Failure of American Credit After the Revolutionary War
AT the close of the eighteenth century the barbarous superstitions of the Middle Ages concerning trade between nations still flourished with scarcely diminished vitality. The epoch-making work of Adam Smith had been published in the same year in which the United States declared their independence. The one was the great scientific event, as the other was the great political event, of the age ; but of neither the one nor the other were the scope and purport fathomed at the time. Among the foremost statesmen, those who, like Shelburne and Gallatin, understood the principles of the Wealth of Nations were few indeed. The simple principle that when two parties trade both must be gainers, or one would soon stop trading, was generally lost sight of; and most commercial legislation proceeded upon the theory that in trade, as in gambling or betting, what the one party gains the other must lose. Hence towns, districts, and nations surrounded themselves with walls of legislative restrictions intended to keep out the monster trade, or to admit him only on strictest proof that he could do no harm. On this barbarous theory, the use of a colony consisted in its being a customer which you could compel to trade with yourself, while you could prevent it from trading with anybody else ; and having secured this point, you could cunningly arrange things by legislation so as to throw all the loss upon this enforced customer, and keep all the gain to yourself. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries all the commercial legislation of the great colonizing states was based upon this theory of the use of a colony. For effectiveness, it shared to some extent the characteristic features of legislation for making water run uphill. It retarded commercial development all over the world, fostered monopolies, made the rich richer and the poor poorer, hindered the interchange of ideas and the refinement of manners, and sacrificed millions of human lives in misdirected warfare ; but what it was intended to do it did not do. The sturdy race of smugglers—those despised pioneers of a higher civilization— thrived in defiance of kings and parliaments; and as it was impossible to carry out such legislation thoroughly without stopping trade altogether, colonies and mother countries contrived to increase their wealth in spite of it. The colonies, however, understood the animus of the theory in so far as it was directed against them, and the revolutionary sentiment in America had gained much of its strength from the protest against this one-sided justice. In one of its most important aspects, the Revolution was a deadly blow aimed at the old system of trade restrictions. It was to a certain extent a step in realization of the noble doctrines of Adam Smith. But where the scientific thinker grasped the whole principle involved in the matter, the practical statesmen saw only the special application which seemed to concern them for the moment. They all understood that the Revolution had set them free to trade with other countries than England, but very few of them understood that, whatever countries trade together, the one cannot hope to benefit by impoverishing the other.
This point is much better understood in England to-day than in the United States; but a century ago there was little to choose between the two countries in ignorance of political economy. England had gained great wealth and power through trade with her rapidly growing American colonies. One of her chief fears, in the event of American independence, had been the possible loss of that trade. English merchants feared that American commerce, when no longer confined to its old paths by legislation, would somehow find its way to France and Holland and Spain and other countries, until nothing would be left for England. The Revolution worked no such change, however. The principal trade of the United States was with England, as before, because England could best supply the goods that Americans wanted ; and it is such considerations, and not acts of Parliament, that determine trade in its natural and proper channels. In 1783 Pitt introduced into Parliament a bill which would have secured mutual unconditional free trade between the two countries; and this was what such men as Franklin, Jefferson, and Madison desired. Could this bill have passed, the hard feelings occasioned by the war would soon have died out, the commercial progress of both countries would have been promoted, and the stupid measures which led to a second war within thirty years might have been prevented. But the wisdom of Pitt found less favor in Parliament than the dense stupidity of Lord Sheffield, who thought that to admit Americans to the carrying trade would undermine the naval power of Great Britain. Pitt’s measure was defeated, and the regulation of commerce with America was left to the king in council. Orders were passed as if upon the theory that America poor would be a better customer than America rich. The carrying trade to the West Indies had been one of the most important branches of American industry. The men of New England were famous for seamanship, and better and cheaper ships could be built in the seaports of Massachusetts than anywhere in Great Britain. An oak vessel could be built at Gloucester or Salem for twenty-four dollars per ton ; a ship of live-oak or American cedar cost not more than thirty-eight dollars per ton. On the other hand, fir vessels built on the Baltic cost thirty-five dollars per ton, and nowhere in England, France, or Holland could a ship be made of oak for less than fifty dollars per ton. Often the cost was as high as sixty dollars. It was not strange, therefore, that before the war more than one third of the tonnage afloat under the British flag was launched from American dock-yards. The war had violently deprived England of this enormous advantage, and now she sought to make the privation perpetual, in the delusive hope of confining British trade to British keels, and in the belief that it was the height of wisdom to impoverish the nation which she regarded as her best customer. In July, 1783, an order in council proclaimed that henceforth all trade between the United States and the British West Indies must be carried on in British-built ships, owned and navigated by British subjects. A serious blow was thus dealt not only at American shipping, but also at the interchange of commodities between the States and the islands, which was greatly hampered by this restriction. During the whole of the eighteenth century the West India sugar trade with the North American colonies and with Great Britain had been of immense value to all parties, and all had been seriously damaged by the curtailment of it due to the war. Now that the artificial state of things created by the war was to be perpetuated by legislation, the prospect of repairing the loss seemed indefinitely postponed. Moreover, even in trading directly with Great Britain, American ships were only allowed to bring in articles produced in the particular States of which their owners were citizens, — an enactment which seemed to add insult to injury, inasmuch as it directed especial attention to the want of union among the thirteen States. Great indignation was aroused in America, and reprisals were talked of, but efforts were first made to obtain a commercial treaty. In 1785 Franklin returned from France, and Jefferson was sent as minister in his stead, while John Adams became the first representative of the United States at the British court. Adams was very courteously received by George III., and presently set to work to convince Lord Carmarthen, the foreign secretary, of the desirableness of unrestricted intercourse between the two countries. But popular opinion in England was obstinately set against him. But for the Navigation Act and the orders in council, it was said, all ships would by and by come to be built in America, and every time a frigate was wanted for the navy the Lords of Admiralty would have to send over to Boston or Philadelphia and order one. Rather than do such a thing as this, it was thought that the British navy should content itself with vessels of inferior workmanship and higher cost, built in British dock-yards. Thirty years after, England gathered an unexpected fruit of this narrow policy, when, to her intense bewilderment, she saw frigate after frigate outsailed and defeated in single combat with American antagonists. Owing to her exclusive measures, the rapid improvement in American ship-building had gone on quite beyond her ken, until she was thus rudely awakened to it. With similar short-sighted jealousy, it was argued that the American share in the whalefishery and in the Newfoundland fishery should be curtailed as much as possible. Spermaceti oil was much needed in England : complaints were rife of robbery and murder in the dimly lighted streets of London and other great cities. But it was thought that if American ships could carry oil to England and salt fish to Jamaica, the supply of seamen for the British navy would be diminished ; and accordingly such privileges must not be granted the Americans unless valuable privileges could be granted in return. But the government of the United States could grant no privileges because it could impose no restrictions. British manufactured goods were needed in America, and Congress, which could levy no duties, had no power to keep them out. British merchants and manufacturers, it was argued, already enjoyed all needful privileges in American ports, and accordingly they asked no favors and granted none.
Such were the arguments to which Adams was obliged to listen. The popular feeling was so strong that Pitt could not have stemmed it if he would. It was in vain that Adams threatened reprisals, and urged that the British measures would defeat their own purpose. “ The end of the Navigation Act,” said he, “ as expressed in its own preamble, is to confine the commerce of the colonies to the mother country; but now we are become independent States, instead of confining our trade to Great Britain, it will drive it to other countries : ” and he suggested that the Americans might make a navigation act in their turn, admitting to American ports none but American-built ships, owned and commanded by Americans. But under the articles of confederation such a threat was idle, and the British government knew it to be so. Thirteen separate state governments could never be made to adopt any such measure in concert. The weakness of Congress had been fatally revealed in its inability to protect the loyalists or to enforce the payment of debts, and in its failure to raise a revenue for meeting its current expenses. A government thus slighted at home was naturally despised abroad. England neglected to send a minister to Philadelphia, and while Adams was treated politely, his arguments were unheeded. Whether in this behavior Pitt’s government was influenced or not by political as well as economical reasons, it was certain that a political purpose was entertained by the king and approved by many people. There was an intention of humiliating the Americans, and it was commonly said that under a sufficient weight of commercial distress the States would break up their feeble union, and come straggling back, one after another, to their old allegiance. The fiery spirit of Adams could ill brook this contemptuous treatment of the nation which he represented. Though he favored very liberal commercial relations with the whole world, he could see no escape from the present difficulties save in systematic retaliation. “ I should be sorry,” he said, “ to adopt a monopoly, but, driven to the necessity of it, I would not do things by halves. . . . If monopolies and exclusions are the only arms of defense against monopolies and exclusions, I would venture upon them without fear of offending Dean Tucker or the ghost of Dr. Quesnay.” That is to say, certain commercial privileges must be withheld from Great Britain, in order to be offered to her in return for reciprocal privileges. It was a miserable policy to be forced to adopt, for such restrictions upon trade inevitably cut both ways. Like the non-importation agreement of 1768 and the embargo of 1808, such a policy was open to the objections familiarly urged against biting off one’s own nose. It was injuring one’s self in the hope of injuring somebody else. It was perpetuating in time of peace the obstacles to commerce generated by a state of war. In a certain sense, it was keeping up warfare by commercial instead of military methods, and there was danger that it might lead to a renewal of armed conflict. Nevertheless, the conduct of the British government seemed to Adams to leave no other course open. But such “ means of preserving ourselves,” he said, “ can never be secured until Congress shall be made supreme in foreign commerce.”
It was obvious enough that the separate action of the States upon such a question was only adding to the general uncertainty and confusion. In 1785 New York laid a double duty on all goods whatever imported in British ships. In the same year Pennsylvania passed the first of the long series of American tariff acts, designed to tax the whole community for the alleged benefit of a few greedy manufacturers. Massachusetts sought to establish committees of correspondence for the purpose of entering into a new non - importation agreement, and its legislature resolved that “ the present powers of the Congress of the United States, as contained in the articles of confederation, are not fully adequate to the great purposes they were originally designed to effect.” The Massachusetts delegates in Congress — Gerry, Holten, and King—were instructed to recommend a general convention of the States for the purpose of revising and amending the articles of confederation ; but the delegates refused to comply with their instructions, and set forth their reasons in a paper which was approved by Samuel Adams, and caused the legislature to reconsider its action. It was feared that a call for a convention might seem too much like an open expression of a want of confidence in Congress, and might thereby weaken it still further without accomplishing any good result. For the present, as a temporary expedient, Massachusetts took counsel with New Hampshire, and the two States passed navigation acts, prohibiting British ships from carrying goods out of their harbors, and imposing a fourfold duty upon all such goods as they should bring in. A discriminating tonnage duty was also laid upon all foreign vessels. Rhode Island soon after adopted similar measures. In Congress a scheme for a uniform navigation act, to be concurred in and passed by all the thirteen States, was suggested by one of the Maryland delegates; but it was opposed by Richard Henry Lee and most of the delegates from the far South. The Southern States, having no ships or seamen of their own, feared that the exclusion of British competition might enable Northern ship-owners to charge exorbitant rates for carrying their rice and tobacco, thus subjecting them to a ruinous monopoly ; but the gallant Moultrie, then governor of South Carolina, taking a broader view of the case, wrote to Bowdoin, governor of Massachusetts, asserting the paramount need of harmonious and united action. In the Virginia assembly, a hot-headed member, named Thurston, declared himself in doubt “ whether it would not be better to encourage the British rather than the eastern marine; ” but the remark was greeted with hisses and groans, and the speaker was speedily put down. Amid such mutual jealousies and misgivings, during the year 1785 acts were passed by ten States granting to Congress the power of regulating commerce for the ensuing thirteen years. The three States which refrained from acting were Georgia, South Carolina, and Delaware. The acts of the other ten were, as might have been expected, a jumble of incongruities. North Carolina granted all the power that was asked, but stipulated that when all the States should have done likewise their acts should be summed up in a new article of confederation. Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Maryland had fixed the date at which the grant was to take effect, while Rhode Island provided that it should not expire until after the lapse of twenty-five years. The grant by New Hampshire allowed the power to be used only in one specified way, — by restricting the duties imposable by the several States. The grants of Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, and Virginia were not to take effect until all the others should go into operation. The only thing which Congress could do with these acts was to refer them back to the several legislatures, with a polite request to try to reduce them to something like uniformity.
Meanwhile, the different States, with their different tariff and tonnage acts, began to make commercial war upon one another. No sooner had the other three New England States virtually closed their ports to British shipping than Connecticut threw hers wide open, an act which she followed up by laying duties upon imports from Massachusetts. Pennsylvania discriminated against Delaware, and New Jersey, pillaged at once by both her greater neighbors, was compared to a cask tapped at both ends. The conduct of New York became especially selfish and blameworthy. That rapid growth which was so soon to carry the city and the State to a position of primacy in the Union had already begun. After the departure of the British the revival of business went on with leaps and bounds. The feeling of local patriotism waxed strong, and in no one was it more completely manifested than in George Clinton, the Revolutionary general, whom the people elected governor for nine successive terms. From a humble origin, by dint of shrewdness and untiring push, Clinton had come to be for the moment the most powerful man in the State of New York. He had immense influence with the mass of the people, and he has left behind him a reputation far beyond his real merit. So far as New York was concerned, he was a public-spirited man. He had come to look upon the State almost as if it were his own private manor, and his life was devoted to furthering its interests as he understood them. It was his first article of faith that New York must be the greatest State in the Union. But his conceptions of statesmanship were extremely narrow. In his mind, the welfare of New York meant the pulling down and thrusting aside of all her neighbors and rivals. He was the vigorous and steadfast advocate of every illiberal and exclusive measure, and the most uncompromising enemy to a closer union of the States. His great popular strength and the commercial importance of the community in which he held sway made him at this time the most dangerous man in America. The political victories presently to be won by Hamilton, Schuyler, and Livingston, without which our grand and pacific federal union could not have been brought into being, were victories won by most desperate fighting against the dogged opposition of Clinton. Under his guidance, the history of New York, during the five years following the peace of 1783, was a shameful story of greedy monopoly and sectional hate. Of all the thirteen States, none behaved worse except Rhode Island. A single instance, which occurred early in 1787, may serve as an illustration. The city of New York, with its population of 30,000 souls, had long been supplied with firewood from Connecticut, and with butter and cheese, chickens and garden vegetables, from the thrifty farms of New Jersey. This trade, it was observed, carried thousands of dollars out of the city and into the pockets of detested Yankees and despised Jerseymen. It was ruinous to domestic industry, said the men of New York. It must be stopped by those effective remedies of the Sangrado school of economic doctors, a navigation act and a protective tariff. Acts were accordingly passed, obliging every Yankee sloop which came down through Hell Gate, and every Jersey market boat which was rowed across from Paulus Hook to Cortlandt Street, to pay entrance fees and obtain clearances at the custom-house, just as was done by ships from London or Hamburg ; and not a cart-load of Connecticut firewood could be delivered at the back-door of a country-house in Beekman Street until it should have paid a heavy duty. Great and just was the wrath of the farmers and lumbermen. The New Jersey legislature made up its mind to retaliate. The city of New York had lately bought a small patch of ground on Sandy Hook, and had built a light-house there. This light-house was the one weak spot in the heel of Achilleus where a hostile arrow could strike, and New Jersey gave vent to her indignation by laying a tax of $1800 a year on it. Connecticut was equally prompt. At a great meeting of business men, held at New London, it was unanimously agreed to suspend all commercial intercourse with New York. Every merchant signed an agreement, under penalty of $250 for the first offense, not to send any goods whatever into the hated State for a period of twelve months. By such retaliatory measures, it was hoped that New York might be compelled to rescind her odious enactment. But such meetings and such resolves bore an ominous likeness to the meetings and resolves which in the years before 1775 had heralded a state of war; and but for the good work done by the federal convention another five years would scarcely have elapsed before shots would have been fired and seeds of perennial hatred sown on the shores that look toward Manhattan Island.
To these commercial disputes there were added disputes about territory. The chronic quarrel between Connecticut and Pennsylvania over the valley of Wyoming was decided in the autumn of 1782 by a special federal court, appointed in accordance with the articles of confederation. The prize was adjudged to Pennsylvania, and the government of Connecticut submitted as gracefully as possible. But new troubles were in store for the inhabitants of that beautiful region. The traces of the massacre of 1778 had disappeared, the houses had been rebuilt, new settlers had come in, and the pretty villages had taken on their old look of contentment and thrift, when in the spring of 1784 there came an accumulation of disasters. During a very cold winter great quantities of snow had fallen, and lay piled in huge masses on the mountain sides, until in March a sudden thaw set in. The Susquehanna rose, and overflowed the valley, and great blocks of ice drifted here and there, carrying death and destruction with them. Houses, barns, and fences were swept away, the cattle were drowned, the fruit trees broken down, the stores of food destroyed, and over the whole valley there lay a stratum of gravel and pebbles. The people were starving with cold and hunger, and President Dickinson urged the legislature to send prompt relief to the sufferers. But the hearts of the members were as flint, and their talk was incredibly wicked. Not a penny would they give to help the accursed Yankees. It served them right. If they had stayed in Connecticut, where they belonged, they would have kept out of harm’s way. And with a blasphemy thinly veiled in phrases of pious unction, the desolation of the valley was said to have been contrived by the Deity with the express object of punishing these trespassers. But the cruelty of the Pennsylvania legislature was not confined to words. A scheme was devised for driving out the settlers and partitioning their lands among a company of speculators. A force of militia was sent to Wyoming, commanded by a truculent creature named Patterson. The ostensible purpose was to assist in restoring order in the valley, but the behavior of the soldiers was such as would have disgraced a horde of barbarians. They stole what they could find, dealt out blows to the men and insults to the women, until their violence was met with violence in return. Then Patterson sent a letter to President Dickinson, accusing the farmers of sedition, and hinting that extreme measures were necessary. Having thus, as he thought, prepared the way, he attacked the settlement, turned some five hundred people out-of-doors, and burned their houses to the ground. The wretched victims, many of them tender women, or infirm old men, or little children, were driven into the wilderness at the point of the bayonet, and told to find their way to Connecticut without further delay. Heart-rending scenes ensued. Many died of exhaustion, or furnished food for wolves. But this was more than the Pennsylvania legislature had intended. Patterson’s zeal had carried him too far. He was recalled, and the sheriff of Northumberland County was sent, with a posse of men, to protect the settlers. Patterson disobeyed, however, and, withdrawing his men to a fortified lair in the mountains, kept up a guerrilla warfare. All the Connecticut men in the neighboring country flew to arms. Men were killed on both sides, and presently Patterson was besieged. A regiment of soldiers was then sent from Philadelphia, under Colonel Armstrong, who had formerly been on Gates’s staff, the author of the infamous Newburgh addresses. On arriving in the valley, Armstrong held a parley with the Connecticut men, and persuaded them to lay down their arms; assuring them on his honor that they should meet with no ill treatment, and that their enemy, Patterson, should be disarmed also. Having thus got them into his clutches, the knave forthwith treated them as prisoners. Seventysix of them were handcuffed and sent under guard, some to Easton and some to Northumberland, where they were thrown into jail.
Great was the indignation in New England when these deeds were heard of. The matter had become very serious. A war between Connecticut and Pennsylvania might easily grow out of it. But the danger was averted through a very singular feature in the Pennsylvania constitution. In order to hold its legislature in check, Pennsylvania had a council of censors, which was assembled once in seven years in order to inquire whether the State had been properly governed during the interval. Soon after the troubles in Wyoming the regular meeting of the censors was held, and the conduct of Armstrong and Patterson was unreservedly condemned. A hot controversy ensued between the legislature and the censors, and as the people set great store by the latter peculiar institution, public sympathy was gradually awakened for the sufferers. The wickedness of the affair began to dawn upon people’s minds, and they were ashamed of what had been done. Patterson and Armstrong were frowned down, the legislature disavowed their acts, and it was ordered that full reparation should be made to the persecuted settlers of Wyoming.1
In the Green Mountains and on the upper waters of the Connecticut there had been trouble for many years. In the course of the Revolutionary War, the fierce dispute between New York and New Hampshire for the possession of the Green Mountains came in from time to time to influence most curiously the course of events. It was closely connected with the intrigues against General Schuyler, and more remotely with the Conway cabal and the treason of Arnold. About the time of Burgoyne’s invasion the association of Green Mountain Boys endeavored to cut the Gordian knot by declaring Vermont an independent State, and applying to the Continental Congress for admission into the Union. The New York delegates in Congress succeeded in defeating this scheme, but the Vermont people went on and framed their constitution. Thomas Chittenden, a man of rough manners but very considerable ability, a farmer and innkeeper, like Israel Putnam, was chosen governor, and held that position for many years. New Hampshire thus far had not actively opposed these measures, but fresh grounds of quarrel were soon at hand. Several towns on the east bank of the Connecticut River wished to escape from the jurisdiction of New Hampshire. They preferred to belong to Vermont, because it was not within the Union, and accordingly not liable to requisitions of taxes from the Continental Congress. It was conveniently remembered that by the original grant, in the reign of Charles II., New Hampshire extended only sixty miles from the coast. Vermont was at first inclined to assent, but finding the scheme unpopular in Congress, and not wishing to offend that body, she changed her mind. The towns on both banks of the river then tried to organize themselves into a middle State, — a sort of Lotharingia on the banks of this New World Rhine, — to be called New Connecticut. By this time New Hampshire was aroused, and she called attention to the fact that she still believed herself entitled to dominion over the whole of Vermont. Massachusetts now began to suspect that the upshot of the matter would be the partition of the whole disputed territory between New Hampshire and New York, and, ransacking her ancient grants and charters, she decided to set up a claim on her own part to the southernmost towns in Vermont. Thus goaded on all sides, Vermont adopted an aggressive policy. She not only annexed the towns east of the Connecticut River, but also asserted sovereignty over the towns in New York as far as the Hudson. New York sent troops to the threatened frontier, New Hampshire prepared to do likewise, and for a moment war seemed inevitable. But here, as in so many other instances, Washington appeared as peacemaker, and prevailed upon Governor Chittenden to use his influence in getting the dangerous claims withdrawn. After the spring of 1784 the outlook was less stormy in the Green Mountains. The conflicting claims were allowed to lie dormant, but the possibilities of mischief remained, and the Vermont question was not finally settled until after the adoption of the Federal Constitution. Meanwhile, on the debatable frontier between Vermont and New York the embers of hatred smouldered. Barns and houses were set on fire, and belated wayfarers were found mysteriously murdered in the depths of the forest.
Incidents like these of Wyoming and Vermont seem trivial, perhaps, when contrasted with the lurid tales of border warfare in older times between half-civilized peoples of mediæval Europe, as we read them in the pages of Froissart and Sir Walter Scott. But their historic lesson is none the less clear. Though they lift the curtain but a little way, they show us a glimpse of the untold dangers and horrors from which the adoption of our Federal Constitution has so thoroughly freed us that we can only with some effort realize how narrowly we have escaped them. It is fit that they should be borne in mind, that we may duly appreciate the significance of the reign of law and order which has been established on this continent during the greater part of a century. When reported in Europe, such incidents were held to confirm the opinion that the American confederacy was going to pieces. With quarrels about trade and quarrels about boundaries, we seemed to be treading the old-fashioned paths of anarchy, even as they had been trodden in other ages and other parts of the world. It was natural that people in Europe should think so, because there was no historic precedent to help them in forming a different opinion. No one could possibly foresee that within five years a number of gentlemen at Philadelphia, containing among themselves a greater amount of political sagacity than had ever before been brought together within the walls of a single room, would amicably discuss the situation and agree upon a new system of government whereby the dangers might be once for all averted. Still less could any one foresee that these gentlemen would not only agree upon a scheme among themselves, but would actually succeed, without serious civil dissension, in making the people of thirteen States adopt, defend, and cherish it. History afforded no example of such a gigantic act of constructive statesmanship. It was, moreover, a strange and apparently fortuitous combination of circumstances that were now preparing the way for it and making its accomplishment possible. No one could forecast the future. When our ministers and agents in Europe raised the question as to making commercial treaties, they were disdainfully asked whether European powers were expected to deal with thirteen governments or with one. If it was answered that the United States constituted a single government so far as their relations with foreign powers were concerned, then we were forth with twitted with our failure to keep our engagements with England with regard to the loyalists and the collection of private debts. Yes, we see, said the European diplomats ; the United States are one nation to-day and thirteen to-morrow, according as may seem to subserve their selfish interests. Jefferson, at Paris, was told again and again that it was useless for the French government to enter into any agreement with the United States, as there was no certainty that it would be fulfilled on our part; and the same things were said all over Europe. Toward the close of the war most of the European nations had seemed ready to enter into commercial arrangements with the United States, but all save Holland speedily lost interest in the subject. John Adams had succeeded in making a treaty with Holland in 1782. Frederick the Great treated us more civilly than other sovereigns. One of the last acts of his life was to conclude a treaty for ten years with the United States ; asserting the principle that free ships make free goods, taking arms and military stores out of the class of contraband, agreeing to refrain from privateering even in case of war between the two countries, and in other respects showing a liberal and enlightened spirit. This treaty was concluded in 1786. It scarcely touched the subject of international trade in time of peace, but it was valuable as regarded the matters it covered, and in the midst of the general failure of American diplomacy in Europe it fell pleasantly upon our ears. Our diplomacy had failed because our weakness had been proclaimed to the world. We were bullied by England, insulted by France and Spain, and looked askance at in Holland. The humiliating position in which our ministers were placed by the beggarly poverty of Congress was something almost beyond credence. It was by no means unusual for the superintendent of finance, when hard pushed for money, to draw upon our foreign ministers, and then sell the drafts for cash. This was not only not unusual ; it was an established custom. It was done again and again, when there was not the smallest ground for supposing that the minister upon whom the draft was made would have any funds wherewith to meet it. He must go and beg the money. That was part of his duty as envoy, — to solicit loans without security for a government that could not raise enough money by taxation to defray its current expenses. It was sickening work. Just before John Adams had been appointed minister to England, and while he was visiting in London, he suddenly learned that drafts upon him had been presented to his bankers in Amsterdam to the amount of more than a million florins. Less than half a million florins were on hand to meet these demands, and unless something were done at once the greater part of this paper would go back to America protested. Adams lost not a moment in starting for Holland. In these modern days of precision in travel, when we can translate space into time, the distance between London and Amsterdam is eleven hours. It was accomplished by Adams, after innumerable delays and vexations and no little danger, in fifty-four days. The bankers had contrived, by ingenious excuses, to keep the drafts from going to protest until the minister’s arrival, but the gazettes were full of the troubles of Congress and the bickerings of the States, and everybody was suspicious. Adams applied in vain to the regency of Amsterdam. The promise of the American government was not regarded as valid security for a sum equivalent to about three hundred thousand dollars. The members of the regency were polite, but inexorable. They could not make a loan on such terms ; it was unbusinesslike and contrary to precedent. Finding them immovable, Adams was forced to apply to professional usurers and Jew brokers, from whom, after three weeks of perplexity and humiliation, he obtained a loan at exorbitant interest, and succeeded in meeting the drafts. It was only too plain, as he mournfully confessed, that American credit was dead. Such were the trials of our American minister in Europe in the dark days of the League of Friendship. It was not a solitary, but a typical, instance. John Jay’s experience at the unfriendly court of Spain was perhaps even more trying.
European governments might treat us with cold disdain, and European bankers might pronounce our securities worthless, but there was one quarter of the world from which even worse measure was meted out to us. Of all the barbarous communities with which the civilized world has had to deal in modern times, perhaps none have made so much trouble as the Mussulman states on the southern shore of the Mediterranean. After the breaking up of the great Moorish kingdoms of the Middle Ages, this region had fallen under the nominal control of the Turkish sultans as lords paramount of the orthodox Mohammedan world. Its miserable populations became the prey of banditti. Swarms of half-savage chieftains settled down upon the land like locusts, and out of such a pandemonium of robbery and murder as has scarcely been equaled in historic times the pirate states of Morocco and Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli, gradually emerged. Of these communities history has not one good word to say. In these fair lands, once illustrious for the genius and virtues of a Hannibal and the profound philosophy of St. Augustine, there grew up the most terrible despotisms ever known to the world. The things done daily by the robber sovereigns were such as to make a civilized imagination recoil with horror. One of these cheerful creatures, who reigned in the middle of the eighteenth century, and was called Muley Abdallah, especially prided himself on his peculiar skill in mounting a horse. Resting his left hand upon the horse’s neck, as he sprang into the saddle he simultaneously swung the sharp scimiter in his right hand so deftly as to cut off the head of the groom who held the bridle. From his behavior in these sportive moods one may judge what he was capable of on serious occasions. He was a fair sample of the Barbary monarchs. The foreign policy of these wretches was summed up in piracy and blackmail. Their corsairs swept the Mediterranean and ventured far out upon the ocean, capturing merchant vessels, and murdering or enslaving their crews. Of the rich booty, a fixed proportion was paid over to the robber sovereign, and the rest was divided among the gang. So lucrative was this business that it attracted hardy ruffians from all parts of Europe, and the misery they inflicted upon mankind during four centuries was beyond calculation. One of their favorite practices was the kidnapping of eminent or wealthy persons, in the hope of extorting ransom. Cervantes and Vincent de Paul were among the celebrated men who thus tasted the horrors of Moorish slavery ; but it was a calamity that might fall to the lot of any man or woman, and it was but rarely that the victims ever regained their freedom. Against these pirates the governments of Europe contended in vain. Swift cruisers frequently captured their ships, and from the days of Joan of Arc down to the days of Napoleon their skeletons swung from long rows of gibbets on all the coasts of Europe, as a terror and a warning. But their losses were easily repaired, and sometimes they cruised in fleets of seventy or eighty sail, defying the navies of England and France. It was not until after England, in Nelson’s time, had acquired supremacy in the Mediterranean that this dreadful scourge was destroyed. Americans, however, have just ground for pride in recollecting that their government was foremost in chastising these pirates in their own harbors. The exploits of our little navy in the Mediterranean at the beginning of the present century form an interesting episode in American history, but in the weak days of the confederation our commerce was plundered with impunity, and American citizens were seized and sold into slavery in the markets of Algiers and Tripoli. One reason for the long survival of this villainy was the low state of humanity among European nations. An Englishman’s sympathy was but feebly aroused by the plunder of Frenchmen, and the bigoted Spaniard looked on with approval so long as it was Protestants that were kidnapped and bastinadoed. In 1783 Lord Sheffield published a pamphlet on the commerce of the United States, in which he shamelessly declared that the Barbary pirates were really useful to the great maritime powers, because they tended to keep the weaker nations out of their share in the carrying trade. This, he thought, was a valuable offset to the Empress Catherine’s device of the armed neutrality, whereby small nations were protected; and on this wicked theory, as Franklin tells us, London merchants had been heard to say that “ if there were no Algiers, it would be worth England’s while to build one.” It was largely because of such feelings that the great states of Europe so long persisted in the craven policy of paying blackmail to the robbers, instead of joining in a crusade and destroying them. In 1786 Congress felt it necessary to take measures for protecting the lives and liberties of American citizens. The person who called himself “ Emperor ” of Morocco at that time was different from most of his kind. He had a taste for reading, and had thus caught a glimmering of the enlightened liberalism which French philosophers were preaching. He wished to be thought a benevolent despot, and with Morocco, accordingly, Congress succeeded in making a treaty. But nothing could be done with the other pirate states without paying blackmail. Few scenes in our history are more amusing, or more irritating, than the interview of John Adams with an envoy from Tripoli in London. The oily-tongued barbarian, with his soft voice and his bland smile, asseverating that his only interest in life was to do good and make other people happy, stands out in fine contrast with the blunt, straightforward, and truthful New Englander ; and their conversation reminds one of the old story of Cœur-de-Lion with his curtal-axe and Saladin with the blade that cut the silken cushion. Adams felt sure that the fellow was either saint or devil, but could not quite tell which. The envoy’s love for mankind was so great that he could not bear the thought of hostility between the Americans and the Barbary States, and he suggested that everything might be happily arranged for a million dollars or so. Adams thought it better to fight than to pay tribute. It would be cheaper in the end, as well as more manly. At the same time, it was better economy to pay a million dollars at once than waste many times that sum in war risks and loss of trade. But Congress could do neither one thing nor the other. It was too poor to build a navy, and too poor to buy off the pirates; and so for several years to come American ships were burned and American sailors enslaved with utter impunity. With the memory of such wrongs deeply graven in his heart, it was natural that John Adams, on becoming President of the United States, should bend all his energies to founding a strong American navy.
A government touches the lowest point of ignominy when it confesses its inability to protect the lives and property of its citizens. A government which has come to this has failed in discharging the primary function of government, and forthwith ceases to have any reason for existing. In March, 1786, Grayson wrote to Madison that several members of Congress thought seriously of recommending a general convention for remodeling the government. “ I have not made up my mind,” says Grayson, “ whether it would not be better to bear the ills we have than fly to those we know not of. I am, however, in no doubt about the weakness of the federal government. If it remains much longer in its present state of imbecility, we shall be one of the most contemptible nations on the face of the earth.” “ It is clear to me as A, B, C,” said Washington, “ that an extension of federal powers would make us one of the most happy, wealthy, respectable, and powerful nations that ever inhabited the terrestrial globe. Without them we shall soon be everything which is the direct reverse. I predict the worst consequences from a half-starved, limping government, always moving upon crutches and tottering at every step.”
- A very interesting account of these troubles may be found in the first volume of Professor McMaster’s History of the People of the United States.↩