The Merchant Era, 1770s–1850s

"View on the Erie Canal," by John William Hull, 1829

In the Merchant Era, abundant land and vast natural resources fueled economic opportunities. Most people lived in rural places and worked as farmers and artisans. Government encouraged agriculture, industry, transportation, and global trade. A market revolution affected enslaved and free people, transforming relationships between buyers and sellers and replacing face-to-face bargaining with less personal business.

Debating Enterprise

The nation’s founders had strong—and often different—views about the future of American enterprise.

Sketch of George Washington

George Washington

President George Washington believed the new nation should aggressively pursue economic growth and trade.

“I indulge a fond, perhaps an enthusiastic idea…that the subjects of ambition and causes for hostility are daily diminishing…that the period is not very remote, when the benefits of a liberal and free commerce will…succeed to the devastations and horrors of war."

Sketch of Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson
Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson thought that the country’s future lay in farming, not factory work.
“Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God.... While we have land to labour then, let us never wish to see our citizens occupied at a workbench.”

Sketch of Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton
Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton believed that the United States should establish a balanced economy based on industry.
“Manufacturing establishments not only occasion a positive augmentation of the produce and revenue of the society…they contribute essentially to rendering them greater than they could possibly be, without such establishments.”