Sea Power and Mercantilism

Sea Power and Mercantilism


Nearly all of what Hamilton had written in the previous papers about the thirteen States on the Atlantic seaboard of the North American continent applied with an equal force to all nations on every continent. This paper shows the benefits that come from one powerful navy maintained by the states united in one nation, and how this one navy may contend with the fleets of the great naval powers of Europe. Up to this point, he’d attempted to show that, in general, extensive confederate republics are more stable, more prosperous, and more formidable than the puny democracies of the ancient world. Here, he’ll attempt to show that one confederate republic in particular, strung along the eastern coast of one particular continent, can defend its own ports and control its own waters. Properties specific to the geography of these American States: their great distance from their foes, their long coastline, their several great harbors, will allow them to defy the fleets of richer, more populous, and more experienced nations who will seek to stifle her commerce and dominate her markets.

It was principally Great Britain that Hamilton had in mind, the mother the American States had defied when she’d previously tried to control their trade, the country they’d fought to win their independence, the country that dominated the fleets of Europe. Geography favored the naval power of the British isles. The Dutch could reach the Atlantic only by squeezing through the English channel or by sailing far north into polar waters and going around Scotland. The North Sea became so shallow near their coasts that they couldn’t harbort the huge battleships that made up the Royal Navy. Any fleet that made its home in the Baltic could be bottled up in the Straits of Denmark. The French fleet in the Mediterranean was far too dependent on the one harbor at Toulon.

If the American States were separate and tried to take on the Royal Navy alone, they would suffer the same drawback. Few of the States had a deep-water port and none had more than one. If any of these States fought the Royal Navy alone, the British could use their whole strength to blockade that one port. Together the States had Boston, New York, Chesapeake Bay, and Charleston, along with many smaller, shallower inlets. Not even the Royal Navy could covert so many openings so widely separated.

Moreover, the whole eastern coast fronted open ocean. There were no straits that any enemy fleet can turn into bottlenecks. Ships leaving port can head north, south, or any point in between. And these ships can from harbors separated by hundreds of miles, an expanse so enormous that no fleet can ever track them.

If the British want to strike at the American mainland, they must cross the Atlantic Ocean, a long and wearing voyage that will foul their hulls, rot their sails, dishearten and enfeeble their crews. So far from their own shores, they can be resupplied and reinforced only with great effort and after long delay.

It may seem that Hamilton is unreasonably belligerent, or is at least unreasonably afraid of the belligerence of the maritime powers of Europe. But in this age, most of the trade of the world was carried by ship, and it was the commercial policy of most of these great maritime powers to gain a balance of trade favorable to themselves. If this balance of trade was inequitable and must be brought about by force, they were quite willing for the guns of their battleships to open markets to their own trade, close it to those of their rivals, and wring concessions from unwilling partners.

States united and guarded by a powerful navy may impose their own terms:

By prohibitory regulations, extending at the same time throughout the States, we may oblige foreign countries to bid against each other, for the privileges of our markets. This assertion will not appear chimerical to those who are able to appreciate the importance of the markets of three millions of people-increasing in rapid progression, for the most part exclusively addicted to agriculture, and likely from local circumstances to remain so-to any manufacturing nation; and the immense difference there would be to the trade and navigation of such a nation, between a direct communication in its own ships, and an indirect conveyance of its products and returns, to and from America, in the ships of another country. Suppose, for instance, we had a government in America, capable of excluding Great Britain (with whom at present we have no treaty of commerce) from all our ports, what would be the probable operation of this step upon her politics? Would it not enable us to negotiate with the fairest prospect for success for commercial privileges of the most valuable and extensive kind in the dominions of that kingdom?

The American States are fortunate in their size and their situation and together they may extract terms that are fair and maybe advantageous from the parasitic maritime powers of Europe. If they drift apart and confront these same powers separately, they will be overpowered, the terms of their own commerce dictated to them, their markets preyed upon by mercantilist exploitation, and their wealth siphoned off to another hemisphere.

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