Merchants in the colonial era provided a variety of services that were crucial to the economic well-being of the American colonies. To obtain goods, they operated ships that occasionally participated in smuggling and privateering. With cash in short supply, they commonly bartered for goods and traded everything imaginable. As the primary source of financing in small communities, they also offered credit. In times of war, they supplied the troops with all the necessities. Although merchants played a part in nearly every economic transaction, they were still a minority in an American population that remained overwhelmingly rural throughout the colonial era. Merchants received a slow start in the Americas partly because of the religious background of many of the New England colonists. The Puritans regarded trade as a morally dangerous field of endeavor. Rather than take advantage of his economic position and seek the most money that he could obtain for a product, the Puritan merchant was expected to be content with merely a just price for his merchandise. A shopkeeper who pursued unseemly profits ran the risk not only of antagonizing his neighbors but also of being brought before a Puritan court of law. By the late seventeenth century, religious beliefs had weakened; at the same time, a capitalist spirit and merchant class developed.

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