Douglas C. North’s Economic History of the United States-Notes

Douglas C. North’s The Economic Growth of the United States: 1790-1860 takes on the complex interpretive task of synthesizing historic economic data into an intelligible history of America’s economic growth during the period under investigation. The study “is based on the proposition that United States growth was the evolution of a market economy where the behavior of prices of goods, services and productive factors influenced the explanations for economic change.”[1]

Such a text is of great interest and utility to historians of many specialties, whether business, capitalism, or commodities to name a few. However in North’s text one will not find much emphasis on chronicling the progression of key American events. North is more concerned with how events affected the progression of a diversified marketplace. Setting up his method of investigation North argues that “the timing and pace of an economy’s development of its export sector, the characteristics of the export industry, and the disposition of the income received from the export sector determines the degree of economic growth.”[2] North explains:

“An expanding external market has provided the means for an increase in the size of the domestic market, growth in money income and the spread of specialization and division of labor. Under favorable conditions outlined it has set in motion a chain of consequences leading to sustainedgrowth.[3]

North is scaffolding the ways economic process suggest change over time, but also the strategies of observing the economic data fluctuations in a way that allows for a usable pattern of study. North sets out to answer many questions including how “one area [of the United States] tied to a single export staple while another diversifies its production and becomes an urbanized industrialized economy?”[4]

Here North is alluding the regional distinctions export commodities especially between North and South. The factors, North contents, that are significant in sustained development of regions can be placed into three categories which include the “natural endowments of a region, the character of the export industry and the changes in technology and transfer costs.”[5] This of course refers to the available commodities that exist naturally in various regions that can be extracted for profit. But technology and transfer bore significant influence as well; if resources were plenty, but transport to the resource was difficult (or impossible) the resource could not be effectively profited from.

In terms of historical phenonena, North emphasizes the international events that had great influence over the early United States economic development. For instance North informs that after the Revolutionary War had severe consequences for the new nation. The United States no longer “received favored treatment from Great Britain and were subject to restrictive measures from international trade policies.”[6] Additionally, demand for staple imports were at a standstill. North informs that this was the economic landscape of the 1790’s.


As an historian of enslavement I cannot help but see a parallel between the non-importation freedom petitions that flooded Virginia and Maryland courts during this decade. These were petitions filed by enslaved people who had been brought into Virginia from other states without having been “declared” within the allocated time. If it could be proven that the enslaved person was imported into the colony without being declared the enslaved person could be granted their freedom. Though North does not flesh out the commodities of enslaved chattel, the allusion to the slump in prices during this time certainly affected the prices of enslaved people. It is for this reason, that such measures were instituted in order to decrease the number of enslaved bodies in the Commonwealth, drive up the prices of those currently held and rid the Virginia of excess enslaved “property.” Of course such an assertion would require more investigation the non-importation law, however this application of North’s analysis exemplifies the usefulness of the text. In spite of the extreme quantitative method it informative for the scholar interested in the prevailing economic winds of U.S. history.

[1] Douglass C. North, The economic growth of the United States: 1790 – 1860 (New York: Norton, 1966)vii

[2] Ibid, 1.

[3] Ibid, 2.

[4] Ibid, 3.

[5] Ibid,3.

[6] Ibid, 19.

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