Goose Commerce

Hope and the Worldly Historian by daelnorwood
December 14, 2015, 10:00 am
Filed under: Found Historiography, History and Historians


And in despair I bowed my head;
There is no peace on earth, I said;
     For hate is strong,
     And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!” (1)

The last few days, I’ve been turning Ta-Nehisi Coates’s recent post about the place of hope in the practice of history – or rather, his contention that the latter leads to a lack of the former – over in my mind.

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Hunting Snark – and History by goosecommerce
December 5, 2013, 5:26 pm
Filed under: Corrupting the Youth, History and Historians | Tags: , , , , , ,

 Or, <eye roll> Primary Documents </eye roll>

Tom Scocca’s recent snarking on smarm has got me thinking about the connections between history, as it is written and pursued, and one of the defining literary styles of our time. But before I bloviate over a blog post, here’s the essay: go have a look.

I’ll wait.

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A Slaughter-Bench, Explained by goosecommerce

Or, Thoughts on Stephen R. Platt, Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War (Knopf, 2012).

YuYuan Garden by Wolfgang Staudt, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License  by  Wolfgang Staudt 

Odd as it is to say, it’s been a long time since a history book completely captivated my attention; and even longer since I lost a night of sleep to stay up reading one. I read history all day, everyday, but rarely for pleasure – one likes to escape, you know? But sometimes something special intervenes. Stephen Platt’s excellent account of the Taiping Rebellion is one such. While by no means an escape – the civil war he takes as his subject was one of the most brutal the world has ever seen – his book is as gripping and analytically sophisticated a piece of historical scholarship as I have ever read.

Platt’s book marries the deft use of “novelistic” tricks of popular historians with a serious and important new analysis of the Taiping civil war to construct a gripping narrative. The careful use of a judiciously chosen cast of characters – drawing from all factions in the war – allows Platt to draw the reader in to personal stories. But these are not just historical excursions for history’s sake, loosely connected. Rather, Platt makes a consistent, and convincing argument that the war should be seen as intimately connected to the other great civil conflict of the period – the American Civil War – by way of British foreign and economic policy. (Basically, he argues that the Brits got involved in the war – decisively, as it happened, on the side of the Qing – to protect their economic interests, partly out of pressure put on them by the loss of the American market).

In what I think is his greatest accomplishment, Platt makes all of these events make sense.*  That might sound like the first task of an historian – but believe me when I say that it is quite a feat, especially in this case. The caprice of the British public and the arrogance of some of their officials is paired nicely with the internal politicking of the Qing and Taiping courts. Each on its own is complex enough, but Platt is able to draw out the links between them, to explain the unfolding of events through these wavering intersections (which is not to say that events were rational; like all wars, this one was model of chaos). As someone who has mainly confronted the Taiping war through the garbled accounts of contemporary American observers, I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to finally have some glimpse of the Taiping war as a coherent whole. (Okay, well I can: and just did).

I think part of the secret here is that, unlike other books on the war which analyze the particular cultural characteristics that motivated actors  – say, Jonathan Spence’s – this book concentrates on making the strange familiar, and not on delineating just how strange the the strange was. Thus we get a portrait of Zeng Guofan, commanding general of the Hunan army (the main Qing force), that depicts him as a deeply conflicted, even tortured scholar trying to follow duty wherever it led. The foreignness of Zeng’s worldview (from our contemporary, Western perspective) is only partially revealed in the denouement, when glimpses of Zeng through the eyes of Western and Chinese observers reveal a brutal, calculating man, working to protect his image and his family’s power from the still-smoking and blood-stained ruins of the rebel capital, Nanjing.

I’m no expert in the Chinese historiography, so I can’t comment on how Platt’s work succeeds of fails in that regard; certainly his pedigree as a China expert is impeccable, and Sinologists who’ve reviewed the book seem pleased. From my perspective as an Americanist with more than a passing knowledge of British and American sources relating to the period, nothing rang false. Sections of the book dealing with British perspectives on the war, or maneuvering in Parliament, or even American reactions to the Taiping all seemed judiciously written, and did not a make any claims that stepped beyond the evidence. The Chinese sections…well, Chinese history, in English, always seems lightly sourced to me – but I think that is an artifact of the available archives and my footnote fetish, not any sort of real criticism.

(If I have one criticism, it is that I wish Platt had refrained from including a poorly-argued NYT op-ed as part of his book publicity efforts. Affecting a Tom Friedman-level of rhetorical analysis is not only historical malpractice – really, is the Taiping rebellion in any way like China today? really? – it does his scholarly reputation no favors. Indeed, had I not already bought the book before I read that article, I would have never cracked the cover).

But if we judged all scholars purely by their malpractice on the op-ed page, then we’d read no one, ever. So, my recommendation is simple: whatever your speciality or your interests, go read Stephen Platt, Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom, and have your understanding of 19th-century history, the global economy – and perhaps even your ideas about human nature – helpfully revised. And maybe your sleep disturbed, too.


*The petulant jerk who reviewed the book for the NYT seems to lack any sense of how complex this war was – how many people were involved, how difficult the sources are, how much violence deranges neat narratives. His complaints about how difficult his finely-tuned flâneur’s mind found the book reveal more about him, I think, than about the work under review.

Nasty, Brutish, Short — and Not Worth Commemorating by goosecommerce

Or, A Modest (But Friendly!) Rebuttal

Joe Adelman raised an interesting point on Twitter today: should we commemorate the War of 1812? And if so, on what grounds? Joe’s ably summarized and commented on the conversation that ensued  in a blog post here. Take a look!

Now, from that you’ll see that I placed myself firmly in the “War of 1812 isn’t worth commemorating” camp. It’s been a solitary experience.

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The Past is Flat, But the World is Round by goosecommerce

Or, Gibson, Friedman, and #FirstWorldProblems

From Darkness to Light - please read by ecstaticist, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  ecstaticist 

How evenly distributed was the future, in the past?

Yesterday, Alexis Madrigal distilled novelist Teju Cole’s tweeted critique1 of what’s wrong with #firstworldproblems – as a concept – and it got me thinking.

His post goes into a bit more detail (and explains what #firstworldproblems signifies), but here are the key lines of Cole’s analysis:

I don’t like this expression “First World problems.” It is false and it is condescending. Yes, Nigerians struggle with floods or infant mortality. But these same Nigerians also deal with mundane and seemingly luxurious hassles. …

… people don’t wake up with “poor African” pasted on their foreheads. They live as citizens of the modern world. … the interesting thing about modern technology is how socially mobile it is–quite literally. Everyone in Lagos has a phone.

Quite so. The approach that twitterers using #firstworldproblems take to the developing world mirrors, in no small part, the approach Europeans (and later, Americans) took to the “new” worlds of the Americas, Africa, and Asia. To assume that no one in Lagos is frustrated with her iPad’s inability to sync properly is to assume that Lagos exists in a different stage of history, a different time – pace Gibson, “[t]he future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” But listening to Cole, it seems the future is actually very well distributed – at least geographically; in our brave new world, wealth forms more of a barrier than oceans.2

The key difference in both usages is history, represented by technological gadgetry (and sometimes infrastructural abundance). Time passed, in this view, is progress achieved — a view echoed, from another vantage point, in a related meme-driven complaint about the lack of flying cars. In this, as in so many ways, our way of seeing the world is an iron Enlightened Victorian imperialist cage, albeit one with some of the sharp edges sanded off.

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Everything Old Is New, Again by goosecommerce
November 3, 2011, 10:27 pm
Filed under: History and Historians, Our Glorious National Heritage, Power At Play

Or, A Little Presentism Goes a Long Way

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Historians like to think that even as we study the past, we’re doing something new. Bringing fresh light to unexplored recesses, listening, patiently, to quiet, pained voices – or, more aggressively, stripping away the accumulated decades-deep varnish of myths and flipping the table on complacent “just-so” stories about how we got into our present mess. And so on.

I’m no different. Part of the sales pitch for my own work (Hellloooo future employers and funders!) is that early American trade with Asia is understudied – and so, by examining at its sources we can not only learn more about the trade itself, but also overturn long-standing debates in “wider” fields (e.g. American early republic or antebellum history). This is should be a familiar tune to all of you, I’ve sung it enough…

But history, in its modern incarnation, is not a new field; these habits are old. Even (or perhaps especially) when it comes to studying early American trade with Asia.

Allow me to illustrate. In 1937, in his monumental study of the Jackson and Lee merchant families Ken Porter complains, at length, that the American China trade is too well known , romanticized, even – and that the trend in the extant literature is to obscure an equally important topic: U.S. trade with British India.*

It was the trade with the Far East which gave early American commerce its characteristic flavor, but although the early history of the China trade has been told and retold, the story of the trade with Calcutta and other ports in India remains un-recounted either in scholarly or popular form. [emphasis mine]

The very simplicity of the Canton trade, emphasized by the exotic and fantastic characteristics of its physical background, has made it a favorite theme for writers on American foreign trade. Far otherwise was the situation at Calcutta, a British port, where the lack of any such rigid monopoly as the co-hong or any exclusive policy toward foreigners, coupled with the undeveloped character of native industry, rendered the trade situation almost infinitely more complex. This complexity, which calls for a thorough analysis, has instead produced the effect of repelling investigators, who found in the background of Calcutta trade no such compensatory romantic elements as were furnished by the forbidden world of China. Anecdotes of Houqua, the great hong merchant, abound; but who has more than the name of his millionaire Caclutta contemporary, Ram Duloll Day? [Ramdulal Dey]
~Porter, Jacksons and the Lees, I:28, 52

And, for what it’s worth, Porter was right: at the time he was writing, the U.S. public and scholarly community had been inundated, for at least thirty years, with wistful remembrances, detailed annals, and historical examinations of the American China trade.** That itself was a retread: the China trade, and it’s romantic clippers and secret hongs and smuggling, was celebrated well in to the Gilded Age in travelogues, stories, poetry, and images. Indeed, Porter’s own work was part of a new resurgence of interest in the early history of US-Asia relations, prompted, in all likelihood, by near-term threats to American interests in the Pacific (<cough>WWII</cough>).

Alas, all this kvetching was for naught; not until our own fallen times has U.S. trade with India (as well as China) come under proper consideration (though much good work is being done now).

Porter himself appears to have lost interest – some uphill battles are not worth fighting, I guess? – and devoted the rest of his (extremely long) career to working on the African American experience on the U.S. frontier.

Even among professionals, our historical memory is only the length of a lifetime, if that – and so trends cycle, if not predictably so. This is true, I suspect, in all sub-fields, but certainly in early American history, where once again innovative work is being done by adopting perspectives that echo (at least superficially) those of earlier generations, though hopefully with the benefits that the treadmill of time has provided us.***

But part of that innovation is also a calculated forgetting. Speaking for myself, it would be impossible to write anything new, if I felt obligated to fully represent every quantum of prior work equally in my own scholarship — the accumulated weight of the dust alone would crush me.

Turns out that the the dead hand of the (professional study of the) past is just as easily shrugged off as the past itself; even necessarily so, I think. History, no less than the earth, belongs in usufruct to the living  – though perhaps we would do well to be better stewards of it than we’ve been with the land.****

*Kenneth Wiggins Porter, The Jacksons and the Lees: Two Generations of Massachusetts Merchants, 1765-1844, 2 vols., 3rd ed., Harvard studies in business history 3 (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1969; orig 1937).

**To give but a brief taste of the recent (c. 30 years) lit that Porter might have been frustrated with:

John Watson Foster, American Diplomacy in the Orient (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1903); Frank Erastus Hinckley, American Consular Jurisdiction in the Orient (Washington, D.C: W.H. Loudermilk, 1906); Hosea Ballou Morse, The International Relations of the Chinese Empire, 3 vols. (London: Longmans, Green, and Co, 1910); Charles O. Paullin, “Early Voyages of American Naval Vessels to the Orient,” Proceedings 36, no. 2, United States Naval Institute (USNI) (June 1910): 428-463; Robert Ephraim Peabody, Merchant Venturers of Old Salem; a History of the Commercial Voyages of a New England Family to the Indies and Elsewhere in the XVIII Century, (Boston and New York, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1912); Robert Glass Cleland, “Asiatic Trade and the American Occupation of the Pacific Coast,” Annual Report of the American Historical Association for the Year 1914 I (1916): 283-289; Thomas Franklin Waters, Augustine Heard and His Friends, Ipswich Historical Society publications no. 21 (Salem, Mass.: The Society, 1916); Frederic William Howay, “The Fur Trade in Northwestern Development,” ed. H. M Stevens and Herbert E Bolton, The Pacific Ocean in History (New York, 1917), 276-86; Kenneth Scott Latourette, The History of Early Relations Between the United States and China, 1784-1844, Transactions of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences 22 (New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press, 1917),; State Street Trust Company, Other Merchants and Sea Captains of Old Boston; Being More Information About the Merchants and Sea Captains of Old Boston Who Played Such an Important Part in Building up the Commerce of New England, Together with Some Quaint and Curious Stories of the Sea (Boston, Mass: Walton Advertising and Printing Company: Printed for the State Street Trust Company, 1919); James Christy Bell, Jr., Opening a Highway to the Pacific, 1838-1846 (New York: Columbia University, 1921),; Tyler Dennett, Americans in Eastern Asia: a critical study of the policy of the United States with reference to China, Japan, and Korea in the 19th Century (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1922); Samuel Eliot Morison, The Maritime History of Massachusetts, 1783-1860, 1st ed. (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1922); Shü-lun Pan, “The trade of the United States with China” (Ph.D. diss., New York: Columbia University, 1924); Charles H Barnard et al., The Sea, the Ship and the Sailor; Tales of Adventure from Log Books and Original Narratives (Salem, Mass: Marine Research Society, 1925); Sydney Greenbie and Marjorie Latta Barstow Greenbie, Gold of Ophir; or, The Lure That Made America (Garden City, N.Y: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1925); George Granville Putnam, Salem Vessels and Their Voyages, III (Salem, MA: The Essex Institute, 1925); Robert Ephraim Peabody, The Log of the Grand Turks (Boston ;New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1926); Charles Frederick Remer, The Foreign Trade of China (Shanghai, China: The Commercial Press, Limited, 1926); Kenneth Scott Latourette, “Voyages of American Ships to China, 1784-1844,” Transactions of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences 28 (1927),; Samuel Eliot Morison, “The India Ventures of Fisher Ames, 1794-1804,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 37 (April 1927): 14-23; George H Danton, The Culture Contacts of the United States and China; the Earliest Sino-American Culture Contacts, 1784-1844 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1931); “Perkins and Company, Canton 1803-1827,” Bulletin of the Business Historical Society 6, no. 2 (March 1, 1932): 1-5; Basil Lubbock, The Opium Clippers (Boston: Charles E. Lauriat company, 1933); E. H. Pritchard, “The Struggle for Control of the China Trade during the Eighteenth Century,” The Pacific Historical Review 3, no. 3 (September 1934): 280-295; Eliot Grinnell Mears, Maritime Trade of Western United States,, Stanford business series (Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 1935); Chen Ching-Jen, “Opium and Anglo-Chinese Relations,” The Chinese Social and Political Science Review 19 (October 1935): 386-437; Amy Christine Carlson, “References to China in American Juvenile Periodicals During the Days of the Old China Trade, 1784-1844.”, 1936

And so on.

***I was having a conversation with a colleague just today about how it’s time to take the doughfaces seriously again! This is an ancient heresy of the worst kind, I tell you.

**** Said with all due obeisances to the lord master of Monticello, of course.

The Limits of Sympathy for Teas by goosecommerce
03-04-10 Splash ~ Explored :) by Î’ethan, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License by Î’ethan

Or, How Debt Ceilings, Tea, and the tradition of Governing in the U.S. Tangentially Relate

The political crisis du jour is over whether or not Congress will vote to raise the “debt ceiling,” aka the legal borrowing limit for the Federal Government. The broad consensus is that should the debt ceiling not be raised (as is customary), the Federal government would, for the first time ever, fail to pay – and perhaps even repudiate – its debts.

Now, the consequences of such an action are disputed; those seeking to hold firm on the debt ceiling (the Republicans) maintain that there would be no ill effects, just a healthful readjustment of budgetary priorities, while their opponents – and here that includes the Democratic party and associated partisans and officials, bankers, other Wall Street honchos, and most of the media – maintain that failing to raise the debt limit would be tantamount to a financial apocalypse, for the U.S., and possibly the entire world.

So there’s a bit of a gap in the conversation.

I bring it up here not to comment on the issue in particular – though there are some really interesting discussions happening, including some historical debates related to whether or not the 14th Amendment was designed to prevent just a crisis1 – but because lately I’ve been working through documents from the first few years after the Constitution, a period where Congress was determined to do exactly the opposite of what the Republicans are proposing today. Back in the 1790s, the overriding concern for the rulers of the newly re-organized American republic was to figure out how generate revenue so as to pay the U.S.’s debts.

The rub was that Congress had to find a way to do so consistent with the principles of the Revolution – and since there was no real agreement about what these were, or what that would look like, conflict ensued (some things never change). The parts of these machinations that typically get the most airplay are the debates over the “how, who, and what to pay” issues – the internal structuring of the national debt, the creation of a national bank, division of fiscal powers among the different branches, etc. These are the core issues around which the first partisan divide in the nation’s modern history formed, between “Federalists” (the Hamiltonian/Washingtonian conglomeration in favor of an active national government modeled in its fiscal policies after European powers) and the “Jeffersonians” (TJ and Madison’s more structured opposition party that favored a decentralized republic with weaker coercive power).

The attention this dynamic gets is justified – the people involved in these struggles certainly emphasized the “how, who, and what to pay” issues. But they weren’t the only problems being worked out. I’ve been looking how those early Congresses worked out the other part of the debt equation – the “where do we get revenue from” problem.

Here the partisan divide dissolves a bit, because the answer that the Founders gave to the revenue question basically boils down to one phrase: the tariff. The national government did implement other taxes in the early years – there was a pretty heavy tax on personal carriages2, and of course the excise tax on whiskey is well known – but until the introduction of the permanent income tax in the early 20th century, taxes on imported goods and international shipping were the primary revenue for the Federal Government. And, as you might expect of such an important component of government, during that period between Revolution and the 16th Amendment the tariff was among the most powerful drivers of American politics.


Long-time readers of this blog will be unsurprised to find out that Asian trade was a non-trivial part of the tariff, in both the debates setting it up and the legislation itself. And in fact, there is a lot that’s unique about the way the Federal Government handled Americans’ involvement in Asian trade which suggests that policymakers regarded it as particularly important.3 But what interests me in connection with the debt ceiling controversy is not the protections the China trade received, but rather how the Federal Government resolved problems with the collection of tariffs on the trade, and what that says about the ultimate priorities of the Founding generation of legislators.

Despite what a visit to your local art museum might lead you to believe, the West’s trade with China in the late 18th-century was not about porcelain, silks, or lacquered furniture, but rather was almost entirely concerned with exchanging silver for tea. The American trade with China was no different; indeed “china ware” was carried back from Canton to U.S. markets chiefly as ballast. The Founding generation, having concluded that taxing widely-consumed beverages with mild psychoactive effects was the most effective, lucrative and appropriate way of gaining a steady income, made duties on tea one of the linchpins of the American revenue system.4 In the tariff acts from 1789 onward, and in the periodic special taxes for defending the frontier and paying down the debt, tea invariably appears as one of the key enumerated items singled out for special attention – and taxation.5

In the early years, though, both the success of the American trade in teas, and the amount of tax it could reasonably bear, were unknowns. It is unsurprising, then, that the government ran into trouble with collections. The problem was not that tea taxes were somehow verboten because of their role in sparking the Revolutionary struggle.6 The difficulty was more prosaic: an oversupplied market meant that merchants couldn’t pay their taxes without going broke.

It was a classic boom-bust case. Americans’ rush into the China trade in the late 1780s and early 1790s flooded the U.S. market with cargoes of tea – enough in 1790 alone for three years’ of domestic consumption, according to one (admittedly self-interested) China merchant.7 With supply and demand being in an inverse relationship and all, this in turn led to both a precipitous drop in the commodity’s price and a marked rise in petitions to Congress. As merchants found themselves with stocks of teas that could not be sold even at cost, they presented Congress with a dilemma: how to best secure an important source of revenue while at the same time encouraging growth in a key economic sector?8

The merchants themselves were divided. Some requested stronger protections from foreign competitors, up to and including a ban on sales of teas imported by European shippers; others merely requested “to be allowed a farther time for payment of the duties on a quantity of teas imported.” Though there was a strong sentiment in the early Congresses that the development of the China trade was of great importance as a means to national prosperity and security – as “a trade sought after by all the world” it seemed obvious to some members that it should be protected, one way or another – this feeling was not sufficiently shared to move more protective legislation out of committee.

Even Alexander Hamilton, who is sometimes presented as the protectionist avatar of American commerce, was ambivalent. Replying to a request to evaluate a petition from the “merchants of Philadelphia trading to India and China,” he told the House of Representatives that “the trade to India and China appears to lay claim to the patronage of the Government” but “a full and accurate examination should be had into the nature and tendency of that trade” before any “encouragement” or protection could be offered.9 In other words, Hamilton kicked the can down the road, a move likely made out of concern for maintaining government income – as Hamilton knew, protecting the American trade too aggressively was a sure way to choke off the stream of revenue that flowed into the Treasury from the high duties paid by foreign importers (who paid 50% higher duties on teas, and 700% higher tonnage duties). However, in a different report on a similar petition, the Secretary of the Treasury did suggest another option: that Congress extend “credit for the duties” due on tea.10

Though Hamilton’s advice was hardly gospel – Madison and other proto-Republicans in the House were at pains to reduce the his influence in all things financial – in this matter the legislature followed his lead and chose to amend only the administrative aspects of the tariff law. Specifically, Congress extended the amount of time American merchants could store imported teas without paying duties, first from nothing to one full year, and then later from one year to two; all the importer had to do was give the port collector a bond for future payments, which could be made as the tea was sold.11

In the event, this new system worked well: by offering merchants two-year interest-free loans on their taxes, the Federal Government provided the flexibility needed to keep the trade alive beyond one season of oversupply, while at the same time effectively securing an important long-term source of revenue. It was a neat piece of governance which allowed Congress leeway to raise taxes on teas repeatedly over the next few decades, without fear of harming the trade, as merchants would always have time to adjust to new market conditions.


So what does this have to do with the debt ceiling negotiations? Well, I think the case of the tea tariffs offers us some insight into the particular ways our own political scene differs from those of the Revolutionary era. For the significant conservative political force in our own moment, the financial reputation of the U.S. is worth chancing in order to achieve a significant change in policy, whereas in the founding decades, for partisans of every stripe, any policy was worth changing in order to secure a sounder financial reputation.

Moreover, I think the audacity of the move – forego taxes in order to secure them! – is one worth remembering in any era where a flexible approach to ideology in governance seems rare.

(It’s also important to remember that – two centuries of hagiography to the contrary – this was not the compromise of a uniquely enlightened age. Recall that a key architect of this decision, Hamilton, got himself shot and killed by a political rival – something that is now, thankfully, nearly unheard of. And trust me when I say that the rhetoric exchanged between partisans, of this or almost any other age of American politics, is quite comparable to ours, in terms of outright viciousness; though earlier generations were perhaps more creative…)

More germane to my own inside baseball, the tea tariff decision overthrows the bipolar conclusions drawn in the current literature on the China trade. In contrast to writers who argue (implicitly or explicitly) that Asian commerce impinged only slightly if at all on the politics of early America, the care policymakers took with the tea trade suggests that concern with economic connections with Asia was most certainly a force in political debate. On the other hand, the government’s strategic deafness to merchant’s calls for commercial protection from competition belies accusations leveled by later politicians and historians that the:

“records of American legislation bear the most satisfactory testimony of the transcendent influence of the mercantile interests, and of the unceasing exertions made to fence it round with every species of protection the government could bestow which secured to the tonnage of our merchants, a monopoly of the whole of the China trade – and gave them paramount advantages in all other foreign trade.”12

Neither a controlling force in government nor a puff of air, the China trade was nonetheless an important component of the nation’s most crucial, and endlessly controversial, revenue laws. And the way the revenue it generated was flexibly supervised within the tariff laws typifies the pragmatic approach that early American politicians took to governing what they hoped would be a nation simultaneously prosperous and free.


1) For example:

2) How’s that for Federal intervention into private life! 1 Stat. 373 (June 5, 1794), Chapter 45, 3 Congress, Session 1, “An Act: Laying duties upon carriages for the conveyance of persons.”

3) Among all forms of overseas commerce, only the direct trade in China goods was singled out for protection, distinguished by the trade route rather than what commodity trafficked. Taxes on Asian goods – teas, China ware, etc. – were the lowest if they were imported by Americans directly from Canton, higher if they were brought by Americans from Europe, and highest if they were imported by foreigners to the U.S.

4) Taxes on imported wine and hard alcohol were the other key supports of the system.

5) 1 Stat. 25, Chapter 2, 1 Congress, Session 1, An Act: For laying a duty on goods, wares, and merchandises imported into the United States. (July 4, 1789); 1 Stat 145, Chapter 35, 1 Congress, Session 2, An Act: To provide more effectually for the collection of the duties imposed by law on goods, wares, and merchandise imported into the United States, and on the tonnage of ships or vessels. (Aug. 4, 1790); 1 Stat. 180, Chapter 39, 1 Congress, Session 2, An Act: Making further provision for the payment of the debt of the United States. (Aug 10, 1790); 1 Stat 219, Chapter 26, 1 Congress, Session 3, An Act: Making farther provision for the collection of the duties by law imposed on teas, and to prolong the term for the payment of the duties on wines. (Mar. 3, 1791); 1 Stat 411, Chapter 17, 3 Congress, Session 2, An Act: Supplementary to the several acts imposing duties on goods, wares, and merchandises imported into the United States. (Jan. 29, 1795); 1 Stat 503, Chapter 10, 4 Congress, Session 2, An Act: For raising a further sum of money by additional duties on certain articles imported, and for other purposes. (Mar. 3, 1797); etc.

6) As one republican columnist explained, the political implications of taxes mattered, not what they taxed: “people who revolted against that innovation [the 1773 Tea Act], certainly not for the magnitude of the duty, but from a wise anticipation of the horrid train for which it was calculated to open the way….” “For the National Gazette, On the Secretary’s Report on the Excise,” National Gazette, 26 April 1792

7) “Petition of Elias Hasket Derby, Salem, Mass., 10 June 1789,” in Kenneth R. Bowling, William Charles DiGiacomantonio, and Charlene Bangs Bickford, eds., Petition Histories and Nonlegislative Official Documents, vol. 8, Documentary History of the First Federal Congress of the United States of America, 1789-1791 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), 407.

8.) Fri, Feb 24, 1792 (1st Sess), Journal of the House of Representatives, 520

9) Emphasis mine. United States Congress, American State Papers: Finance, ed. Walter Lowrie and Matthew St. Clair Clarke (Washington, D.C: Gales and Seaton, 1832), 1:107,; “Report of the Treasury of the Secretary, 10 February 1791,” in Bowling, DiGiacomantonio, and Bickford, Petition Histories and Nonlegislative Official Documents, 8:382-383.

10) “Report of the Secretary of the Treasury, 2 March 1791,”Bowling, DiGiacomantonio, and Bickford, Petition Histories and Nonlegislative Official Documents, 8:411.

11) 1 Stat. 145, Chapter 35, 1 Congress, Session 2, An Act: To provide more effectually for the collection of the duties imposed by law on goods, wares, and merchandise imported into the United States, and on the tonnage of ships or vessels. (Aug. 4, 1790); 1 Stat. 219, Chapter 26, 1 Congress, Session 3, An Act: Making farther provision for the collection of the duties by law imposed on teas, and to prolong the term for the payment of the duties on wines. (Mar. 3, 1791)

12) Mathew Carey, The New Olive Branch, or, An Attempt to Establish an Identity of Interest Between Agriculture, Manufactures, and Commerce and to Prove, That a Large Portion of the Manufacturing Industry of This Nation Has Been Sacrificed to Commerce, and That Commerce Has Suffered by This Policy Nearly as Much as Manufactures (Philadelphia: M. Carey & Son, 1820), 213-214, Carey’s summary of the early Congress’s favoritism toward the mercantile interest in general and the China trade in particular is repeated in Edward Dewey Graham, American Ideas of a Special Relationship with China, 1784-1900, Harvard dissertations in American history and political science (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1988); Edward Dewey Graham, “Special Interests and the Early China Trade,” Michigan Academician 6, no. 2 (Fall 1973): 233-242.

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