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The Rise of the Fisheries and the Merchants

Mises Daily: Tuesday, August 21, 2012 by

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[This article is excerpted from Conceived in Liberty, chapter 34. An MP3 audio file of this chapter, narrated by Floy Lilley, is available for download.]

Attempts of the government to subsidize the beginning of fisheries also proved fruitless. During the 1630s, fish were either imported or came from Englishmen fishing off Newfoundland and the Maine coast. But the civil war of the 1640s crippled the English fishing fleet. New England fishermen, without need of government coercion, expanded their activities to fill the gap. There sprang up along the New England coast communities of fishermen-farmers, who fished and farmed in alternate seasons. These settlements, in such towns as Marblehead, Nantucket, and the Isles of Shoals, were conspicuously non-Puritan. In 1644, for example, not one resident of Marblehead qualified as a freeman; in short, not one was a church member. In 1647, in fact, so solicitous was the General Court of the morals of the Isles of Shoals that no women were allowed to live in the town.

The growth of the fisheries greatly expanded the opportunities for trade, and merchants came in to market the catch and equip the cargoes. Indeed, the Navigation Act of 1651, extending to fish the ban against foreign vessels carrying colonial products, was put through by the London merchants to seize the lucrative carrying trade from Dutch and French vessels. The New England merchants purchased the catch from the fishermen and shipped it to London importers. These importers were the major entrepreneurs of the trade; they owned, planned, and financed the shipment from the beginning. Similarly, London exporters of manufactured goods to New England financed the retained ownership of the shipments until sold in the colony. So important were close ties to London, that those New England merchants who had family or friendship connections with London merchants were the ones who flourished in the trade. New England merchants themselves financed fish exports to the Southern colonies.

By 1660 New England was the fish leader of the colonies, and fish production was flourishing. From the fisheries, the newly burgeoning body of Massachusetts merchants expanded the carrying trade to many other products. The merchants shipped New England agricultural products, including horses, cattle, and timber, abroad. They imported wine from Spain and east Atlantic islands, and sugar from the West Indies. They carried English manufactured goods to Virginia and North Carolina, buying in turn the tobacco of the South and exporting it. A particular feature of New England shipping was the "triangular trade": exporting timber and agricultural products to the Canaries, transporting slaves from there to the West Indies, and then importing sugar from those islands.

During the 1640s and 1650s, the impact of the English civil war on New England trade was a shifting one. In 1645 the merchants drove a free-trade bill through the Massachusetts General Court, allowing trade with ships of all countries. This was accomplished over the protests of many of the leading magistrates of the colony, who were interested more in the Puritan cause than in freedom of trade. Later, however, the Navigation Acts forced Massachusetts to prohibit trade with France and Holland. And over merchants' protests, Massachusetts obeyed Parliament by outlawing trade with those colonies that remained royalist: specifically, Virginia and the West Indies. Returning the favor, Parliament in 1644 exempted New England trade from all English import and export duties.

One of the most important economic consequences of the Puritan Revolution for New England was its impact upon the timber industry. The expansion of New England shipping had given rise to a flourishing shipbuilding industry. It had also spurred the growth of one of the most important New England industries: timber, especially mast trees for ships, which flourished particularly on the Piscataqua, a region of Massachusetts now in New Hampshire. But the biggest single impetus to the growth of the mast tree industry was not so much the natural growth of shipbuilding as the huge war contracts suddenly begun in 1655. In that year, Oliver Cromwell launched the expedition that captured Jamaica from Spain. Fearful that the Baltic trade — the largest source of timber and mast trees for England — would be cut off by the war, Cromwell gave orders for the stockpiling of timber in New England.

But more than excessive caution lay at the root of this stockpiling program; the appropriation of special privilege was even more in evidence. For, during the Commonwealth era, many Puritan merchants of New England returned home to England and rose to leading positions in the government. Several were even involved with the awarding of contracts for the Jamaica expedition. These merchants, still deeply connected with New England trade, took care to grant themselves and their associates enormous and lucrative timber contracts. Thus, the head of the Jamaica expedition was Maj. Gen. Robert Sedgwick, one of New England's biggest merchants. The commissioner of the English navy was Edward Hopkins, another leading Massachusetts merchant. Commissioner of trade was Rear Admiral Nehemiah Bourne, a leading Massachusetts shipwright. Another commissioner of the navy was the Massachusetts shipwright Francis Willoughby. And treasurer of the navy and direct awarder of the naval contracts was Richard Hutchinson, London merchant and brother-in-law of the martyred Anne.

By 1660 all the general patterns of New England trade and production were set for more than the next hundred years. These included not only the trade and production outlined above, but also the emergence of Boston as the overwhelmingly dominant trading center, for Massachusetts and for all of New England. The produce — of agriculture, fish, and forest — from the rest of New England was sent to Boston, whence it was shipped abroad. The other towns became secondary and subsidiary centers, feeding the main metropolis from the produce gathered from their outlying areas. Similarly, almost all imports into New England came to Boston; from here they were shipped to the rest of the colony. Of the 20,000 residents of Massachusetts, fully 3,000 lived in Boston. To a lesser extent Charlestown and Salem were also leading trade centers. In these three towns, being a merchant was a full-time occupation, whereas in the smaller urban areas trade was a part-time calling.

As early as the mid-1640s, the expanding and influential merchants tended to be restive about the theocracy and its persecution of heresy. Trade and fanatical intolerance do not mix well. The trader tends to want peace, wider markets, and freedom of movement. Anything else, any blocking of these channels, is bad for business, bad for trade. In Massachusetts, the merchants saw that persecution blocked immigration — therefore, the expansion of trade — and injured Massachusetts' reputation in England regarding credit and connections. In 1645, it was a group of eminent merchants, headed by Sedgwick, Bourne, and Emmanuel Downing, who led a petition for repeal of the virtual ban against strangers unacceptable to the government, and against the expulsion of the Baptists. But the church elders thundered against leniency and prevailed.

We have seen the brusque fate meted out by Massachusetts to the petition in 1646 for greater religious freedom and broader franchise by Dr. Robert Child and other merchants and eminent non-Puritan church members of the colony. Six years later, the powerful manorial lord of Springfield, the fur trader William Pynchon, returned to England after his book, critical of the Massachusetts persecutions, was publicly burned by the authorities. And the Boston merchant Anthony Stoddard was jailed for "insolence" to the government. The merchants generally opposed the official adoption of theocracy by the General Court when in 1651 it endorsed the Puritan Confession of Faith and Discipline that had been drawn up by the Synod of Massachusetts five years earlier.

This does not mean that the merchants were flaming libertarians; indeed, they heartily endorsed the brutal persecution of the Quakers. But all in all, the merchants were the liberal wing of the Massachusetts community. Their "softness" was duly denounced by the Puritan zealot Edward Johnson: "Being so taken up with … a large profit … they would have had the commonwealth tolerate divers kinds of sinful opinion to entice men to come and sit down with us, that their purses might be filled with coin, civil government with contention, and the Churches of our Lord Christ with errors."

And so trade, economics, became increasingly a solvent of fanatical zeal. By their very presence alone, the merchants were a disrupting element in the would-be Puritan monolith. Many of the new merchants of the 1650s were not even Puritans at all (for example, Thomas Breedon, Col. Thomas Temple, Richard Wharton); whether inside or outside the church, they brought with them a worldly, urbane, and cosmopolitan spirit that weakened what the Puritans regarded as the moral fibre of the younger generation. It is no wonder that in 1659 the General Court was so concerned as to proclaim a "day of humiliation" because of the great "sensuality under our present enjoyments."

Theocracy Begins to Wither: The Half-Way Covenant

The Puritan theocracy faced not only the direct problem of the merchants and their worldly spirit, but also the withering of their dominion from within the very bosom of the church itself. First, the Puritans had to bear the cross of their own brethren in England, who had come increasingly under the influence of liberal ideas in the 1640s and were reproaching Massachusetts for its intolerance. Even the former firebrand and persecutor of Anne Hutchinson, Rev. Hugh Peter, having returned to England, now urged religious toleration in Massachusetts. Shortly before his death in 1649, Governor Winthrop received the sad and deeply puzzling news that his own son Stephen, fighting in Cromwell's New Model Army, was actually advocating liberty of conscience. "I hope his heart is with the Lord," said Winthrop wistfully.

But even within Massachusetts itself, theocratic rule was beginning to slacken. During the 1650s opinion grew rapidly in the New England church that the requirements for being chosen a member of the "elect" should be greatly loosened. The issue was aggravated by the fact that only church members could become freemen, and hence vote in Massachusetts Bay. Therefore, the growing pressure for a broader and more democratic franchise could only be satisfied by softening the requirements for church membership — in short by weakening Puritan tenets themselves.

The crisis was precipitated in the Hartford church in Connecticut where the practice of Rev. Samuel Stone in admitting church members was thought lax by many of the church elders. In 1657, the General Court of Massachusetts proposed a synod of all the New England colonies. Rhode Island, of course, would take no part, not being a Puritan colony. New Haven, most rigorously wedded to theocracy and opposed to any change, also refused to participate. From the other end of the spectrum, Connecticut accepted and its authorities sent four ministers to the synod; Massachusetts appointed 15. Over the bitter opposition of the conservative ministers, the synod adopted the "Half-Way Covenant," which automatically allowed all those baptized in the church to become church members and to have their children baptized as well. Their membership would only be associate, or "half-way," but the important point was that this partial membership entitled them to vote and therefore to political rights. This was a drastic change and could only weaken theocratic rule and considerably democratize oligarchic rule in Massachusetts. In 1662 another intercolonial synod reaffirmed the Half-Way Covenant, and the General Courts of Massachusetts and Connecticut advised its adoption by all the churches. From all sides and on many fronts the pressures were multiplying for dissolution of theocratic rule.