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Uncommon Sense

By oieahc · December 19, 2017

Global Trade and Revolution: The Politics of Americans’ Commerce with China

Doing History 14 min read

Today’s post accompanies “The Age of Revolutions,” episode 165 of Ben Franklin’s World and part of the Doing History 2: To the Revolution! series. You can find supplementary materials for the episode on the OI Reader app, available through iTunes or Google Play.

by Dael A. Norwood

In February 1784, just over a month after the U.S. Congress had ratified the Treaty of Paris and proclaimed the end of the war for Independence, the ice damming New York’s harbor finally receded. In its wake came a small, square-sterned ship: the Empress of China.[1]  What set the Empress apart from the other ships leaving New York that winter was its ambition. It was bound for Canton, China –  Guangzhou – a port no other American ship had yet reached. Seeking that distant destination, the ship was loaded with more than just ginseng and Spanish dollars as it sailed down the East River; it bore Americans’ hopes for a new era of prosperity, too.

The Empress left a country in increasingly desperate straits. Independence had cost dearly. The war had destroyed lives and property, and put state governments and the Continental Congress deep into debt. The national government organized under the Articles of Confederation was too weak to improve matters, lacking mechanisms to tax, regulate trade, or normalize relations with other powers.

Worse, by early 1784 Americans were beginning to realize what separation from the British Empire meant for their commerce. They were cut off from the West Indian ports that had been the lifeblood of the colonial economy, but English merchants retained easy access to U.S. markets – and flooded them with goods, suffocating domestic manufacturers and outcompeting American merchants. With few profitable routes for their shipping, no friendly outlets for their wares, and a government incapable of organizing a coherent response, Americans’ situation at the time of the Empress’s departure looked grim indeed.

In part because of these dire circumstances, leading revolutionaries took an active interest in the ship’s voyage and other similar efforts. Former Superintendent of Finance Robert Morris, an investor in the Empress, explained that he was “sending some ships to China” not only for his own profit, but also “to encourage others in the adventurous pursuits of commerce.”[2] Newspapers reported that this desire to serve the national interest extended to the captain and his crew, who were allegedly “elated on being considered the first instruments, in the hands of Providence … to extend the commerce of the United States of America, to that distant, and to us unexplored country.”[3]

Pride was at stake, too. Voyaging to the “East Indies” in the eighteenth century required significant capital and sailing skill. Establishing a commercial presence at Canton would not only give Americans access to a lucrative market, it could help cement the U.S. as a serious international player. When news of the Empress’s successful return arrived in spring 1785, the President of Congress, Richard Henry Lee, gleefully described it as “a proof of American enterprise” and then noted its geopolitical import: the venture “will probably mortify, as much as it will injure our old Oppressors, the British.”[4]

This sense that pursuing commerce at Canton could be wielded against the British Empire was well developed even before the Empress set sail. As he was trying to settle peace with Britain in 1783, minister to England John Adams suggested to his colleagues that one way to bring the English “to reason” at the negotiating table was “to send ships immediately to China.”[5] Putting competitive pressure on Britain would lead Whitehall to open colonial markets, Adams thought.

The importance of going to China for American diplomacy in Europe was supported by reports coming back with the Empress itself. Samuel Shaw, a supervising merchant on the voyage, moved quickly to give Congress an account of “the respect with which their flag has been treated in that distant region” upon his return. He focused on the cordial greetings Americans received from other European traders, Britons included, accounting them validating demonstrations of respect for new nation. Shaw did find time to mention a meeting with Chinese merchants, too, but here he focused primarily on Americans’ self-image: “The Chinese were very indulgent towards us,” he wrote, “[t]hey stiled us the new people.”[6]

New people or not, polite welcomes soon turned darker. Reporting from a second trip to Canton, Shaw noted that the English East India Company – the private chartered arm of British imperialism in Asia – had recently stepped up its activity in the region, what was the beginning of efforts to bulk up opium production in India and create a new market for it in China. He read these moves as intended to leverage political power to resolve English traders’ capital flow problems at the expense of independent merchants like himself. Shaw’s alarm was widely shared: other American merchants complained to Congress about the “jealousy of the merchants of Europe,” alleging that they were employing underhanded means “to counteract the spirit and enterprise of America.”[7]

The shadow of European corporate interference was mobilized by leaders of the movement for a more powerful central government. Writing as Publius in the pro-Constitution Federalist Papers, John Jay worried that Americans’ success in trade with China could incite war with European powers. This was a danger that Jay thought could only be sensibly countered by a stronger union and a considerable navy – institutions that would, naturally, be best organized by a government of the type envisioned by the framers of the new Constitution.[8]

That such arguments appeared in pro-Constitution polemics is an indication of how the unique features of the China trade linked it closely to the development of the American nation-state. For reformers who branded the Confederation system a dangerous anarchy, the threat posed to American commercial success in China by a cabal of European monopoly companies was a useful threat, starkly illustrating the vulnerabilities of a decentralized federal system. It enabled nationalists like Jay, Adams, and James Madison, to frame their proposals for a stronger central government as a reasonable response to the realities of international trade.

This wasn’t mere rhetoric: once a new federal government was put in place in 1789, the China trade became a policy focus. By common consent among the new members of Congress, the most pressing agenda item for the first session was to provide the national government with a stable revenue, and in so doing, frame a national commercial policy. The tariff, tonnage, and collection acts that quickly passed created an American navigation system, a legible framework for the political economy that nationalists had advocated. And at the heart of this system were a series of measures intended to protect American shipping – and promote direct trade between the U.S. and Asia.

The tariff was the most important of these measures. Reflecting American leaders’ preoccupation with China’s trade, the first tariff singled out only one branch of commerce for particular protection: the traffic in goods imported “from China or India.”[9] In subsequent years, Congress also acted to grant tea merchants special privileges on import and export duties.[10] Collectively, these laws granted American merchants a lock on the domestic market for Asian goods, and established a strong incentive to re-export the surplus to Europe and the West Indies. Somewhat unexpectedly, then, the China trade appears at the center of politics at the birth of the modern American nation-state, as a means to independence, a diplomatic tool, and a key component of the political economy that, it was hoped, would make the nation strong, prosperous, and free.

Dael A. Norwood is an Assistant Professor of History at Binghamton University. His book Trading Freedom: How Commerce with China Defined Early America, is under contract with the University of Chicago Press.


[1] The business and sailing of the Empress of China’s voyage is most fully described in Philip Chadwick Foster Smith, The Empress of China (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Maritime Museum, 1984).

[2] Robert Morris to John Jay, Philadelphia, 27 November 1783, in  John Jay, The Correspondence and Public Papers of John Jay, ed. Henry Phelps Johnston (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1890), 3:96–97.

[3] Philadelphia, February 28,” Maryland Journal and Baltimore Advertiser, March 5, 1784.

[4] Richard Henry Lee to Samuel Adams, New York, 20 May 1785 in Paul Hubert Smith, ed., Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774-1789 (Washington D.C.: Library of Congress, 1976), 22:397. Lee also discussed the Empress voyage in letters to Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and James Madison, among others. See: Ibid., 22: 393–393, 409–410, 417–418.

[5] John Adams to Secretary Livingston, Paris, 16 July 1783 in John Adams, The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States: with a life of the author, notes and illustrations, ed by. Charles Francis Adams (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1850), 8:101–102.

[6] “Letter from mr. Shaw, agent for the owners of the ship Empress of China, in her voyage to Canton, addressed to John Jay, esq.,” The American Museum, or Universal Magazine (Philadelphia, PA) 1, no. 3 (March 1787): 194-197.

[7] “Petition on East India Trade, January 22, 1791,” Thomas C. Cochran, ed., The New American State Papers: Commerce and Navigation, 47 vols. (Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 1973), 1: 27.

[8] “No. 4,” Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, The Federalist, ed. George W. Carey and James McClellan, Gideon Edition (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 2001),

[9] The Tariff: Act of July 4, 1789, ch. 2, 1 Stat. 24 (“An Act: For laying a duty on goods, wares, and merchandises imported into the United States”)

[10] Act of August 4, 1790, ch. 35, 1 Stat. 145, (“An Act: To provide more effectually for the collection of the duties imposed by law on goods, wares, and merchandise imported into the United States, and on the tonnage of ships or vessels”); Act of August 10, 1790, ch 39, 1 Stat. 180, (“An Act: Making further provision for the payment of the debt of the United States”; Act of March 3, 1791, ch 26, 1 Stat. 219, Chapter 26, 1 Congress, Session 3 (“An Act: Making farther provision for the collection of the duties by law imposed on teas, and to prolong the term for the payment of the duties on wines”).


[…] Dael A. Norwood, “Global Trade and Revolution: The Politics of Americans' Commerce with China“ […]
Episode 165: The Age of Revolutions - Ben Franklin's World  •  December 17, 2019

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