In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Transatlantic Political Economy

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Contemporary Writings of the 17th Century
  • Contemporary Writings of the 18th Century
  • The 17th-Century Atlantic
  • The 18th-Century Atlantic
  • Mercantilism, Enlightenment, and the State
  • The West Indies
  • West Africa and Transatlantic Slavery
  • Custom, Crisis, and Moral Economy
  • Labor and Value
  • Luxury and Virtue

Atlantic History Transatlantic Political Economy
Cathy D. Matson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 June 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 June 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0184


As a concept and organizing principle, political economy emerged out of writings about moral philosophy and the character of individuals in their economies during the early modern era. For centuries before that, the term oeconomy applied primarily to the management of households. But as competing western European empires rose during the 17th and 18th centuries, massive mobilization of resources for settlement abroad, means to carry out commerce, wars to claim and defend dominions, and new forms of production within rising nations were required. And these requirements of rising empires, in turn, spurred intense discussions about the “oeconomy of states,” or the means by which the economic interests of many people could be shaped by the policies of political authorities. But the new political economy of early modern Europe, as well as its colonies, was fraught with misinformation, political exigencies interfering with efficacious policies, and an ambiguous body of thought about the motivations and capacities of the peoples upon whom policy was supposed to act. Moreover, it was the era when politics and economy were still joined inextricably; only in future generations would the two concepts—and the interests behind them—be severed and economics would become the “bleak science.” This article cannot give a complete picture of this rich discourse or of the ways that discourse and policies coexisted in a tangled dance over more than two centuries. Rather, it aims to provide interested readers with references covering representative themes in the primary and secondary literature on transatlantic political economy.

General Overviews

Scholars of political economy have taken a variety of approaches to identifying the central issues of concern to early modern theorists and policymakers. The works cited here are just a few of the very best overviews. Appleby 1978 considers an environment of economic discourse privileging freedoms for individuals and groups in the context of an emerging stronger strain of economic regulation by the late 17th century, while Letwin 2003 (originally published in 1963) provides an equally important analysis of the transition from customary and household economic thought in the 17th century to the focus on regulation by political interests in the 18th century. Wilson 1963 traces the heyday of mercantile political economy in the 18th century and Hutchison 1988 explores this same era and the declining impact of economic regulation under mercantilists by the end of the 18th century. Hont 2005 is a premier work on figures of the Scottish Enlightenment’s political economy, while Macpherson 2011 (originally published in 1962) famously embodies a trans-European transformation of political economic thought. Routh 1975 also traces European and British economic ideas and serves as a valuable complement to both of the former studies. Wallerstein 2011 is less concerned with the internal domestic political economies than the nature of commerce and the political economies that arose in the process of Western imperial growth.

  • Appleby, Joyce. Economic Thought and Ideology in Seventeenth Century England. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978.

    A highly regarded overview of how English writers conceptualized economic change and debated policies to adapt to those changes during the 17th century. Includes a wide range of early English political economists who wrote about both freedom and restraint in the economy.

  • Hont, Istvan. Jealousy of Trade: International Competition and the Nation-State in Historical Perspective. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005.

    A collection of Hont’s widely read essays from William Petty through the French Revolution’s political economy, supplemented with an extensive introduction. Includes two of this author’s pathbreaking essays on the Scottish Enlightenment and its widespread influence on commerce and state-making around the Atlantic world.

  • Hutchison, Terence. Before Adam Smith: The Emergence of Political Economy, 1662–1776. New York: Basil Blackwell, 1988.

    A renowned study of European and English political economists. Focuses on the issues of creating wealth, the conundrums of money and prices in international commerce and domestic growth, and the shortcomings of mercantilism at a time when it was being eclipsed by classical economics. All the familiar figures in economic thought are included, and they are supplemented with important lesser-known ones.

  • Letwin, William. The Origins of Scientific Economics: English Economic Thought, 1660–1776. London: Routledge, 2003.

    An important overview of the “scientific” approach to gathering economic information and formulating policies directed to the newly discovered “public good.” Argues that political economy’s greatest new turn during the late 17th century was from its application to households to its appropriation by state policymakers. Includes extensive biographical information about political economists as well. Originally published in 1963.

  • Macpherson, C. B. The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke. Don Mills, ON: Oxford University Press, 2011.

    Examines how individualism rose in the work of an array of European writers such as Hobbes, Harrington, Rousseau, Voltaire, and Locke, and its eventual pervasiveness in the economic culture associated with liberalism and working against the qualities of rationality, moral economy, trust, and cooperation in the economy. Originally published in 1962.

  • Routh, Guy. The Origin of Economic Ideas. White Plains, NY: International Arts and Sciences, 1975.

    Traces the recurring importance of ideas about property, self-interest, and rising transnational polities and their impact on later generations. One of the few studies to intertwine French and German economic ideas with those of British mercantilism and free trade, which is done in the early chapters of this work.

  • Wallerstein, Immanuel. The Modern World-System II: Mercantilism and the Consolidation of the European World-Economy, 1600–1750. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011.

    Offers a sweeping survey of European imperial expansion into the Western Hemisphere, and places wars, colonization, and commercial enterprise in the context of a deep controversy among European policymakers and economic theorists. Also an indispensable source for scholarly debates about the nature of economic growth and the rise of European states down to the 1970s. Reprinted frequently; originally published in 1974.

  • Wilson, Charles. Mercantilism. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1963.

    A straightforward account of the rise of interest groups in western Europe that sought new policies and more coherent imperial systems of colonization and trade, gave new significance to merchants and expanding material consumption, and elevated the “science” of economics to a privileged place in European state-making. A reprint; originally published in 1958.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.