A Foreign Spectator XX
September 12, 1787
The grand federal interest, which is to preserve independency, safety and peace, requires, next to a solid military union, a concert in some other important affairs. The states must be reciprocal guarantees of their several constitutions, when they shall be properly settled; because an alteration in these may break or prejudice the union–As if any state should unanimously or by a great majority, set up monarchy, aristocracy, or democracy; or should annul the habeas corpus law, tryal by juries, and the like institutions, which are the pillars of republican liberty. If corruption becomes so rife in any state, that a party could establish itself in oppression; the federal power should redress the grievance, though it might not threaten the confederacy with danger–because such an evil may be worse than a rebellion, or a foreign invasion; and the states ought surely to guarantee each other that happiness, which is the end of all political union.
All external commerce must be under a federal regulation in all cases, when it involved foreign treaties and political connexions; affects the federal revenue; or creates a collision of interest between the states. It is evident that internal commerce will also, in many cases, become a federal object in a country that has 3000 miles extent of coast, and an inland navigation of the same length, with large bays, many great rivers, and numberless inlets. There cannot be any doubt, but a federal power will, whenever its interference is necessary, manage the national commerce to the best advantage. It will obtain from foreign powers, every advantage that the situation of the United States can procure–it will prevent disagreement and war with other nations–it will do justice to the respective states, and keep peace among them, when it would be disturbed by numberless collisions. But I am persuaded, that with every exertion of federal wisdom and integrity, no subject is more likely to become a bone of contention, than this, if the states do not display that reciprocal generosity, and confidence in the federal head, which I have so warmly recommended. First, commerce is in its nature very variable, and more so in America, where its regular course has been so disturbed, and where new channels of industry from manufactures not yet formed, and products of regions not yet explored, will arise and mingle in many intricate windings–in consequence of this, the respective commercial rights of the states cannot be fixed at present, but require successive alterations. Secondly, the people of America have an overdriven spirit of trade; and great numbers that formerly derived wealth and support from it, are by the present stagnation in great difficulties, or what to some appears very hard, cannot make money as they used to do. Thirdly, many have too sanguine and unreasonable expectations of commercial benefit from the exertions of an adequate federal power. I shall beg leave to observe, that in some respects that very decay of trade so much lamented, is a real advantage. Before the war, America was continually in debt to Great-Britain for articles of luxury. After the peace, all Europe poured in an immensity of goods upon her; the one was as foolish to give, as the other to receive an unbounded credit. Many of the European merchants expected to find Mexican wealth in the United States; and these chearfully went in debt for trinkets and finery in the high spirits and golden dreams that naturally followed a war closed with so much honor and success.
“Triumphant over a great enemy, courted by the most powerful nations in the world, it was not in human nature, that America should immediately comprehend her new situation–really possessed of the means of future greatness, she anticipated the most distant benefits of the revolution, and considered them as already in her hands.” It is not very happy that these thoughtless adventures and imprudent credits from foreign countries have ceased! that the demands of foreign nations are not become so great as to make us insolvents, and bring on a war to compel payment! Necessity and good sense will, I hope, stop that torrent of iniquity, which a ridiculous fondness of glittering toys has poured over the land; which threatened to annihilate the landmarks of common honesty, and to break down the barriers of national integrity, honor, liberty, and independency. Far be it from me to dissuade from those measures, which may alleviate the distresses of the commercial interest, and its dependencies; but when this is done, I sincerely wish to check, for the future, the overdriven spirit of commerce, so unsuitable to America, and in many respects pernicious. “So uninformed,” says the last mentioned author, “or mistaken have many of us been, that commerce has been stated as the great object, and I fear it is yet believed to be the most important interest in New-England. But from the best calculations I have been able to make, I cannot raise the proportion of property, or the number of men employed in manufactures, fisheries, navigation, and trade, to one-eighth of the property and people occupied by agriculture, even in that commercial quarter of the union.” This author very judiciously ranks agriculture, manufactures, internal trade, and foreign commerce in the first, second, &c. places, respectively. It is but just to pay this gentleman the compliment, that his ideas of national economy are not warped by professional habits, but just and liberal. His theory corresponds with the principles of an excellent modern author, who ought to be generally perused. At present, necessary manufactures are a great object, and may by prudent spirited exertion soon flourish beyond expectation. These will improve agriculture and promote internal trade. With them jointly, America will be a great, powerful, and in a just sense, wealthy country, without any dependence on foreign nations. She will easily obtain the few valuable articles really wanted, without any solicitations or compliments. China, Indostan, and ancient Egypt, countries of high population and wealth, have had but little external commerce. The coal trade between New-Castle and London, employs more shipping than all the carrying trade of England.
What would you think of a great Virginia proprietor turning shop-keeper! weighing a pound of sugar, drawing a quart of molasses twenty times a day; measuring inches of tobacco; disputing with sordid customers about weight and measure; cajoling and humoring huckster women, or ladies who in sentiment are not above such, for their custom; solicitous from morn till night how to make a penny. Can such a man have noble, generous, independent sentiments, suitable to his fortune? what will he be in two or three years? Is he, or will he be, qualified to command a brigade, to act as a governor, or member of Congress? America is a great heiress of an immense landed estate, with fruitful plains, charming meadows, green stately woods full of game, mountains of ore, glimmering lakes stored with fish, numberless limpid brooks that embellish and fertilise the land, fragrant orchards and blooming gardens. She can keep a plentiful table, dress in fine cloth, linen and silk of her own, build stone, brick and cedar-houses with her own materials; she can make her own ploughs, boats and fishing tackle; she need not go abroad for steel, guns and powder. By swapping a little tobacco for paint and some little trifles, she can even ride round her estate in a coach and six. Her fine flour will furnish her tea-table, and purchase rim for her hunters and fishermen. This great lady need not, with Nicholas Frog, look for suckers in every puddle, or hunt in distant forests for drugs among serpents and tigers. She need not, with Highland Peggy, knitt stockings till her hands are all in blisters; nor with John Bull hammar hardware, and comb wool till she becomes sore-eyed and phthisical–coax the fancy of customers with frying-pan and gridiron-buttons, and by forcing the scarlet on a haughty lord Strutt, get a black eye and a broken pate.
It would require many papers to shew all the evils arising from an absurd spirit of trade. Let a few facts speak. How many robust fellows cry limes and clams about the street, who ought to work in iron forges! What number of huckster women sit with a few apples and gingerbread, who shout at the spinning-wheel! how many lads and grown men stand leaning over the rum-barrel! We have half as many sellers as buyers; how shall they live! will not shifting, turning, going in debt, gradually weaken the principles of honesty? can a continual minute attention to interest be consistent with generous and patriotic sentiments! when you continually handle brass, will not your hands smell of it? Among the country people a spirit of petty trading and sordid speculation is, in some places, too common–The most interesting conversation is how poultry and butter sell in the market–swapping horses is a favorite trade–vendues are entertainments, where they vie in buying on trust; this nuisance has occasioned a very common saying, that one vendue is the mother of many; consequently of law-suits, executions, and moral depravity, complaint of hard times, and murmurs against government. In every country excess of petty trading is marked with cunning and sordid selfishness. The Chinese are very fraudulent; I have been informed that some of the crew in the late China ships, were imposed upon by pieces of wood in the shape and colour of gammons.
An extensive foreign commerce would involve America in troublesome political connexions, perhaps in wars, and undoubtedly create parties at home. A spirit of commerce is unfavourable to those high sentiments of honor and military virtue, which are the only real bulwarks of a nation. China, with a million or more of standing troops, was conquered by a small army of Tartars, who established their empire and yet have a prince of their blood on the throne. Montesquieu remarks, “that when Carthage made war with her opulence against the Roman poverty, her great disadvantage arose from what she esteemed her greatest strength and chief dependence. Gold and silver may easily be exhausted, but public virtue, constancy, firmness of mind, and fortitude are inexhaustible.” The Carthaginians in their wars employed foreign mercenaries. A defeat or two at sea obstructed their commerce and stopped the spring, which supplied their exchequer. The loss of a battle in Africa reduced them to submit to any terms. Regulus in the first punic war cooped them up in their capital after one defeat by sea, and one by land. Their final ruin arose from a mean spirit of avarice, that denied the gallant Hannibal the necessary supplies of men and money. Holland is in great part defended by foreign mercenaries. Great-Britain to her shame cannot do without them in time of war–It is a mark of dreadful corruption, when a nation will entrust such with her safety, her honor, even that wealth she doats upon, because her own people can earn more at the loom. What is the consequence. The pretender with 6000 half disciplined ragged Highlanders took all Scotland, advanced into England, and struck a panic on London, which alone could furnish 100,000 fighting men. America was lost because Great-Britain was intent on turning buttons, and making Manchester fluff. O! horrid, base! America became independent, not by those wretches, whose political sentiments depended on hard money, salt, molasses; but by those who without shoes and stockings marched day and night in the snow; who naked and half starved, met every dreary form of death–by those who made a generous sacrifice of property, when the selfish would contribute nothing. I mean not to depreciate British valour, and I have told America harsh truth; I am neither Briton or American–what I say is evident. Had Great Britain been less commercial, and America more, this had yet been a province of the other. A rich fleet of merchantmen may be taken or destroyed only by an unlucky changed of the wind: Great cities may be pillaged, or ruined by the fatal bombs:–But the land can neither sink or burn; and a brave people of a great landed interest is invincible. They cannot be starved into a compliance: If their forts are taken, every noble heart is an impregnable castle.