The Commercial Greatness of the United States

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Source: Alexis de Tocqueville, “Some Considerations On The Causes Of The Commercial Greatness Of The United States” in Democracy in America: Historical-Critical Edition of De la démocratie en Amérique, ed. Eduardo Nolla, translated from the French by James T. Schleifer. A Bilingual French-English editions, (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, [1835] 2010). Vol. 1. Accessed: February 26, 2020.

*This text comes from the Liberty Fund edition of Democracy in America, edited by Eduardo Nolla and translated by James Schleifer. For brevity, I have removed the marginalia that their edition includes.

From the Bay of Fundy to the Sabine River in the Gulf of Mexico, the coast of the United States extends the length of about nine hundred leagues.

These coasts form a single unbroken line; they are all placed under the same rule.

No people in the world can offer to commerce deeper, more vast and more secure ports than the Americans.

The inhabitants of the United States form a great civilized nation that fortune has placed in the middle of the wilderness, twelve hundred leagues from the principal center of civilizations. So America has daily need of Europe. With time the Americans will undoubtedly manage to produce or to manufacture at home most of the objects that they need, but the two continents will never be able to live entirely independent of each other; too many natural bonds exist between their needs, their ideas, their habits and their mores.

The Union has products that have become necessary to us, and that our soil totally refuses to provide, or can do so only at great cost. The Americans consume only a very small part of these products; they sell us the rest.

So Europe is the market of America, as America is the market of Europe; and maritime commerce is as necessary to the inhabitants of the United States in order to bring their raw materials to our ports as to transport our manufactured goods to them.

So the United States would have to provide great resources to the industry of maritime peoples, if they gave up commerce themselves, as the Spanish of Mexico have done until now; or they would have to become one of the premier maritime powers of the globe. This alternative is inevitable.

The Anglo-Americans have at all times shown a decided taste for the sea. Independence, by breaking the commercial ties that united them to England, gave their maritime genius a new and powerful development. Since this period the number of ships of the Union has increased in a progression almost as rapid as the number of inhabitants. Today it is the Americans themselves who carry to their shores nine-tenths of the products of Europe. It is also the Americans who carry to European consumers three-quarters of the exports of the New World. . . .

The ships of the United States fill the port of Le Havre and that of Liverpool. You see only a small number of English or French vessels in the port of New York.[1]

Thus not only does the American merchant stand up to the competition on his own soil, but he also fights foreigners with advantage on theirs.

This is easily explained. Of all the vessels of the world it is the ships of the United States that cross the seas most cheaply. As long as the merchant marine of the United States keeps this advantage over the others, not only will it keep what it has conquered, but each day it will increase its conquests.

To know why the Americans sail at lower cost than other men is a difficult problem to solve. You are tempted at first to attribute this superiority to some material advantages that nature would have put within their reach alone; but it is not that.

American ships cost almost as much to build as ours; they are not better constructed, and in general do not last as long.

The salary of the American sailor is higher than that of the sailor of Europe; what proves it is the large number of Europeans that you find in the merchant marine of the United States.

So how do the Americans sail more cheaply than we?

I think that you would look in vain for the causes of this superiority in material advantages; it is due to purely intellectual and moral qualities.

Here is a comparison that will make my thought clear.

During the wars of the Revolution the French introduced into military art a new tactic that troubled the oldest generals and all but destroyed the oldest monarchies of Europe. They undertook for the first time to do without a host of things that until then had been judged indispensable to war; they required from their soldiers new efforts that civilized nations had never demanded from theirs; you saw them do everything on the run, and without hesitating risk the life of men in view of the result to be gained.

The French were less numerous and less rich than their enemies; they possessed infinitely fewer resources; they were constantly victorious, however, until the latter decided to imitate them.

The Americans introduced something analogous to commerce. What the French did for victory, they do for economy.

The European navigator ventures only with prudence onto the sea; he leaves only when the weather is inviting; if an unforeseen accident happens to him, he returns to port; at night he furls part of his sails, and when he sees the Ocean turn white as land nears, he slows his course and checks the sun.

The American neglects these precautions and defies these dangers. He leaves while the storm is still raging; night and day he spreads all of his sails to the wind; while in route, he repairs his ship strained by the storm; and when he finally approaches the end of his journey, he continues to sail toward the shore as if he already saw port.

The American is often shipwrecked; but no navigator crosses the sea as rapidly as he. Doing the same things that someone else does in less time, he can do them at less cost.

Before coming to the end of a long voyage, the European navigator believes that he must touch land several times on his way. He loses precious time looking for a port of call or awaiting the opportunity to leave one, and each day he pays the duty to remain there.

The American navigator leaves from Boston to go to buy tea in China. He arrives in Canton, remains there a few days and comes back. He has covered in less than two years the entire circumference of the globe, and he has seen land only once. During a crossing of eight or ten months he has drunk brackish water and lived on salted meat; he has fought constantly against the sea, against disease, against boredom; but upon his return he can sell a pound of tea for one penny less than the English merchant. The goal is reached.

I cannot express my thought better than by saying that the Americans put a kind of heroism in their way of doing commerce.

It will always be very difficult for the merchant of Europe to follow the same course as his competitor from America. The American, while acting in the way I described above, is following not only a calculation; he is above all obeying his nature.

The inhabitant of the United States experiences all the needs and all the desires to which an advanced civilization gives rise, and he does not find around him as in Europe a society skillfully organized to satisfy them; so he is often obliged to obtain by himself the various objects that his education and his habits have made necessary for him. In America it sometimes happens that the same man plows his field, builds his house, fashions his tools, makes his shoes and weaves by hand the crude fabric that has to cover him. This harms the perfection of industry, but serves powerfully to develop the intelligence of the worker. There is nothing that tends more to materialize man and remove from his work even the trace of soul than the great division of labor. In a country like America where specialized men are so rare, you cannot require a long apprenticeship of each one of those who take up a profession.[2] So the Americans find it very easy to change profession, and they make the most of it, depending on the needs of the moment. You meet some of them who have been successively lawyers, farmers, merchants, evangelical ministers, doctors. If the American is less skillful than the European in each trade, there are hardly any of them that are entirely unknown to him. His ability is more general, the circle of his intelligence is wider. So the inhabitant of the United States is never stopped by any axiom of trade; he escapes all prejudices of profession; he is no more attached to one system of operation than to another; he does not feel more tied to an old method than to a new one; he has created no habit for himself, and he easily escapes from the sway that foreign habits could exercise over his mind, for he knows that his country resembles no other, and that its situation is new in the world.

The American inhabits a land of wonders, around him everything is constantly stirring, and each movement seems to be an improvement. So the idea of the new is intimately linked in his mind to the idea of the better. Nowhere does he see the limit that nature might have put on the efforts of man; in his eyes what is not is what has not yet been attempted.

This universal movement that reigns in the United States, these frequent reversals of fortune, this unexpected displacement of public and private wealth, all join together to keep the soul in a sort of feverish agitation that admirably disposes it to all efforts, and maintains it so to speak above the common level of humanity. For an American all of life happens like a game of chance, a time of revolution, a day of battle.

These same causes, operating at the same time on all individuals, finish by stamping an irresistible impulse on the national character. So an American taken at random must be a man ardent in his desires, enterprising, adventurous, above all an innovator. This spirit is found in fact in all his works; he introduces it into his political laws, into his religious doctrines, into his theories of social economy, into his private industry; he carries it everywhere with him, deep in the woods, as well as within the cities. It is this same spirit applied to maritime commerce that makes the American sail more quickly and more cheaply than all the merchants of the world.

As long as the sailors of the United States keep these intellectual advantages and the practical superiority that derives from them, not only will they continue to provide for the needs of the producers and consumers of their country, but also they will tend more and more to become, like the English, the carriers of other peoples.

This is the beginning to be achieved before our eyes. Already we are seeing American sailors introduce themselves as middlemen in the commerce of several of the nations of Europe; American offers them an even greater future.

The Spanish and the Portuguese founded in South America great colonies that have since become empires. Civil war and despotism today desolate these vast countries. The population movement is stopping, and the small number of men who live there, absorbed by the concern of defending themselves, scarcely feel the need to improve their lot.

But it cannot always be so. Europe left to itself managed by its own efforts to pierce the shadows of the Middle Ages; South America is Christian like us; it has our laws, our customs; it contains all the seeds of civilization that have developed within European nations and their offshoots; beyond what we had, South America has our example: why would it remain forever barbarous?

It is clearly only a question of time here. A more or less distant period will undoubtedly come when the South Americans will form flourishing and enlightened nations.

But when the Spanish and the Portuguese of South America begin to experience the needs of civilized peoples, they will still be far from able to satisfy them themselves; newly born to civilization, they will be subject to the superiority already acquired by their elders. They will be farmers for a long time before becoming manufacturers and merchants, and they will need the intervention of foreigners in order to go and sell their products overseas and to obtain in exchange the objects whose necessity will now make itself felt.

You cannot doubt that the Americans of North American are called one day to provide for the needs of the Americans of South America. Nature placed the first near the second. It thus provided the North Americans with great opportunities to know and estimate the needs of the South Americans, to strike up permanent relations with these peoples, and gradually to take possession of their market. The merchant of the United States could lose these natural advantages only if he was very inferior to the merchant of Europe; and he is, on the contrary, superior to him on several points. The Americans of the United States already exercise a great moral influence over all the peoples of the New World. From them comes enlightenment. All the nations that inhabit the same continent are already accustomed to considering them as the most enlightened, most powerful and wealthiest offshoots of the great American family. So they turn their view constantly toward the Union and they assimilate themselves, as much as it is within their power, to the peoples that compose it. Each day they come to draw political doctrines from the United States and borrow laws from them.

The American of the United States are vis-à-vis the peoples of South America precisely in the same situation as their fathers, the English, vis-à-vis the Italians, the Spanish, the Portuguese and all those peoples of Europe who, being less advanced in civilization and industry, receive from their hands most of the objects of consumption.

England is today the natural center of commerce of nearly all the nations that are near it; the American Union is called to fulfill the same role in the other hemisphere. So every people that arises or that grows up in the New World arises and grows up there in a way to the profit of the Anglo Americans. . . .

If the Union came to break up, the commerce of the states that formed it would undoubtedly be slowed for some time in its development, but less than is thought. It is clear that whatever happens the commercial states will remain united. They all touch each other; among them there is a perfect identity of opinion, interests and mores, and alone they can make up a very great maritime power. Thus even if the South of the Union became independent of the North, the result would not be that it could do without the North. I said that the South is not commercial; nothing yet indicates that it must become so. So the Americans of the South of the United States will be obliged for a long time to resort to foreigners in order to export their products and to bring to them the objects that are necessary for their needs. Now of all the middlement that they can take their neighbors of the North are surely those who can serve them more cheaply. So they will serve them, for the lowest price is the supreme law of commerce. There is no sovereign will or national prejudices that can struggle for long against the lowest price. You cannot see more venomous hatred than that which exists between the Americans of the United States and the English. In spite of these hostile sentiments, however, the English provide to the Americans most manufactured goods, for the sole reason that the English sell them for less than other peoples. The growing prosperity of America thus turns, despite the desire of the Americans, to the profit of the manufacturing industry of England.

Reason shows and experience proves that no commercial greatness is lasting if it cannot be combined as needed with military power.

This truth is as well understood in the United States as anywhere else. The Americans are already in the position of making their flag respected; soon they will be able to make it feared.

I am persuaded that the dismemberment of the Union, far from diminishing the naval forces of the Americans, would tend strongly to increase them. Today the commercial states are linked to those that are not commercial, and the latter often go along only reluctantly with increasing a maritime power from which they profit only indirectly.

If, on the contrary, all the commercial states of the Union formed only one and the same people, trade would become for them a national interest of the first order, so they would be disposed to make very great sacrifices to protect their ships, and nothing would prevent them from following their desires on this point. and to make the most liberal maxims as regards commerce prevail in the whole world.

. . .

I think that nations, like men, almost always show from their youth the principal features of their destiny. When I see in what spirit the Anglo Americans manage commerce, the opportunities that they find for doing it, the successes that they achieve, I cannot keep myself from believing that one day they will become the premier maritime power of the globe. They are pushed to take possession of the seas, as the Romans to conquer the world.

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