The American Revolution, which was largely fostered in the early seaports and partly tied to the trade restrictions imposed on the American colonies by England, resulted in the expulsion of the new American states from the trading family of the British Empire. The United States was not a self-sufficient nation, so trade by sea became essential. Adventurous merchants sent out their ships to find new trading partners. In the Caribbean, Europe, Africa, and Asia, they sought markets for American materials where they could get the sugar, rum, manufactured goods, cloth, slaves, tea, and spices they had come to depend upon.
The trade in goods and passengers across the Atlantic quickly returned to its former prominence. So important was sea trade to the new American nation that the customs duties on imports paid ninety percent of the government budget. From 1792 to 1812, during the Napoleonic Wars between England and France, American merchants found a lucrative niche as "neutral traders," taking advantage of international law to carry goods to both warring nations from their colonies after first landing the goods in the U.S. temporarily to make them "American." Even though more than twenty percent of these neutral traders were captured by the warring forces, the trade brought great prosperity to American seaports.
By the 1850s America's deep-water merchant fleet rivaled Britain's in size and quality of ships. Large, full-bodied packet ships and regular traders crisscrossed the Atlantic while smaller tramps wandered between ports. Sleek, heavily rigged ships nicknamed "clippers" had been developed since the 1840s, first to rush home with tea from China; then after the gold rush, to combine that service with the delivery of goods to the growing communities of California. Southern cotton had become the nation's leading commodity, much of it traveling from New Orleans (the country's second-leading port), Mobile, or Charleston to European textile mills aboard hundreds of large American sailing ships. American homes reflected the range of sea trade: cotton cloth from England or India, silk from China, ceramics from England or China, copper kettles from Europe, shoes made from South American hides, wine from France, tea from China, coffee from South America, sugar from the Caribbean islands, and fruit from as far away as the Mediterranean.
This project will include profiles of:
- and others who were involved in the shipping business.