"A Good Voyage and Safe Return"
By the second half of the eighteenth century, the colonies could boast of several commercially successful communities. Philadelphia had already challenged Boston's pre-eminence as America's largest and most important urban center, and New York was not far behind. Newport--with fewer people and a smaller volume of trade-- assumed that it made up in quality what it lacked in quantity. These northern seaports had much in common with each other: their mercantile activities and their prosperity were inseparably intertwined, and they claimed a degree of material comfort for the majority of their residents unimaginable a century earlier. Their class structures were also comparable: wealth was increasingly channeled into the hands of fewer people, while each community was faced with a growing number of inhabitants unable to provide for themselves. And even if Newport was an island of nonconformity in a sea of congregational orthodoxy, it could look farther south and take comfort in the heterogeneity of New York and Philadelphia.
But if these towns exhibited certain basic features common to all, they were also dissimilar in many respects. As their imported merchandise varied, their processing industries followed suit. Charters and hence forms of government differed from place to place--ethnic diversity, yes, but a special blend of cultures and religious in each location. Courts throughout the colonies relied on the common law, but that law was often uncommonly applied. Colonial currency was pegged to the British pound sterling, but each community ran into its own peculiar problems with specie vs. a paper currency.
Newport's ascendancy as well as its decline was intricately linked both to its position as a seaport and to the precise nature of the goods loaded and unloaded on the piers. Philadelphia imported grain and milled flour; Newport imported molasses and distilled rum. New York imported dry goods and sold luxury items to the carriage trade; Newport acted as the essential middleman, collecting cargoes from all who would sell, and redirecting them to whoever would buy. Of all these commerce-oriented towns, only Newport was heavily involved in what is referred to as the "triangular trade." Although there were many possible three-legged