Early American History Seminar: Leon Fink, University of Illinois at Chicago

Early American History and Culture Seminar
Thursday, January 18, 2007

5:30 pm to 7:00 pm

‘The Nation’s Property’: Merchant Sailors and the Rise of Liberal Political Economy in the Atlantic World, 1800–1870”
Leon Fink, University of Illinois at Chicago
Even as he identified the welfare of “nations” with the expansion of “wealth”—both of which, he believed, required restraint from governmental interference—Adam Smith (1776) allowed himself some wiggle room when it came to shipping and sea power.  It was no accident, he suggested, that the “first civilized” nations were those, around the coast of the tame Mediterranean Ocean, which had first succeeded in “the infant navigation of the world.”  Maintaining access to that navigable world and, if possible, control of the world’s trade, it followed, was a crucial mark of national power.  The Smithian exception to the free market regarding national shipping and naval interests rested on long legs that carried even “liberal” England (not to mention lesser, more self-isolating states) to carefully nurture and regulate its maritime trades at least through the mid-19th century.Both in symbol and fact, abolition of the British Navigation Acts in 1849 represented a key disjuncture (one is tempted to say ‘watershed’) of economic policy, even as they invited a new era of regulation in British shipping.  For, even absent an older mercantilist emphasis on a favorable national balance of trade, there remained (for “modern” policy and economic thinkers, just as for Smith) the residual strategic considerations that the merchant marine, or commercial sea labor, constituted a “nursery” (as training ground and reserve labor force) for the navy and national defense as well as a key economic lifeline that could not be allowed to be ceded to potentially hostile powers.  Thus it was that ‘labor’ issues resonated throughout the 19th century at the center of national political debates about trade and shipping.  Recruitment, disciplining, and ultimately, the welfare of seamen were seen to have vital national implications.  Even after mid-century, this assumption carried equally abiding force within the liberal, free-trade-oriented policies of a world-dominant United Kingdom as it did within the more rigidly protectionist policies of Britain’s biggest contemporary trade rival, the United States.  It was no coincidence, therefore, that political argument over the role of government in the marketplace, the freedoms accorded workers as citizens, and even the presence (or exclusion) of non-citizens within national enterprises played out in a series of dramatic ‘sea battles’ across the 19th century.