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Influences on Culture & Commerce in the Western Hemisphere

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, former middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson we will explore the influences on the culture and commerce of the Western Hemisphere. Specifically we learn how geographic features impact Western culture and commence. We will highlight examples and identify trends.

Western Culture and Commerce

When you think of Western culture and commerce, what comes to mind? If terms like capitalism, individualism, tolerance, democracy, and free expression come to mind, you might be on to something. These are some of the core themes of Western civilization. The culture and commerce of the Western Hemisphere is grounded in these ideas. But where did these ideas come from and how did they develop? Furthermore, how does geography relate to the culture and commerce of the Western Hemisphere? Let's dig deeper and look into this. We're going to jump around a little bit here and there (in terms of time periods), so keep that in mind. Here we go!

Physical Influences

The climate and topography of Europe provided for opportunities for agricultural development, with the exceptions of regions in the extreme Northern part of the continent. As a result, Western people groups developed their own unique cultures based on agriculture. After the ''discovery'' of the New World in 1492, agriculture thrived in the Americas. Fast forward to Antebellum America (America before the Civil War). Cotton had become a profitable cash crop, and earned the nickname ''King Cotton'' because the economy of the Southern United States was driven by it. The demand for cotton fueled the slave trade, bringing suffering to millions of displaced Africans. As a result, slavery became institutionalized in the Southern United States, whereas it was not nearly as popular in the Northern United States. In the North, however, manufacturing became more pronounced. The forests of New England provided ample wood fro shipbuilding.

Cotton production drove the economy of the Southern United States in the decades before the Civil War.
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Cultural Influences

Obviously we can't talk about the culture of the Western Hemisphere, without acknowledging the contributions of the Ancient Greeks. Humanism, democracy, and much of Western philosophy stem form the contributions of the Greeks. In many ways the Greeks laid the foundation for Western culture. In the Renaissance, in the Enlightenment, and in modern society we see over and over again the contributions of the Ancient Greeks.

Religion exerts a powerful force upon society. Christianity, the religion based on the teachings of Jesus Christ, has profoundly impacted Western culture. We sometimes take this for granted because our society values the separation of church and state, and provides the freedom to not practice a religion at all, but throughout much of Western history, culture itself revolved around the Christian religion. During the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church was sometimes more powerful than the state, and prescribed how men and women should live their lives. Taxes paid to the Church, and other forms of ''worship'' often became mandatory. Europe became a bastion of Christianity, and through European exploration and colonization, it was exported to the Americas.

Economic Influences

We already explored how the geography relates to commerce by our example of cotton production in the American South, but let's explore some other trends that have impacted Western commerce. Here we will draw a connection between religion and commerce. Modern capitalism as we know it was greatly influenced and advanced by the Protestant Reformation. What is that, you make ask? The Protestant Reformation was an anti-Catholic social revolution sparked by a monk named Martin Luther in 1517. Luther never intended to start a revolution; he simply wanted to reform aspects of corruption in the Church. Followers of Luther taught that hard work was glorifying to God and that people had the right to enjoy the fruits of their labor. This is called the Protestant Work Ethic. As famous sociologist Max Weber has pointed out in his classic work The The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, this religious idea drove the development of modern Western commerce.

Martin Luther launched the Protestant Reformation, and his teachings helped lead to the Protestant Work Ethic.
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