In the 1760s, the British fought a world war, partially to defend her American colonies from French encroachment. When they tried to unfairly raise taxes to pay for that war, American colonists objected, so the British solved the problem in a way that suited the times: They merely mandated that virtually all American commerce must move through London. Everything had to be exported to London and imported from London… so that the king would be sure to get his cut. The colonists objected, and started a war of independence over it, because the king had them chained; this coastal nation could only ship through the Atlantic Ocean, and Great Britain ruled the Atlantic.
In the summer of 1775, Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold, working together (yes, this was before he turned traitor) captured Fort Ticonderoga to win the prize of its wonderful artillery… then abandoned it when they couldn’t figure out a way to move the guns the 220 miles from the fort to Boston. New England was then an unnavigable region of forests and mountains; with no roads, trucks, rails, or other modern transportation solutions, those 220 miles may as well have been across an ocean… at least until the brilliant Henry Knox came along with a plan for that noble train of artillery. But Knox’s solution could hardly be replicated as a regular mode of trade.
By the 1780s, after the peace was won, General George Washington stood on his porch overlooking the Potomac, and dreamed of a way to move his goods inland, to connect with the western settlers. He feared that settlers west of the Alleghenies might do so much easy river trading with the Indian tribes, the Canadians to the north and the French and Spanish to the south, that they might lose their allegiance to the newly free United States.
So General Washington worked with the state governments of Virginia and Maryland, then Pennsylvania and others too, in an effort to develop inland waterway trade through the aggressive building of canals and locks. This effort, incidentally, directly led to the Constitutional Convention that saved the American experiment… but at the time at least, it didn’t solve our trade problems. We were still stuck living along the coast, hardly ever venturing inland on those poor-to-nonexistent roadways.
The pace of a snail
Readers of colonial-era history are always most shocked by one thing: the difficulty of getting around in 18th century America. We know they didn’t have electricity then, so the lack of modern conveniences doesn’t shock us. We know that medicine was in its infancy, so the poor mortality rates aren’t surprising. We know they didn’t have indoor plumbing or refrigeration or air conditioning; we open the books ready for a humbler life, a less productive, less happy life because of these lacks (and we’re often surprised to find that they did just fine without them).
But what never fails to amaze is the time it always took to get anywhere. We read that it took a month or two to reposition an army during the War of Independence, and we assume it must be a typo. We read that delegates set off for Philadelphia and spent two or three weeks on the road, and we assume they were treating it as a vacation. We know they were riding horses or driving carriages, but either way, we assume it couldn’t have been THAT slow. After all, horses can go fifteen or twenty miles an hour, right? If they only go a quarter the speed of our cars, shouldn’t they then have taken no more than four times as long as we would take to drive a route today?
Roads then weren’t like roads now. The macadam style of road construction (layer after layer of compressed gravel, perfectly flat on the surface, made waterproof) wasn’t to be introduced to the world for another half century; what our Founding Fathers called “roads” were usually just well-worn tracks in the rocky ground, in forested and often hilly areas. The more worn, the more likely to be filled with dangerous puddles, with soft mud, with hazards that would turn a horse’s ankle, or catch or break a carriage’s wheel.
For this reason above all others, travel went slowly in the Founding era. And if private travel went slowly, then so did commercial travel. Anything that was hazardous to a lone rider on horseback or a small businessman’s carriage would surely be doubly hazardous to a larger wagon filled with goods. If you wanted to move your produce by land, you had a long and difficult trip ahead of you. So you used water, whenever possible.
Now, if you lived on the coast, and your customers and vendors were also on the coast, you could use coastal ocean shipping, commonly known today as “short sea” transportation. But this didn’t exactly foster the growth initiatives favored by the majority of the Founding generation. The colonies claimed everything up to the Alleghenies and a good deal beyond; after independence, the United States claimed still more.
But the inland rivers often had impassable stretches, miles where they were too narrow, or too shallow, or both… or they had such sharp bends that no vessel could navigate them without getting stuck. Worst of all, they often had to climb up hills as they got inland; try making a ship manage that trick.
Washington desperately wanted the Potomac to deliver goods over the mountains to the Ohio Territory, but with the inclines in the mountains and canal/lock projects being notoriously expensive, this was an unlikely option. Even the Hudson River – which goes north from New York City all the way past Poughkeepsie and Albany to the Canadian lakes and the site of Fort Ticonderoga – despite being wide and deep, was dependent on a lot of oars or a lot of sails. If they didn’t have enough oarsmen, it was slow going. And if there was no wind for the sails, it was no going at all.
Transportation and Technology
Enter a young inventor named Robert Fulton. Born in Pennsylvania in 1765, he wasn’t too particular about what he was inventing or who he was working for, as long as his creativity was given a chance to pay dividends.
In his short life (he died of consumption at 49 after attempting to save the life of a drowning friend), he became a printer and painter, an engineer and inventor, a businessman. He designed the first submarine for the French and the first torpedoes for the British; he devised techniques for his father the farmer, and for his father’s friends, the gunsmiths, and even invented dredging systems for governments – a critical step if you want to render a river navigable for transportation.
But he is best known for a series of improvements on somebody else’s idea, which made inland navigation practical at last. Ever since news reached him in Pennsylvania of James Watt’s efficient steam engine, Fulton had been noodling over the idea of powering a vessel with one. Others had worked on the idea – Rumsey, Fitch, and others – though such vessels either failed to work or failed to turn a profit. A custom-built experimental ship is a quite a gamble, even today; imagine it in a cash-poor era like the days of the American Founding.
But now another character enters the tale. Robert R. Livingston, gentleman of New York, landowner, diplomat, politician, investor, was in France in 1801 when he received word that the United States had selected him to become minister to France. This put Livingston in Paris at the same time as Fulton. The two men met, struck up a friendship and then a collaboration, and before you knew it, they were building steamboats together. The first sank in Paris in 1803, but the two men got back together in America a couple years later, and started anew.
The Hudson River was to be the road, and Fulton’s steamship its greatest vessel. Other steamboats had operated with steam powered oars, either sideways like those wielded by oarsmen, or underneath like the feet of a swimming duck. Neither method proved efficient enough for commercial success. The Fulton-Livingston collaboration of 1807, however, used the paddlewheels so familiar today, but unknown until Fulton’s application. They worked; they produced enough speed and power to make the vessel worthwhile.
The North River Steamboat set sail (hmm… “set paddlewheel?”) on August 17 at New York, and floated up the Hudson River. After stopping at Livingston’s home, Clermont Manor, they continued north and landed at Albany after just 32 hours of total transportation time under steam. They had proven the potential speed of their boat beyond any doubt; it used to take weeks to make that trip by carriage, or several days or more to make it with oars or sails.
Soon the North River Steamboat was running a Saturday evening northbound trip and a Wednesday evening southbound trip, every single week. Sometimes they ran straight through, sometimes they’d stop at Clermont, or Poughkeepsie, or West Point. Newburgh, Red Hook, and Catskill were also frequent stops. They could sail up and down the Hudson in record time, and a record was set. The first commercially successful steamboat was in business.
Over the years, other rivers were opened up to navigation. The Erie Canal was built, more steamboats were constructed… By the midpoint of the 19th century, steamboats were the main source of transportation from Pittsburgh to New Orleans via the Ohio River… from Halifax through the Great Lakes, first just through the St Lawrence and then all the way into the Midwest.
For American commerce to thrive, it had to move beyond the coasts; it took technology to help break away. Fulton, a man raised in Pennsylvania but living for years abroad, still teamed up with an American Founder to accomplish his greatest achievement, back in his homeland.
The Founding Generation
Who was Robert R. Livingston? He was a rich man, a wealthy landowner from upstate New York, a member of the most populous political families in New York. He entered politics, becoming a patriot as soon as the Glorious Cause started seeing sides chosen in the conflict.
Livingston was born on November 27, 1746, into a life of privilege. But this was no era of easy wealth, not in the colonies, anyway. If you were born with land, you were born with the responsibility of managing that land. If not, you studied and worked and applied yourself, whether as a farmer or inventor or merchant. Everyone worked in those days.
Robert R. Livingston studied law and worked as a lawyer in addition to managing his estates. He was elected to the colonial legislature and to the committees of correspondence. He joined the Continental Congress, and served on the Committee of Five that ironed out the basic needs for the Declaration of Independence that Thomas Jefferson was to author.
During the War, Livingston served in many posts – as a member of the Continental Congress under the Articles of Confederation, he acted as Secretary for Foreign Affairs, then as Minister to France in the Jefferson Administration. He served for a quarter century as the highest judge in the state of New York, earning the nickname that was his long held title: The Chancellor.
It was in this capacity, as Chancellor of New York, that Livingston was the one to administer the presidential oath of office to George Washington for his first term as president. And it was in his capacity as Minister to France that he met Robert Fulton.
In the Founding Generation, our nation was blessed with men who did not earn their living from politics; they were merchants, farmers, lawyers, speculators, investors. They had to understand the market to earn a living; they couldn’t house themselves and raise their families without income, and the government was too broke to support them. So our representatives were always considering how they might direct government policy in a direction that would foster economic growth; this was in fact among their greatest goals.
George Washington wanted a limited, libertarian government, and the means to trade successfully with the settlers in the west. Livingston wanted a limited, libertarian government, and the means to make a profit off a commercially fulfilling ferry service. Hamilton wanted a limited libertarian government, and the means for a robust banking system to provide capital for such investments. Thomas Jefferson wanted a limited libertarian government, and the means to sell his tobacco at enough of a profit to pay the bills he was incurring for remodeling, wine, and books.
All our Founders were intimately involved in the marketplace. They didn’t have blind trusts then, nor would they have seen the point if they did. They knew that it was their understanding of market forces, even if just in their own limited areas, that gave them the ability to serve their country well.
Yes, looking back with our modern eyes, colored by our modern views of political ethics and conflicts of interest, we might be shocked at the actions Congress took in those early years, shocked that what they did benefited themselves a little too, in addition to helping the general welfare of the nation.
But looking forward, they too would be shocked, perhaps more so, at how we do it today. Any wealthy candidate for high office is expected to put his investments into a blind trust. Our politicians aren’t allowed to take their personal interests into account when setting policy. There’s good reason for such a position, of course, in an era of bribery and blackmail. We’ve seen high elected officials tossed out for giving government-funded Rolexes to girlfriends, for using government-funded trips to provide opportunities for sexual favors, for using friends’ donations to muddle the lines between personal and campaign finances. The current focus on keeping our politicians’ finances ethical and public has plenty of logical philosophical underpinnings.
But we should remember that we are sacrificing one of our most important early strategies in so doing. Our Founders felt a personal need, not only for others but for their own families as well, to do everything they possibly could to spur the economy. They couldn’t take No for an answer, and allow prosperity to wait another generation or two. It would be their own children being asked to forestall prosperity, not just somebody else’s children. They wouldn’t agree to it; they’d find a way to make it happen.
And so we saw Robert R. Livingston, on diplomatic duty in Paris, meeting young Robert Fulton and catching the same fire at the idea of making miracles with steam. Without that investment, Fulton might have stuck to torpedoes and rockets; but with that investment, he returned to New York and brought progress, not just to upstate New York but to the entire country.
Livingston and Fulton didn’t just make money for themselves with that steamboat. They made money for all the inns and other businesses along the way, places that were almost unreachable without the steamboat. They made money for farmers who now had more potential customers… for millers and cabinetmakers, for vintners and bakers who would serve the towns that would now grow along the way, up and down the Hudson. Without the steamboat, there might have been such growth, but it would have been much, much slower.
And they didn’t just make money for the Hudson River traffic either. Their experiment proved the viability elsewhere, creating new markets and building new opportunities for wealth creation along the Ohio, along the St Lawrence, through the Great Lakes, along the Mississippi.
Think of what we wouldn’t have today without the steamboat. We might not have had the century of showboat entertainment that made the Mississippi famous, or the Broadway musical “Showboat” that has produced many a star and many a hit song. The cities that grew up along the Mississippi might have been born, but certainly wouldn’t have prospered as they did, if sails and oars were still needed for transport on that long, wide river. Would Samuel Clemens have become Mark Twain without the steamboat? Would we have any of the rich literature produced by that talented writer's pen, and the classic films based on them?
Here’s what our Founding Generation had, at its heart: a drive for economic prosperity, an understanding of what goes into the creation of wealth. The politicians of our Founding era knew that tax rates are never the solution to any problem, economic growth is. When they were broke, they looked for a new way to help their country prosper. Government needs to do less when its citizens are successful; the Founders’ goal was to help every citizen have a chance at being successful.
How gladly we would trade any dozen of the economically-challenged politicians of the modern era for a single Robert R. Livingston, a single George Washington, or Alexander Hamilton, or Gouverneur Morris today.
We have a chance, of course, every two years, to choose again. The need is great, and 2014 is coming.
Copyright 2012 John F. Di Leo
John F. Di Leo is a Chicago-based Customs broker and trade compliance trainer. If this topic seems like it strikes close to the author’s heart, it’s because he studied tap dancing from the last dancer from the last of the Mississippi showboats, long ago. Those steamboats weren’t just transportation, and they weren’t just about commerce, though these would be honorable enough pursuits on their own. The steamboat was a part of American culture for a long, long time, and it’s something to be proud of, even today, when the original showboats appear only in the history books.
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