The Growth of the American Economy: An Introduction to the Economic History of the United States

By Robert G. Albion; Harold F. Williamson | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 8
Foreign Trade in the Era of Wooden Ships

FOR THE 40 YEARS after the outbreak of the Revolution in 1775, American shipping faced abnormal conditions. Its hectic hide-and-seek existence during the Revolution was followed by a dismal decade of trade dislocations resulting from the imperial divorce; then it entered upon its exciting and profitable "heroic age" during the long Anglo- French wars. With the end of those wars in 1815, the situation became more normal, while new cargoes and new sea lanes developed alongside the old. Commerce and shipping gradually expanded into the "golden age" of the clipper ship era around 1850. After that, American cargoes still continued to increase; but by the outbreak of the War Between the States, American shipping was already showing traces of its coming long decline.

Although the Revolution offered Yankee shipping new opportunities to break loose from the restrictions of the Navigation Laws, it also confronted American trade with a tremendous and serious task. For the only time in our maritime history, the nation faced a desperate need for munitions from beyond the seas; and the mighty Royal Navy blocked the way. But that navy, for various reasons, proved to be far less dangerous in the cenflict than its size and reputation had indicated. 'As a result of its ineffectiveness and the astuteness of the American mariners, an adequate supply of munitions arrived from France and Holland to save the desperate situation after Bunker Hill, when Washington had almost no gunpowder left. Part of the munition supply came in French ships directly across the Atlantic, and part of it in small American vessels by way of the French, Spanish, Danish, or Dutch islands in the West Indies. Once that immediate need was met, the Yankees turned to the development of commercial contacts with England's enemies. At times war risk insurance rates on American vessels rose to 50 per cent, but on the whole supplies came through safely more often than not, and our ports were kept well stocked with salt, spirits, and luxury goods.1


Post-Revolutionary Readjustments

Peace was a less roseate story, for it brought new problems. The decade from 1783 to 1793 was one of the dreariest in the annals of

____________________
1
R. G. Albion and J. B. Pope, Sea Lanes in Wartime, Chapter II. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1942.

-156-

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