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Tobacco in America - Establishing our Nation’s Roots: The Colonies and Britain’s Perspective

Updated: Sep 24, 2021

By Michael Rhodes

Could tobacco have launched the original agricultural revolution in the United States that mirrored the importance of Britain’s that started in the mid-1600’s? The simple answer is yes. The importance of tobacco as a cash crop to the United States, whether under British rule or after independence, cannot be understated. Tobacco, in fact, was the main reason Britain decided to offer enhanced protection to its American colonies, further nurturing their significance in exporting a major variable in the world’s wealth system at the time. This would prove to be just the beginning of tobacco’s importance to what would become the United States.

Image Credit: Library of Virginia; Drawn and engraved by Copland & Sanson, 1779

In 1660, under the rule of Charles II, Parliament passed the Tobacco Planting and Sowing Act, which coincided with the Navigation Act of 1660. With the misguided notion of mercantilism- the belief that wealth was finite and one empire would take from another as it attained more- being the driving ideology of the time, England sought to ensure that more of the world’s finite wealth would end up in its coffers. To accomplish this, Britain laid out acts such as the Tobacco Planting and Sowing Act to guarantee certain products and the wealth attained thereof would remain with the Crown. As a result, England monopolized the production of tobacco in the New World by disallowing its export to other countries. Furthermore, the act prohibited the growing of tobacco “within the kingdom of England, dominion of Wales, islands of Guernsey or Jersey or town of Berwick-upon-Tweed or in the kingdom of Ireland” in order to enhance the position of the American colonies whose plantations carried such “great concern and importance [that they should] be defended, protected, maintained and kept up, and that all due and possible encouragement be given unto them.” This single statement laid the foundation for the importance of the colonies and their need to produce cash crops, particularly tobacco.

It should, then, come as no surprise that following the act's passage in 1660, King Charles II issued the charter for the Royal African Company of Merchant Adventurers in 1663. This charter “represents the moment at which the transatlantic slave trade officially began, with royal approval, in the English (later British) Empire” (British Library). Consequently, the numbers of enslaved African people would increase decade over decade beginning in 1671 and continuing through 1740 with the exception of the decade of 1701-1710. “The majority were forced to work on plantations producing sugar, tobacco and other crops for European consumers” (British Library).

With the advent of the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment in addition to the mercantilist style laws, the 17th century brought unprecedented growth to the economy and population of western Europe. As a result, a period of salutary neglect was entered whereby many of Britain’s strict policies against the American colonies were not enforced during the early to mid-18th century. This policy, however, would be quickly undone as Great Britain fell into massive debt following the French and Indian War, which concluded in 1763. From 1761 to 1780, estimates show only about 2,200 fewer enslaved Africans were brought to the American colonies than the preceding 120 years, which could indicate the reversal of salutary neglect and the need for colonists to meet the financial demands of England. Although those demands would shortly end due to America’s independence, new demands were created for the young nation to make economic progress; demands that would have an everlasting impact on the farmers of the United States and North Carolina specifically.

Click on the link below to view the Tobacco Act, 1660:

This post is part of a new series highlighting the history of tobacco farming prior to the museum's main interpretive time period of 1880-1950. Follow us on social media or check back on the blog to see future posts.

Mike's research is funded by a grant from Johnston County Unrestricted Endowment Fund and Cara Lee Powell Priest Endowment for Johnston County, component funds of the North Carolina Community Foundation.

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