Volume V - Nos. 2 & 3
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF SALEM
Interpretative Statement : I
Until the great West began to unfold, in 1800 and after, most of the American people lived within reach of the ocean and most naturally turned to it for adventure, a livelihood, and even riches. The seas, indeed, were the principal highways. From the beginning colonists were dependent upon the ocean for communication with the home land and with other colonies. What with meager possibilities in agriculture and proximity to the fishing banks of the North Atlantic, New England literally grew up on the sea and for more than two centuries aggressively followed its calling.
The best of materials were at hand and the New England colonist commenced the construction of vessels almost as soon as he arrived. Through out the colonial period the fisheries and trade with the West Indies, Spain, and Portugal absorbed most of the ships he built. At the opening of the Revolution one-third of the tonnage under the British flag was American-built. Massachusetts was said to own one sea-going vessel for every 100 inhabitants. Up to 1783 lax enforcement of the navigation laws had permitted the growth of an extensive maritime trade and the normal development of a ship-building industry, but as soon as Parliament enacted and enforced new legislation more severely restricting the commercial intercourse of the colonies, economic life was paralyzed and the flames of discontent were fanned to the point of rebellion.
At first the Revolution had a disastrous effect upon American shipping. The British navy effectually closed the fishing industry off the New England coast and prevented intercourse with the West Indies. As the war progressed, however, ways of evading the enemy were discovered, and in privateering American merchants found the means for keeping their place on the sea. Swift and formidable ships were built, mounted with guns, heavily manned and directed against British commerce.
The importance of privateering has been generally overlooked in dealing with the American Revolution. Privateers not only impeded the transport of arms and supplies from the mother country, but also succeeded in carrying the effects of war to her very doorstep. In 1777 Silas Deane wrote Robert Morris from Paris that American privateers had "most effectually alarmed England, prevented the great fair at Chester, occasioned insurance to rise, and even deterred the English merchants from shipping goods in English bottoms at any rate, so that in a few weeks forty sail of French ships were loading in the Thames on freight, an instance never before known."1
Before the war came to an end, between 400 and 500 privateers were in commission, carrying crews which numbered almost as many men as were serving in the Continental Army. Of all the ports to supply ships and men for privateering, Salem likely made the greatest contribution. Salem was the one Continental port of significance that did not fall into the hands of the British at one time or another during the war, and it "probably kept more vessels at sea all the time than did any other town in the United Colonies. During the period from January 1, 1776, to December 31, 1782, Salem averaged over fifty vessels at sea acting offensively against the enemy."2 Many of these vessels which cruised as privateers were fitted out at Derby Wharf, and were owned by the Derbys and other seafaring families who lived in the vicinity of the Salem Maritime National Historic Site.
Privateering had kept the maritime spirit alive and, with the return of peace, shipping interests were eager to find an outlet for their energies and employment for their vessels. All trade with British ports and British possessions which had been so important to the colonists before the Revolution was closed to Yankee merchantship owners. New trade routes and new markets had to be found. No American merchant went to work more aggressively to open up new sources of foreign commerce than Elias Hasket Derby of Salem. Under their venturesome sea captains Derby ships made pioneering voyages into the Baltic, around the Cape of Good Hope, and even to the Far East in search of new trade. Merchantmen from Salem and other coast towns carried the American flag into every port where Yankee business acumen or trading tactics could strike a bargain. Within a decade after the Revolution, American ships were trading where only the East India Company had traded before. By breaking the long monopoly of the East India Company, American merchants and mariners can be credited with a hand in an economic change of even greater significance abroad than at home.
Commerce with the Far East, indeed, ushered in the golden age of American foreign trade. But after 1790 it was not the markets of Canton and the Indies alone which lured the Yankee trader. While the nations of Europe were in the grip of the Napoleonic wars, America, the only neutral nation of importance left on the ocean, was in a position to take full advantage of their distress. The demand for supplies to carry on the struggle and the shortage of ocean carriers was a mighty stimulus to American shipping. During these years the tonnage of the United States came to exceed that of every other nation except England, and, "proportionately to the population, the United States were the first commercial nation of the world." It was also the heyday of Salem's ocean trade! The tonnage of the port increased nearly five fold between 1790 and 1807, the year of Jefferson's embargo.
The embargo and the War of 1812 simply interrupted the growth of American shipping as a whole, but to Salem and other Massachusetts ports they dealt a blow from which complete recovery never came. The embargo and war were the first of several factors which led to the decline of Salem's commerce. The increase in the size of the ships, which the harbor of Salem could not accommodate, together with the development of railroads and the building up of centers of trade like Boston and New York completed the decay. When Nathaniel Hawthorne received an appointment in the Salem Custom House in 1848, much of the former business of the port had been absorbed by Boston and her merchants had moved there. Derby Wharf and Central Wharf are surviving evidence of the commerce antedating both Hawthorne and the embargo; and the buildings that also comprise the Salem Maritime National Historic Site are illustrative of a taste and a culture which owe their existence to the sea.
1The Deane Papers in New York Historical Society Collections, Vol. II (1887), p. 108.
2J. D. Phillips, Salem in the Eighteenth Century, p. 393.
3Ugo Rebbeno, The American Colonial Policy, p. 141
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