Chapter 9. Economic Transformation and Continuity, 1818-1860s

9.1 Introduction

The Napoleonic Wars ended French hegemony in Europe and provided Britain with newfound elbow room in an evolving world economy. British North America, too, could afford to relax a little: American expansionists along the eastern seaboard turned their hungry eyes from the North to the West. The wars of the early 19th century were fought on battlefields and at sea, but they were also in the new workplaces that would come to be known as “industrial manufactories.” The half century that followed 1818 would see the spread of new ideas and practices, some of them associated with empire, others with the scientific and technological enlightenment that would lead into economic and industrial revolution.

While there were many significant changes in the economies of British North America, continuity still existed. Agriculture was a leading force in the economy, as was the fishery. These were joined by other staple production activities that gave shape to the colonies and their societies just as the fur trade informed much of life in New France.

What most distinctly marks the period from 1818 to 1860 is British North America’s changing relationship with the world marketplace. The loss of preferential tariffs in Britain changed the economic stakes, but it also changed the psychology of trade. If the empire wasn’t the raison d’être for the colonial economies, what was?  Even if industrialization and social change took place slowly in British North America, that wasn’t the case in Britain. There, British North Americans could see from a distance a future comprising densely populated cities whose purpose was not commerce but production of goods. They could see, too, changes in infrastructure and sources of energy: wood and wind would give way to coal and steam by Confederation. The colonial economies of 1818 would either evolve significantly by 1860 or they would be on the precipice of enormous change. Either way, in both the United Kingdom and the United States, British North Americans had examples to which they could turn. These models were both physical and intellectual: this was an era of changing economies and changing minds.

Learning Objectives

  • Describe the broad economic trends of the era.
  • Account for important changes in the British North American economy.
  • Account for continuities in the British North American economy.
  • Demonstrate a rudimentary understanding of how economic structures pertain to social and political change.
  • Correlate changing economic times with emergent economic policies.
  • Identify the economic ideologies and ideas of the era and how they informed debate and direction in the economy of British North America.


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Canadian History: Pre-Confederation Copyright © 2015 by John Douglas Belshaw is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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