Page images
PDF
EPUB

merce.

to organize any fixed and uniform laws of trade. The several colonies, although they possessed articles of confederation in which were lodged certain general powers, had no compact government which could enable them to pass laws binding upon the whole country for the regulation of its com.

But as soon as the establishment of the constitution invested these powers in the general government, it was found advisable for our government to conform its own policy to the improved political condition of the country.

From the year 1783 to 1789, the period of the establishment of the constitution, there are no means of estimating the amount of American tonnage; but during the latter year, the registered, enrolled, and licensed tonnage had grown to 201,652. Other circumstances soon occurred to increase the profits of our national commerce, growing out of the wars in Europe, immediately succeeding our own revolution. The French gov. ernment, inflamed by the military genius of Napoleon, after the king had been beheaded, appears to have set its mark upon the world; and pushing its conquests into the neighboring territories, arrayed against it a consider. able portion of Europe. It was the design of this ambitious conqueror to enlist in his cause the sympathies and the aid of this country; but the firm spirit of General Washington took ground against it, and, backed by the support of the people, successfully maintained a neutrality. In consequence of the neutral stand which was taken by our own government, the country became the carriers of the greater portion of the world; a fact which not only increased the shipping of the country to a great extent, but was the source of a large amount of profit to the nation. The neutrality of the country, preserved through successive administrations down to the year 1807, during which period the old systems of colonial monopoly were abandoned, threw into our hands the commerce of a considerable portion of the world; and the spices and sugars of the south, and other portions of foreign trade, found their way to Europe in American bottoms. Besides, the extension of the agricultural resources of the nation contributed in no small degree to that result, as most of our agricultural products commanded at that time a high price in the foreign markets, and the British colonies were also in the same mode supplied with American produce. In order to judge correctly of the advance of our commercial interests at this period, an advance consequent upon that event, it may be stated, that the increase of the tonnage of the country within a space of fifteen years, namely, from 1791 to 1807, was unexampled; having reached within that time the amount of 480,572.

But the commerce of the country occasionally received its checks, not only from the French orders, but also from those of the British, in 1793, which prohibited the transportation of provisions to any port of France, and re. stricting our trade with the French West Indies; a policy which would have at that time created a war, had not the administration of General Washington effectually brought about a pacific treaty in the negotiation of Mr. Jay, in 1794, by which the merchants of our own country received about ten millions of dollars from the British government, in consequence of the depredations upon our commerce by ships of that nation. The treaty thus made with the British government, was regarded by France with much jealousy, insomuch that on its ratification, in 1796, a general seizure was made of American ships by the decrees of the French directory; a measure which brought us into a partially belligerent attitude to.

wards France, a difficulty which, however, was soon adjusted by a treaty made in 1800 with Napoleon, the first consul. During the hostilities which succeeded, France, Holland, and Spain were driven from the ocean, and the supplies to these countries were furnished by the neutral ships of the United States. The part thus borne by our national commerce in the neutral trade, termed by Great Britain "an interference,” was naturally regarded with jealousy by the British monarchy, inasmuch as it prevented that government from bringing these nations to terms, as had been antici. pated. The interference certainly threw formidable obstacles in the way of the British power, being denominated “war in disguise;" and it was the boast of a pamphleteer of the day, whose avowed object appears to have been to inflame the popular passions against the neutral trade, that “pot a single merchant ship under a flag inimical to Great Britain, now crosses the equator or traverses the Atlantic ocean.” Under a rule of 1756, it was originally claimed by the British government, that no neutral could carry on trade with any nation during war, which they were prohibited from prosecuting in time of peace; and deeming the previous neutral commerce of the United States a mere relaxation of that rule, it was considered expedient, under existing circumstances, to revive it. According to that determination, an American vessel was, in the month of May, 1805, condemned; a condemnation that was soon succeeded by that of others which had been engaged in the same service.

During the succeeding year occurred those well-known Berlin and Milan decrees by the Emperor Napoleon, in which he declared war against the commerce of Great Britain, a policy denominated the continental system, designed to grasp the dominion of the ocean. They proclaimed the British islands in a state of blockade, prohibiting all commercial intercourse with them, ordering the seizure of all British letters in the post-offices which were written in the English language, all British subjects found within French jurisdiction to be made prisoners of war, all property belonging to Englishmen lawful prize, condemning all vessels and their cargoes which had been to England or any of her colonies, and prohibiting their entrance into any port; “ for,” said the emperor, “ Britain must be humbled, were it at the expense of throwing civilization back for centuries, and returning to the original mode of trading by barter.” Into this continental system he soon brought the continental powers to co-operate. He determined that all neutral and commercial nations should give him their aid, by uniting with France against Great Britain ; and the United States, he declared, should be his ally or his enemy. This policy, it is seen, would directly involve the neutral position of the United States; but in 1807, the accredited agent was informed that the Berlin decree would not affect the American commerce, which would be regulated by the ex. isting treaties subsisting between the two nations. But the decree was soon extended to this country, the cargo of an American vessel having be. come confiscated. In opposition to the decree of the French emperor, the British orders in council were issued, declaring foreign ports in a state of blockade; and in consequence of the dangers to our commerce upon the high seas, an embargo was enforced by our government; and here commenced that series of commercial disasters in which our ships were seen locked up at our wharves, and the prospects of many of our merchants became involved in one general wreck. But in 1809 the em. bargo was raised, and in its place was substituted a non-intercourse law,

both with France and Great Britain. Thus affairs continued without any uniform and settled arrangement; the decrees of foreign powers being from time to time established and revoked, and our own vessels decoyed into French ports by the policy of Napoleon, until the war of 1812, which effectually checked, for a time, the commerce of the nation.

On the return of peace, a new era opened upon the auspices of Ameri. can commerce, by the passage of what may be called the American navigation act, in 1817, modelled somewhat upon that of Great Britain ; and attended with like advantages, conferring important benefits upon the country. This act established, that after the 30th of September, 1817, no ves. sel or boat engaged in the fisheries should be entitled to the bounties al. lowed by law, unless the officers, and at least three fourths of the crew, should be citizens of the United States, or persons not the subjects of any foreign prince or state ; and that every vessel employed in the coasting trade, “except those going from one state to an adjoining state on the sea. coast, or on a navigable river or lake, or going from Long Island, in the state of New York, to the state of Rhode Island, or from the state of Rhode Island to Long Island," should be subject to a duty of fifty cents per ton, unless three fourths at least of the crew were American citizens, or persons not the subjects of any foreign prince or state. This act also declared, that after that time a duty of fifty cents was to be paid upon every American vessel entering from a foreign port, unless the officers, and at least two thirds of the crew, should be of the same national character during the voyage, with the exception of sickness, desertion, &c., in a foreign country.* Aided by such a law, together with the increase of the number of seamen of the country, and the extending population and enterprise of the nation, our commerce has advanced to its present state.t

On the termination of the war of 1812, new vigor was infused into every department of commerce. The colonization of the new states of the west, the increase of new subjects of cultivation, especially that of the cotton, and the augmentation of our population, together with the firm establishment of a compact and well-organized government, affording free scope to national enterprise of all sorts, tended to advance with rapid strides, not only the agriculture and the manufactures, but the commerce of the country; and it was soon expanded to the principal ports of Great Britain and France, Cuba and Mexico, Spain and China, Brazil and the Hanse Towns, Russia and Denmark, Hayti and the Argentine Republic, Sweden, Netherlands, Columbia, Peru, Malta, and Italy, adding large sums to our national wealth, and augmenting our general comforts. The extent to which what might have been formerly considered extravagance has been introduced among us, has also tended to benefit the carrying trade of the country, whatever may have been its influence upon the national wealth ; for it will be remo

membered, that every article which is used in our own country, and which is not produced at home, must be imported from abroad. The obvious tendency of this luxury, doubtless, is to draw from the wealth of the country in the same proportion that it increases our commerce.

We have thus taken a rapid view of the political history of American

* See Holt's Navigation Laws, vol. 1, p. 104, article, “ Navigation Laws of the United States."

+ See Merchants' Magazine, vol. 3, 1840, pages 447, 448, 449, 450, 451, 452, and 453 ; also, vol. 4, 1841, pages 193 and 194.

commerce, for the purpose of entering more understandingly into its present state ; and it is obvious to remark, that the staples of our commercial export are wholly derived from agriculture, the forest, the sea, and from manufactures. As agriculture is the most important branch of our domestic industry, we propose in a brief way, first, to treat of this subject in reference to the carrying trade. Of late years this interest has grown upon us to a very great extent, from various causes, to which we shall refer. In the first place, the cultivation of cotton, which has been but recently introduced into the United States, and now constituting a consider. able part of our foreign exportations, has been spread through a consider. able portion of our southern states. Besides this important staple, the source of the greatest wealth to the country of any other of our agricultural products, wide tracts of new land, especially in our western states, have been brought under cultivation; and that portion of our territory is pouring in upon us an immense amount of wheat and other grain, which are there produced, and either consumed at home or exported abroad. We may add to this the rice and tobacco, which are supplied by the south and the southwest, together with the vegetables furnished by the orchard and the garden, beef, horses, mules, butter, sheep, and other articles which are derived from stock husbandry and the dairy. Another important item of our foreign exports, is the products of the forest, the principal of which are lumber, skins and furs, dyes, bark, pitch, tar, rosin, turpentine, and ginseng, and which comprise the main bulk of our products de. rived from this source. The fur trade, which formerly prevailed to a great extent upon the northwestern part of our continent, along the shores of the great lakes and the Mississippi, and now prosecuted, not only by individual traders, but by the Hudson's Bay, and the American Fur Company—the latter of which now possesses an office in the city of New York-has been diminished in its profits, we believe, as also in the amount of the furs which are obtained; but even at the present time it contributes no inconsiderable a part to the amount of our American freights, notwithstanding an extensive quantity is annually shipped by the Hudson's Bay Company, from the Columbia, as also from the port of Quebec.

Another source of domestic exportation is derived from the sea, and among the articles of this character which are furnished for foreign com. merce, may be mentioned those of whale and spermaceti oil and candles, cod, mackerel, herring, shad, and salmon, salted and packed in barrels, which are furnished to foreign countries, besides those which are required for the home consumption. The whale fishery, to which we have before alluded, and which was early carried on from our own ports, has of late years grown to great importance, and has already become as lucrative an enterprise as is furnished by the country, occupying the shipping of many of our northern ports. The extent to which the oil is now consumed, and that, from the increase of our population and the numerous forms of mechan. ical enterprise which are beginning to be extended among us, is likely to be augmented, would doubtless furnish a profitable sale to the ship-owners of this branch of commerce, were it not required abroad. Besides the oil, which is thus used to a great extent, it is deemed a sufficient object to export the whalebone, which is used in various forms of manufacture.

The products of our manufacturing enterprise also constitute another grand branch of our domestic exportation; and by manufacture, we mean not merely the cotton and woollen cloths which are derived from our face

tories, but all the articles wrought by the trades. Although the manufacturing interest of this country is but yet in its germ, still, considering the period in which our attention has been devoted to this subject, we have certainly made advances in this interest which are unequalled by those of any foreign nation. A period of fifty years has scarcely elapsed since the attention of the country has been seriously called to that object, or the nature of the government would permit any effective legislative action for its protection, and yet we have arrived to so great perfection even in this respect, that we have already not only furnished foreign nations with a considerable portion of its products, but in those which were of the great. est practical utility, we have supplied models even for England, being second to that country alone in the amount of our manufacturing enterprise. With such a territory as we possess, containing agricultural and manufacturing resources such as are enjoyed by no other nation, and settled by a people who are by our political constitution invested with a scope and motive for action that are furnished by no other nation upon the earth, we look forward with certain hope of a glorious destiny for our commerce. The resources of the soil, the character of our people, marked by a genius for trade, and our navigable advantages, all point to the period when our commercial flag shall wave in all parts of the earth, thus carrying to every nation the blessings of religion, liberty, knowledge, and civilization.

We turn from this view of the exports of the country to a consideration of the various articles which are imported from abroad, and it must be admitted that there is ground for amazement at the amount that is required by the growing extravagance of the people. Indeed, the influence of commerce, while it has been in many respects beneficial, has brought with it a taste for those luxurious habitudes of life which may perhaps more properly belong to an older nation, and that were unknown to our fore. fathers. This extraordinary extravagance which has thus crept in upon the country, outrunning the means of the people, has been expanded to greater extent according as money was abundant, and infusing itself into all the departments of pleasure and business, has been witnessed in various forms, not only in our domestic establishments, but also in our equipage, dress, and amusements. We have decorated our houses with all the adornments of taste gathered from foreign commerce, and proportioned our other expenses to a scale which the former facilities of credit would permit. And what has been the necessary consequence of this state of things?. It has been just what may always be expected, in the end, of those who live beyond their means, Pay day comes sooner or later. The claim is lodged with the attorney, and either the property of the debtor must respond to the judgment which is obtained, or be assigned in mass to pay the debt. We doubt not that such has been the career of hundreds during the mercantile revulsions of the last few years, which have swept away in one general wreck thousands of our most enterprising citi. zens. The importer has sold to the jobber, the jobber to the retail mer. chant, and the retail merchant to the purchasers scattered over the country, each successively dependent upon the other for payment. But as the time has never arrived in which this payment could be made, the result has been that the articles purchased, although they are consumed, have not been paid for to this day, if we are rightly informed.

We have entered into this view of the subject for the purpose of touch. ing a question incidental to that of importations, namely, the measure of

« PreviousContinue »