The Rise of the Fisheries and the Merchants

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This article
is excerpted from Conceived
in Liberty
, chapter 34. An MP3 audio file of this article,
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."

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.

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.

N. Rothbard
(1926–1995) was dean of the Austrian School,
founder of modern libertarianism, and chief academic officer
of the Mises Institute. He
was also editor — with Lew Rockwell — of The
Rothbard-Rockwell Report
, and appointed Lew as his literary
executor. See
his books.

2012 by the Ludwig von Mises Institute.
Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided
full credit is given.

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