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Robert Fulton Praises Free Trade
Digital History ID 219

Author:   Robert Fulton


The late eighteenth century was a period of intense anxiety and hope. While the wars of the French Revolution underscored the persistence of bitter national rivalries, there was also a mounting faith that expanded trade and the growth of industry would overcome national differences and usher in an era of peace and prosperity. In this letter to an English correspondent, the inventor Robert Fulton (1765-1815) discusses the economic advantages of free trade, which he regards as a panacea for many of the world's problems. In 1807, Fulton successfully demonstrated the commercial practicality of steam navigation. In that year, he sailed a 160-ton side-wheeler, the Clermont, 150 miles from New York City to Albany in just 32 hours. "Fulton's folly" opened a new era of faster and cheaper water transportation, particularly in the South and Mississippi Valley.


I have insisted...that manual labour is true riches, and that there is no true policy but that which tends to multiply the produce of labour, and increase the conveniences of life. I have also asserted that the best means to produce so desirable an effect is by a steady attention to cultivate local advances and encourage home improvements. All this will be better understood on considering the following points. First that all unnecessary war is a waste of manual labor. Second I prove that Foreign oppression and restrictions in trade...are of no advantage to nations but absolutely a loss. It proves that all wars entered for such objects have been unnecessary [and] consequently a waste of manual labour and an injury to society. As a circumstance which is fresh in our memory and well suited to prove the bad application of war or manual labour, I will consider the expense since America [fought for independence from]...England. It is now agreed on all sides that the trade of England has not been diminished by the American independence, nor can it be made to appear that England has lost any one advantage in her commerce by such independence. Consequently the war was unnecessary and millions which it cost England was an actual loss to the nation and burden to the people of at least 6 millions of taxes per year....

From the commencement to the termination of the American War was a space of about 8 years during which time England must have employed in all the departments of War not less than 150 thousand men. This number of Men could with ease construct 2 thousand miles of canal per year at the necessary quantity in about 11 years. Which is not equal to the time spent in the American and present war. It seems almost impossible that an intelligent mind can view this calculation without seeing that home improvement is the real interest of nations and that a free trade will be the consequence of such systems of industry....

What is more important than a perfect free trade in the accomplishment of which a mass of evils will be swept away which have created numerous wars and interrupted the tranquility of nations.... I would ask Englishmen what they are to lose by a free trade?... They will gain perpetual peace with foreign nations, and having the superiority of manufactures they will trade to all countries without interruption, and riches will flow into the England in proportion as her manufactures are superior to that of any other country....

Governors who do not direct their reflections to this end are not only ignorant but wicked, sacrificing the public good to an ignorant ambition which produces nothing but misery with the pity or contempt of thinking and rational men.

Source: Gilder Lehrman Institute

Additional information: Robert Fulton to Earl of Stanhope

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