Mercantilism and the Jews

When tolerance became profitable

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Reprinted with permission from The Course of Modern Jewish History (Vintage Books).

Mercantilism: A Commercial Revolution

During the 17th and 18th centuries, a significant and far-reaching revolution occurred in European life. It was a commercial revolution, precipitated when the feudal and agricultural economy of Europe was inundated by vast new supplies of money. The monies of Mexico and Peru provided gold and silver ingots for the Old World in quantities heretofore undreamed of. The more this currency poured into Europe's veins, the more Europe became dependent upon it for a rising standard of living. 

Money provided luxuries in food and dress for the city dweller. For the peasant in the field, money meant an opportunity to pat off feudal obligations and to own a plot of soil free and clear. For the king, above all, money represented hired armies and bureaucrats, and independence of a jealous and covetous nobility. In the 17th and 18th centuries, money was indispensable to the purposes of such monarchs as Frederick William, the Great Elector of Brandenburg, and Louis XIV, the Sun King of France--men for whom absolutist authority in their realms was hardly less than an obsession.

Moreover the typical monarch of the Baroque Age viewed money as a commodity which could not be shared with his dynastic neighbors but which had rather to be horded. It was important, therefore, that the balance of trade be kept favorable, in order that more industrial and agricultural produce be exported than imported.

dollar billsEach ruler sought now to monopolize the trade and wealth of Europe, to build up a reservoir of industries, markets, and raw materials. Many a bloody battle of the early modern era was fought for remote and pestilent islands that were endowed with spices or mineral resources. This process of gouging out unshared empires of trade at the expense of one's neighbors was called mercantilism.

Mercantilism and Religion

By the opening of the 18th century the typical mercantilist, preoccupied with accumulating money, was little concerned with matters of religion and religious heresy; for in the world of mercantilism the issues of morality and religion were irrelevant nuances. Certainly no self-respecting mercantilist state could countenance persecution; after all, the suppression or eviction of any one religious group might well throw an entire economy out of gear. The mercantilist age was an age of comparative religious toleration because such toleration usually proved more profitable. The divisions of theology were less compelling now than the multiplication of revenues.

Because money was the great equalizer, it was inevitable that Christian Europe should begin to view its Jews in a completely new light. Here was a people who understood commerce, a people uninhibited by feudal ties or ecclesiastical traditions. Never having been bound to an agrarian economy, the Jews have been compelled, as a result, to pioneer in business and finance.

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Howard Sachar

Howard M. Sachar is the author of numerous books, including A History of Israel, A History of the Jews in America, Farewell Espana, Israel and Europe, and A History of Jews in the Modern World. He is also the editor of the 39-volume The Rise of Israel: A Documentary History. He serves as Professor of Modern History at George Washington University.