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The Americans: The National Experience [Secure eReader]
eBook by Daniel J. Boorstin

eBook Category: Politics/Government
eBook Description: Covering the period between the American Revolution and the Civil War, The Americans: The National Experience, the second volume of Daniel Boorstin's award-winning trilogy, examines the realities of everyday life for the early pioneers as well as for those living in the established population centers on the Atlantic coast.

eBook Publisher: RosettaBooks/RosettaBooks, Published: 2002
Fictionwise Release Date: September 2002

Chapter 1
The Sea Leads Everywhere

The sea was a path direct from Old to New England, from Babylon to Zion. It was both a waterway from colony to mother country and a gulf that separated colonists from poverty, decadence, and dynastic conflict. It was a highway to the world.

The sea was impartial. It carried anything anywhere: Puritans and Bibles and theology texts to build a City upon a Hill; rum to West Africa in exchange for slaves to be carried to overwork and death in the West Indies; opium from Smyrna to China. The versatility of the sea was the versatility of New England.

The sea was empty and had no culture of its own -- except that which seafarers made for themselves on shipboard. This was a blessing for New Englanders whom it enabled to go everywhere without leaving home. The earliest Puritans sailing to New England had huddled together, threatened only by God and the elements. Their new community life began at sea; the Mayflower Compact was made even before they landed. Shipboard sermons like Winthrop's "Model of Christian Charity" cemented their community while it still traveled. Unlike later companies of Americans who moved westward on the land, seaborne communities en route were not overwhelmed by sights of new plants or new animals nor threatened by savage tribes. Travelers by land saw new landscapes, they encamped, dispersed, and made homes as they went. But the very ships which brought New Englanders to their Promised Land kept them together and made them more compact, more insular, and more united when they arrived than when they had left.

By the early 19th century, the New Englander had learned to deal with the banian in Calcutta, the co-huang and the mandarin in China, but his peculiar talent was his inability to forget his native land. The sea captain seldom lost his nostalgia for a farm and chickens in the land of his childhood. From his "Captain's Walk" on top of the farmhouse of his ideal retirement he looked back on the wandering ocean; but the sea never became his home. When Jefferson accused the merchant of being a man without a country he spoke with the provincial voice of the Old South and he showed his ignorance of New England. Virginians seldom understood the sea-roving spirit of the New Englander, who yearned more for his native land as he wandered farther from it. Jefferson's love of Virginia was an affection for Monticello and the familiar scene of his verandah. But the attachment of Massachusetts men to their "country" --the New England patriotism of the Adamses, Perkinses, Jacksons, Cabots, and Lees -- while just as profound, was more diffuse. They were attached to a spiritual and commercial headquarters.

From the earliest days in Massachusetts the wealth of the sea offset the poverty of the land. "The aboundance of Sea-Fish are almost beyond beleeuing." Francis Higginson wrote in 1630, "and sure I whould scarce haue beleeued it except I had seene it with mine owne Eyes" The first settlers found not only mackerel, cod, bass, and lobster, but also "Heering, Turbot, Sturgion, Cuskes, Haddocks, Mullets, Eeles, Crabs, Muskles and Oysters." Before the end of the 17th century, fishing was the main industry of Massachusetts Bay. The codfish was to colonial Massachusetts what tobacco had been to colonial Virginia. If the Old Dominion was founded, as its hostile critics said, "on smoke," the Puritan Commonwealth was founded on salt water. New England's fishermen, like fisherfolk in other parts of the world, had their own kind of conservatism. It once seemed only a little less difficult to convert a codfisherman into a mackerel man or a whaler, than to make an Englishman into a Frenchman or an Italian. Yet, while tobacco and the newly dominant Southern crop, cotton, put Southern roots ever deeper into the soil, the fisheries drew New England out toward the world.

The commerce of the sea demanded versatility. It called for quick decisions and the willingness to jettison unprofitable cargo. It called for sale in Buenos Aires of whatever at the moment was unusually scarce there; for the ability to pick up unexpected bargains anywhere; for changing destination from Canton to Calcutta if war threatened or storms made the passage dangerous; for sudden disposal of the ship itself if the voyage could not go on with profit. Captain and supercargo had unfettered discretion to shift investment, to convert the voyage from one purpose to another, to give up and return home -- to do whatever promised most.

By 1784, when the Massachusetts House of Representatives passed a resolution "to hang up the representation of a Codfish in the room where the House sit, as a memorial of the importance of the Cod-Fishery to the welfare of the Commonwealth" (a totem which kept its place into the mid-20th century) the sacred cod had more than earned its eminence. The Revolution itself was, in a sense, a by-product of the New England fisheries. For it was to serve her fishermen that New England colonists had built their own ships and so had begun to justify English jealousy of a colonial merchant marine. The gathering place of Massachusetts rebels, Faneuil Hall, which Daniel Webster called "the cradle of American liberty," was the gift of Peter Faneuil, a Boston merchant who had prospered by carrying New England codfish to distant markets.

The peak of the New England fisheries was passed ten years before the Revolution, when New Englanders were catching more fish, and their catch was a larger part of their income than it had ever been before or would ever be again. During the era of the Revolution, New England fishing dwindled, less from the force of English laws than from the distractions and demands of war. In 1774 the little town of Chatham, for example, still had twenty-seven codfishing vessels; ten years later there were only four or five. Fishing schooners were fitted out as privateers and peace-loving fishermen became fighting seamen.

Nothing did more to make Americans independent than this very War for Independence. New fortunes, like those of George Cabot (who had been commander of a codfishing vessel by his eighteenth birthday), came now from privateering. The great world outside the British Empire, once open only to the smuggler, tempted every New England merchant. John Adams of Massachusetts, with the slogan of "fisheries or no peace," secured extensive fishing rights all over British America in the treaty of peace with Great Britain in 1783. But at the War's end, while the fisheries did revive, it was the discovery of new markets for old commodities and new commodities for old markets that stirred New England imaginations.

There are countless examples of this search: stories of men long since forgotten -- so commonplace was adventure in their day -- and of commodities we hardly remember. As good as any is the story of Major Samuel Shaw and the marketing of ginseng.

The first American ship to reach China arrived at Canton on August 30, 1784. In charge of the business of that voyage was Major Samuel Shaw, Boston-born veteran of the American Revolution. When a young man in his late twenties, Shaw had fought at Trenton, Princeton, and Brandywine; he had suffered with General Washington at Valley Forge; he had witnessed the mutinies of the soldiers of Pennsylvania and New Jersey; and he had heard Washington deliver his tearful farewell to his officers in December, 1783. Early the next year, Shaw like many others re-entered civil life without property and burdened with debt. When some businessmen purchased the Empress of China, a ship of 360 tons, and organized a venture to export ginseng to Canton, they appointed Shaw supercargo. Leaving New York harbor in early 1784, he sailed eastward to the Cape Verde Islands, enjoyed the jovial ceremony of his first crossing of the equator, saw whale and swordfish, and after six months finally reached the exotic shores of Java and Macao en route to Canton.

Until these New Englanders carried the American flag to China it had been assumed that the whole annual Chinese consumption of ginseng -- a rare herb found in North America as well as China and prized by Chinese physicians as an aphrodisiac and prolonger of life -- would never be more than four tons. But this first American ship alone carried ten times that amount; within another year Americans more than doubled their ginseng exports to China. The demand and the price kept up. In exchange for ginseng, American businessmen secured tea and other marketable products of China which, in turn, produced additional good profits.

At first, as Shaw explains in his journal, the Chinese could not quite understand the distinction between Englishmen and Americans. "They styled us the New People; and when by the map we conveyed to them an idea of the extent of our country; with its present and increasing population, they were highly pleased at the prospect of so considerable a market for the production of their own empire."

No corner of the world remained untouched by these New Englandmen. In 1784 one of George Cabot's ships carried the first American flag to St. Petersburg in Russia. From Salem, vessels traded with the west coast of Africa, brought copal for varnish from Zanzibar on Africa's east coast, and rubber and overshoes from Brazil. Boston ships carried food to starving Irishmen. They picked up sandalwood in Hawaii or otterskins in British Columbia as currency for Chinese tea. Others played "hide-and-go-seek" --finding cheap hides in South America or California to supply the new shoe factories back home. They sought out the best coffees in the Southern Hemisphere, bought Peruvian bark to make quinine against malaria, jute for gunny sacks, linseed oil for paint and ink, shellac for ships and furniture.

Nothing was too big or too small, too exotic or too commonplace for New England enterprise. Salem quickly became the world headquarters for trade in the tiny peppercorn, which in the era before refrigeration was wanted everywhere. In 1791 the United States re-exported less than 500 pounds of pepper; in 1805, it re-exported 7,500,000 pounds, which comprised nearly the whole crop of Northwest Sumatra. The immense whale, long the staple of New Bedford and Nantucket, was pursued at mortal risk on voyages lasting as long as three years all over the North Atlantic and the South Pacific.

In distant places New England became a name for the new nation. At the source of otter skins on the northwest coast of North America, "Boston" became a synonym for the whole United States. In the 183o's, prosperous native merchants on South Pacific islands thought Salem "a country by itself, and one of the richest and most important sections of the globe."

New England seafaring enterprises were a broken, shifting pattern. Before the Revolution much of this business had been outside the law; afterwards much of it was as perilous and as uncertain as the new trade routes. By contrast, the adventurousness of more ancient seafaring peoples had frozen; in the Old World the profits of the sea ran in tradition-worn channels. In early 19th-century England, for example, seaborne commerce continued to be dominated by organizations like the East India Company whose history went back to Elizabethan days. Such organizations had their own long-established practices and were regulated by time-honored government policies. It was no accident that the British East India Company commonly provided berths for unenterprising younger sons or favorite nephews of rich families. Not only in England, but elsewhere in Europe, officers at sea, like those on land, were a branch of the ruling aristocracy. It was almost unheard of for a common seaman to become first mate or captain: he had neither the education, the language, the manners, nor the "background." In New England, however, young men starting as common seamen rose to command their own vessels. A Beverly sea captain who had begun as a foremast hand on a ship out of Salem could recall that every one of that ship's crew of thirteen had risen to become master of a vessel. Since New England had no ancient trading companies nor any rigid tradition of adventure, her enterprise was controlled by upstart Cabots, Jacksons, Lees, Higginsons, and Perkinses, ingenious at finding their own markets and making their own ways. She inherited no established aristocracy from which officers were drawn nor a deep-sea proletariat from which came the "old salts" of English fiction and folklore.

Copyright © 1965 by Daniel Boorstin

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