The Revolution brought economic as well as political change, together with much hardship and suffering. All of the colonies were affected by inflation and economic dislocation. Stock, grain, and tobacco, in addition to slaves, were taken from farms, warehouses, and plantations.
The shortage of finished goods, heretofore imported largely from England, led to soaring prices and an inflationary spiral. Hard money was scarce, and to finance the war effort Congress and the states resorted to the expediency of printing paper money. As the war progressed, paper money, especially Continental currency, rapidly depreciated. Efforts to establish a more stable currency supported by state taxation were fruitless.
More strenuous and somewhat more successful efforts were made to control inflation. In 1776, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island adopted legislation to fix prices and wages. In November 1777, Congress recommended a grand program of price and wage regulation, and New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania instituted controls. Powerful opposition to regulation, especially from merchants who indulged in "black market" operations, undermined the program, however, and the machinery needed to enforce the laws was lacking. In June 1778, Congress recommended that attempts to set prices be abandoned. Inflation continued to plague the American economy throughout the war.
Economic dislocation and financial instability affected all Americans, but some suffered more than others, and some even prospered. Familiar channels of trade were closed to merchants, farmers, and the New England fisherman. Tobacco and rice planters in Virginia and South Carolina, heretofore assured a market in England for their produce, were forced to seek new outlets, or obtain new means of livelihood. Hardest hit by inflation were the clergy, town laborers and artisans, and the men and officers of the Continental Army. Desperate workers fought for higher wages, in some cases even went on strike, and organized committees to force merchants to lower prices. On occasion mob violence broke out, as in Philadelphia in October 1779, when angry townspeople besieged the house of James Wilson, a Loyalist counsel and commercial speculator.
Such outbursts give the impression of an internal conflict based on economic class divisions. In Pennsylvania and New York, and in some areas of other states, the struggle between privileged and nonprivileged, between upper and lower economic and social classes, was sharp. However, these clashes were not so numerous, widespread, and enduring as to support the thesis that there was an internal American revolutionary movement on the part of the poor against the rich. Many planters in the South, who rented much of their land, were seriously hurt by being obliged to accept rent payments in depreciated paper money. In such cases, the lower-class tenants, who sold their produce for high prices, were the gainers, and the "aristocratic" planters were the losers.
Among those who profited by the war were the farmers, whose products were in great demand by the Army. Privateering, which combined "business as usual" with patriotism, proved a remarkably profitable venture for thousands of enterprising Americans. Merchants and contractors—particularly men like Robert Morris of Philadelphia, Silas Deane of Connecticut, and Benjamin Harrison of Virginia, who participated in obtaining French commercial aid for America—often realized fortunes. Many Patriots in official positions, such as Morris, who was the financial agent for the Continental Congress, carried on public and private business simultaneously, sometimes to the detriment of the former. Army commissaries and quartermasters, whose services were eagerly sought by merchants and contractors, often did the same.