—Had matters been allowed to take their natural course; had Americans been allowed to simply take the advantage of the world's progress which was taken by their competitors, it is reasonable to infer that there would have been no material decline in the American shipping interest, and no such condition of things to bewail as exists at present. To assume to the contrary is to assume that Americans would have made an exception of this one department of their domestic industry, and have failed to bring to it that sagacity and skill that before and since have characterized all their other business operations. But matters were not allowed to take their natural course. The means and appliances for the construction of iron vessels did not then exist in the United States; while Great Britain, commencing in 1839, (when John Laird constructed his iron steamers for the British navy which afterward took part in the Chinese war), and with seventeen years of experience, had become equipped in 1855 for the prosecution of this great industry. The facilities for the construction of steam machinery adapted to the most economical propulsion of ocean vessels, furthermore, were also inferior in the United States to those existing in Great Britain, and by reason of statute provisions (see
NAVIGATION LAWS OF THE UNITED STATES), citizens of the United States interested in ocean commerce were absolutely prevented and forbidden from availing themselves of the results of British skill and superiority in the construction of vessels when such a policy was the only expedient which could have enabled them at the time to hold their position in the ocean carrying trade in competition with their foreign rivals. Now, there is very little sentimentality in the representatives of trade and commerce, whatever may be their nationality. They simply ask, "Who will serve us best and at the cheapest rate?" And the inability of the ships of the United States to do the work which trade and commerce required that they should do as well and cheaply as the ships of other nations being established, the decadence of American shipping commenced and was inevitable from the very hour when this fact was first recognized, which was about the year 1856. Here, then, we have the primary cause of the decay of the business of ship building in the United States and of our commercial marine. Other causes—hereafter noted—have since come in and helped the decay and are powerfully operative to prevent recovery; but so long as the conditions, which in the outset were the source of the trouble, continue to prevail, decay will continue to go on and there can be no recovery. Attention should here be called to the circumstance that the relation of the United States to Great Britain in this matter of ship construction and employment has been no different from the very outset of the new era in navigation from that of all other maritime nations, with the single exception that, as the interest of the United States in the new conditions was greater than that of all these others combined, it was incumbent on the former to act with the greatest wisdom and discretion, and not allow prejudice and ancient conservatism to prevent the removal of obstacles which stood in the way of national growth and development. But none of these nations, with the possible exception of old Spain, acted as did the United States Taking a practical, common-sense view of the situation and setting sentiment aside, they concluded that it would be the height of folly to permit a great and profitable department of their industries to be impaired or destroyed rather than allow certain improvements in the management of its details, because suggested and carried out by a foreign nation, to be purchased and adopted. And they, therefore, virtually said to their own people: "If England can build better and cheaper ships for ocean commerce than you can yourselves, and will furnish them to you on terms as favorable in every respect as is granted to her own citizens, and if your own private judgment and feeling of self-interest prompts you to buy and use such ships, the state will interpose no obstacles to your so doing. As between a business and the instrumentalities for doing business the interests of the first are to be first considered, for if the business fails, the instrumentalities employed in it, be they good or bad, will retain but little of value; whereas, on the other hand, if the business can be kept profitable there need be no apprehension
as to a deficiency or imperfection of the instrumentalities." And the merchants and capitalists of these maritime states, adopting the course which seemed best to them under the circumstances, went to England and supplied themselves with ships and steamers of the most approved patterns, and sharing with the English the monopoly of owning and using the same, have always derived great profit therefrom. And the several states, furthermore which permitted their citizens to act without restraint in accordance with their own best judgment in this matter, have never had any such results as the United States has experienced, but, on the contrary, have seen their commercial tonnage and carrying trade upon the high seas largely increase, and if their shipping interests have since experienced any vicissitudes, they have not in any one instance been referred to influences even remotely connected with the liberal policy that was adopted. On the other hand, the policy of the United States under the same circumstances has been very much as if at the outset of the development of the railway system as an improved method of transporting goods and passengers, some one state of the Union—say Ohio, for example—had said, "We have no manufactories of locomotives or cars, or mills for rolling railway bars, within our territory; state pride and a desire to be wholly independent will not allow us to purchase these articles of Pennsylvania; therefore we will continue to use horses and wagons, which heretofore answered our purposes of transportation, and not use railroads until we can manufacture all railroad equipments ourselves." People in other states would have been prompted to characterize the action of the people of Ohio as irrational, and as in opposition to their material interests, and yet the boundary line which separates the United States from Great Britain is just as much a mater of artificial ordination as that which separates Ohio from Pennsylvania. But be this as it may, the result in the hypothetical case would have been exactly the same as is the result in the real case. Ohio would not have got her railroads not the wealth and development that would have flowed from their construction. The United States has not got the ships, or the wealth and business that have been attendant upon their possession and skillful employment in other countries.