mercantilist colonial model? Perhaps the above concerns are captured in by Geloso and Noël’s use of Quebec as a proxy. If not, they are worth considering.
Finally, it is worth considering what effect the failure of the American Revolution would have had on slavery in the United States and how that would have influenced economic growth. In contrast with the 1619 Project, my co-author, Rachel Ferguson, and I argue in Black Liberation Through the Marketplace that slavery was a negative for the American economy and specifically for the South’s economic development. Free people, engaging in a free market, pursuing their passions and comparative advantage results in economic betterment for everyone. Slavery, in contrast, obviously harms those who are enslaved—robbing them of their happiness and the ability to realize their full potential—but it also denies everyone else the benefits of trading with them and benefiting from their passions, skills, and services. In short, the exploitation of black labor by a small class of elite southerners harmed American economic growth.
If the American Revolution had failed perhaps the British North American colonies would have abolished slavery along with the rest of Britain’s holdings some thirty years earlier. In 1833, the British Parliament passed the Slavery Abolition Act and by 1840 most enslaved people had been freed. In 1843, the exceptions to the Act were abolished. Providing the failure of the American Revolution did not change the political realities in Britain, then, one could argue that had the colonists remained a part of Britain, slavery would have been eradicated at least twenty years earlier. Under this scenario, slavery could have ended without a devastating Civil War. Instead of an entire region of the country smoldering and devastated, the Slavery Abolition Act would have provided compensation to those who owned slaves. There is no doubt that such a result would have been much better for U.S. economic growth than how the country ultimately put an end to its “original sin.”
I appreciate Geloso and Noël for writing a thoughtful and ambitious essay that attempts to quantify the effects that the American Revolution had on U.S. economic growth. I’m inclined to believe that the Revolution unleashed a social, cultural, and economic revolution that transformed the country and eventually the world. The American Republic embraced the ideas of the English and Scottish Enlightenments and engrained within a written Constitution that humans have inalienable natural rights. If market liberalism results in human flourishing, there can be little argument that the radicalism of the American Revolution led to eudaimonia.
 Frank William Taussig, The Tariff History of the United States, 8th ed. (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1931), 61, 63. As quoted in Bruce Bartlett, “The Truth About Trade in History,” July 1, 1998, Cato Institute.
 David E. Shi, America: A Narrative History, Brief 11 edition (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2019).
 “What We Get Wrong About Taxes and the American Revolution” PBS News Hour, December 26, 2016. Accessed at https://www.pbs.org/newshour/economy/what-we-get-wrong-about-taxes-american-revolution.
 John Dickinson, “Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania,” Letter 2, 1767-1768. Accessed at https://oll.libertyfund.org/title/lee-empire-and-nation-letters-from-a-farmer#lf0010_head_008
 Rachel Ferguson and Marcus Witcher, Black Liberation Through the Marketplace: Hope, Heartbreak, and the Promise of America (New York: Emancipation Books, 2022).