Tag: New York Harbor

The Iron of Gath and the Port of New York

The Iron of Gath and the Port of New York


In the last paper, Hamilton had argued that republics will not be above attacking other republics, as they often have in the past, and that a United States broken up into smaller pieces will be afflicted with frequent wars between those States. From the general he passes into the specific, and enumerates the causes of these quarrels: territorial, commercial, financial, and legal.

Down through every age of history except our own, nearly everybody kept themselves alive by farming. Only a very few followed any profession besides agriculture. Despite the great numbers working the land, the rude and inefficient methods used to till the land yielded very little food. Hunger was the norm and famines came often and regularly. As there weren’t going to be any great improvements in livestock or the soil itself, nearly every strong back was already in the fields, and the science of agrinomics hadn’t advanced a step in centuries, the only means to get more food was to win more land to be sown. But farmland isn’t the only kind of territory coveted and fought over. Some land contains minerals like copper, tin, iron, and coal. The Philistine’s kept iron out of the hands of their foes and man’s lust for gold is legendary. If the land is useless and barren, it may still be desirable as a buffer any invader must cross.

The States strung out along the Atlantic seaboard knew there were vast territories to the west. Although these were barely explored and were already inhabited, they hadn’t gone unclaimed. In projecting their boundaries the States did so in lines not line segments, their borders stretched into infinity, and the reaches enclosed within these latitudes became a prize to be squabbled over by surveyors and legislatures. Until Lewis and Clark the colonists never suspected how huge these lands were, and how utterly alien they were from the east in climate and terrain. The narrow belt they’d traversed had been green woodland crossed north to south by manageable mountain ranges worn down to hillocks by the scouring of hundreds of millions of years. They had no notion of the dry, jagged lands that lay to the west of this pleasant fertile ribbon. Should they succeed in stretching to the Pacific, even New York and Pennsylvania will have to take in an area many times their own size, and these oceans of grass and expanses of towering mountain and searing desert are completely unsuitable to their way of life. They little imagined how much the territory for which they were clamoring exceeded their appetite and how little it might suit their taste, but they knew what lay over the next ridge, more green forest where trees can be felled for timber and lands cleared for farms and settlements, and they wanted it for themselves. The Crown and then Congress had formerly adjudicated these endless disputes, but in the absence of an overreaching authority the states will have to resolve these land disputes among themselves, and this must lead to violence.

As children born into the age of the airplane, railroad, and combustion engine, when gargantuan metroplexes and megalopolises sprawl over thousands of square miles of landlocked prairie connected to the wider world by skeins of interstates and intercontinental airports so huge they’d have been mighty cities in an earlier century, we can scarcely imagine how profligately geography favored the maritime states and how heartlessly it robbed their inland rivals. The greatest of the Atlantic ports, the richest and most privileged of all these heiresses was Hamilton’s own New York. Airports are the work of man, but the deep-water ocean ports upon which earlier generations depended, were entirely the whim of nature. New York owned the greatest of these deep-water ports and this harbor flowed into a mighty river plunging into the heart of the continent. There’s a joke that whether you’re going to heaven or to hell, you still have to change planes in Atlanta. Yet with enough work and money, an airport just as huge can be built anywhere, and airports nearly as large can be found in Dallas and Chicago. Yet no amount of labor or expenditure can bring New York Harbor or the Hudson River to Kentucky. This enormous and insuperable advantage was not lost on the merchants of Manhattan or the farmers of the interior. Hamilton knew his beloved New York was different from the rest of the nation and that greed on one side and envy on the other would inevitable put it into violent collision with the rest of the country.

In relation to commercial advantages, he adverts to New York by name:

The opportunities, which some States would have of rendering others tributary to them, by commercial regulations, would be impatiently submitted to by the tributary States. The relative situation of New-York, Conneticut, and New-Jersey, would afford an example of this kind. New-York, from the necessities of revenue, must lay duties on her importations. A great part of these duties must be paid by the inhabitants of these other two States in the capacity of consumers of what we import. New-York would neither be willing or able to forego this advantage. Here citizens would not consent that a duty paid by them should be remitted in favour of the citizens of her neighbours; nor would it be practicable, if there were not this impediment in the way, to distinguish the customers of our own markets. Would Conneticut and New-Jersey long consent to be taxed by New-York for her exclusive benefit?

Everything useful or fashionable that Americans can’t make for themselves, and at this stage there is very little that Americans can make for themselves, must come in from Europe. And to come in, it must come in through New York, and there tariffs, duties, imposts will be added to the price, and that price must be borne by those who buy these goods when they finally reach the markets of those places not blessed by one of the greatest natural harbors on the planet. New York cannot be duplicated and can only be seized. Such a robbery is not unthinkable. When Russia consisted only of Moscow and the wintry forests surrounding it, the tsars wanted an ocean port above all else, and this drive to the sea involved one irruption after another to the west and to the south, one war after another with Sweden and Turkey.

The disadvantaged farmers and laborers of the west and the south have one means to revenge themselves on Manhattan, the colossal national debt. Wars are expensive, especially for puny, fledgling republics and the national debt presently borne by all the states in common, is enormous. Many states shall happily repudiate this debt. This will ruin the national credit and all Americans will be considered liars and defaulters. American perfidy will be the despair of the great banks of London. The farmers of North Carolina, Georgia, and New Jersey who grow nearly everything they eat and make nearly everything they use, who bring their excess crop into town but barter as often as sell, little care what the magnates of London think of them. If defaulting on the loans taken out by all the states together ruins the merchant princes of Manhattan, all the better. These merchant princes will be naturally averse to ruin, and they will plead for the timely repayment of these obligations, trumpeting duty and honor when they are really urging their own interest. Both sides will be selfish and both sides will be partly rigth but this debt will be the source of bitter contention and these quarrels may ultimately be decided on the battlefield.

Since Appamattox, the states have more and more become administrative prefectures but when Hamilton was writing they were more like sovereign nations, proud, touchy, and bigoted sovereign nations. The inhabitants of one State frequently detested the inhabitants of the next, and the legislators of each State were made up of these same inhabitants and not always the best of them. They were not above willfully, and even gleefully, passing laws aimed at vexing, annoying, even beggaring the natives of another State. The fortunes and interests of people in what was so recently one single nation are so closely connected and intertwined that the livelihood and well-being of nearly any citizen can be blighted by malicious measures originating in a city that was formerly a town just over the state line but has now become a foreign capital. Without an overarching judiciary to strike down such mean-spirited laws in the name of constitutionality, equity, or just plain decency, there is no redress for those persecuted by the edicts of the next State over. Grievances that can’t be sorted out peaceably and sensibly usually result in wars.