Thus it was that at the time of the Revolution many of the consequential fortunes were those of shipowners and were principally concentrated in New England. Some of these dealt in merchandise only, while others made large sums of money by exporting fish, tobacco, corn, rice and timber and lading their ships on the return with negro slaves, for which they found a responsive market in the South. Many of the members of the Continental Congress were ship merchants, or inherited their fortunes from rich shippers, as, for instance, Samuel Adams, Robert Morris, Henry Laurens of Charleston, S. C., John Hancock, whose fortune of $350,000 came from his uncle Thomas, Francis Lewis of New York and Joseph Hewes of North Carolina. Others were members of various Constitutional conventions or became high officials in the Federal or State governments. The Revolution disrupted and almost destroyed the colonial shipping, and trade remained stagnant.


Not wholly so, for the hazardous venture of privateering offered great returns. George Cabot of Boston was the son of an opulent shipowner. During the Revolution, George, with his brother swept the coast with twenty privateers carrying from sixteen to twenty guns each. For four or five years their booty was rich and heavy, but toward the end of the war, British gun-boats swooped on most of their craft and the brothers lost heavily. George subsequently became a United States Senator. Israel Thorndike, who began life as a cooper’s apprentice and died in 1832 at the age of 75, leaving a fortune, „the greatest that has ever been left in New England,”[40] made large sums of money as part owner and commander of a privateer which made many successful cruises. With this money he went into fisheries, foreign commerce and real estate, and later into manufacturing establishments. One of the towering rich men of the day, we are told that „his investments in real estate, shipping or factories were wonderfully judicious and hundreds watched his movements, believing his pathway was safe.” The fortune he bequeathed was ranked as immense. To each of his three sons he left about $500,000 each, and other sums to another son, and to his widow and daughters. In all, the legacies to the surviving members of his family amounted to about $1,800,000.[41]

Another „distinguished merchant,” as he was styled, to take up privateering was Nathaniel Tracy, the son of a Newburyport merchant. College bred, as were most of the sons of rich merchants, he started out at the age of 25 with a number of privateers, and for many years returned flushed with prizes. To quote his appreciative biographer: „He lived in a most magnificent style, having several country seats or large farms with elegant summer houses and fine fish ponds, and all those matters of convenience or taste that a British nobleman might think necessary to his rank and happiness. His horses were of the choicest kind and his coaches of the most splendid make.” But alas! this gorgeous career was abruptly dispelled when unfeeling British frigates and gun-boats hooked in his saucy privateers and Tracy stood quite ruined.

Much more fortunate was Joseph Peabody. As a young man Peabody enlisted as an officer on Derby’s privateer „Bunker Hill.” His second cruise was on Cabot’s privateer „Pilgrim” which captured a richly cargoed British merchantman. Returning to shore he studied for an education, later resuming the privateer deck. Some of his exploits, as narrated by George Atkinson Ward in „Hunt’s Lives of American Merchants,” published in 1856, were thrilling enough to have found a deserved place in a gory novel. With the money made as his share of the various prizes, he bought a vessel which he commanded himself, and he personally made sundry voyages to Europe and the West Indies. By 1791 he had amassed a large fortune. There was no further need of his going to sea; he was now a great merchant and could pay others to take charge of his ships. These increased to such an extent that he built in Salem and owned eighty-three ships which he freighted and dispatched to every known part of the world. Seven thousand seamen were in his employ. His vessels were known in Calcutta, Canton, Sumatra, St. Petersburg and dozens of other ports. They came back with cargoes which were distributed by coasting vessels among the various American ports. It was with wonderment that his contemporaries spoke of his paying an aggregate of about $200,000 in State, county and city taxes in Salem, where he lived.[42] He died on Jan. 5, 1844, aged 84 years.

Asa Clapp, who at his death in 1848, at the age of 85 years, was credited with being the richest man in Maine,[43] began his career during the Revolution as an officer on a privateer. After the war he commanded various trading vessels, and in 1796 established a shipping business of his own, with headquarters at Portland. His vessels traded with Europe, the East and West Indies and South America. In his later years he went into banking. Of the size of his fortune we are left in ignorance.


These are instances of rich men whose original capital came from privateering, which was recognized as a legitimate method of reprisal. As to the inception of the fortunes of other prominent capitalists of the period, few details are extant in the cases of most of them. Of the antecedents and life of Thomas Russell, a Boston shipper, who died in 1796, „supposedly leaving the largest amount of property which up to that time had been accumulated in New England,” little is known. The extent of his fortune cannot be learned. Russell was one of the first, after the Revolution, to engage in trade with Russia, and drove many a hard bargain. He built a stately mansion in Charleston and daily traveled to Boston in a coach drawn by four black horses. In business he was inflexible; trade considerations aside he was an alms-giver. Of Cyrus Butler, another shipowner and trader, who, according to one authority, was probably the richest man in New England[44] – and who, according to the statement of another publication[45] – left a fortune estimated at from three to four millions of dollars, few details likewise are known. He was the son of Samuel Butler, a shoemaker who removed from Edgartown, Mass., to Providence about 1750 and became a merchant and shipowner. Cyrus followed in his steps. When this millionaire died at the age of 82 in 1849, the size of his fortune excited wonderment throughout New England. It may be here noted as a fact worthy of comment that of the group of hale rich shipowners there were few who did not live to be octogenarians.

The rapidity with which large fortunes were made was not a riddle. Labor was cheap and unorganized, and the profits of trade were enormous. According to Weeden the customary profits at the close of the eighteenth century on muslins and calicoes were one hundred per cent. Cargoes of coffee sometimes yielded three or four times that amount. Weeden instances one shipment of plain glass tumblers costing less than $1,000 which sold for $12,000 in the Isle of France.[46]

The prospects of a dazzling fortune, speedily reaped, instigated owners of capital to take the most perilous chances. Decayed ships, superficially patched up, were often sent out on the chance that luck and skill would get them through the voyage and yield fortunes. Crew after crew was sacrificed to this frenzied rush for money, but nothing was thought of it. Again, there were examples of almost incredible temerity. In his biography of Peter Charndon Brooks, one of the principal merchants of the day, and his father-in-law, Edward Everett tells of a ship sailing from Calcutta to Boston with a youth of nineteen in command. Why or how this boy was placed in charge is not explained. This juvenile captain had nothing in the way of a chart on board except a small map of the world in Guthrie’s Geography. He made the trip successfully. Later, when he became a rich Boston banker, the tale of this feat was one of the proud annals of his life and, if true, deservedly so.[47]

Whitney’s notable invention of the cotton gin in 1793 had given a stupendous impetus to cotton growing in the Southern States. As the shipowners were chiefly centered in New England the export of this staple vastly increased their trade and fortunes. It might be thought, parenthetically, that Whitney himself should have made a surpassing fortune from an invention which brought millions of dollars to planters and traders. But his inventive ability and perseverance, at least in his creation of the cotton gin, brought him little more than a multitude of infringements upon his patent, refusals to pay him, and vexatious and expensive litigation to sustain his rights.[48] In despair, he turned, in 1808, to the manufacture in New Haven of fire-arms for the Government, and from this business managed to get a fortune. From the Canton and Calcutta trade Thomas Handasyd Perkins, a Boston shipper, extracted a fortune of $2,000,000. His ships made thirty voyages around the world. This merchant peer lived to the venerable age of 90; when he passed away in 1854 his fortune, although intact, had shrunken to modest proportions compared with a few others which had sprung up. James Lloyd, a partner of Perkins’, likewise profited; in 1808 he was elected a United States Senator and later reëlected.

William Gray, described as „one of the most successful of American merchants,” and as one who was considered and taxed in Salem „as one of the wealthiest men in the place, where there were several of the largest fortunes that could be found in the United States,” owned, in his heyday, more than sixty sail of vessels. Some scant details are obtainable as to the career and personality of this moneyed colossus of his day. He began as an apprenticed mechanic. For more than fifty years he rose at dawn and was shaved and dressed. His letters and papers were then spread before him and the day’s business was begun. At his death in 1825 no inventory of his estate was taken. The present millions of the Brown fortune of Rhode Island came largely from the trading activities of Nicholas Brown and the accretions of which increased population and values have brought. Nicholas Brown was born in Providence in 1760, of a well-to-do father. He went to Rhode Island College (later named in his honor by reason of his gifts) and greatly increased his fortune in the shipping trade.

It is quite needless, however, to give further instances in support of the statement that nearly all the large active fortunes of the latter part of the eighteenth and the early period of the nineteenth century, came from the shipping trade and were mainly concentrated in New England. The proceeds of these fortunes frequently were put into factories, canals, turnpikes and later into railroads, telegraph lines and express companies. Seldom, however, has the money thus employed really gone to the descendants of the men who amassed it, but has since passed over to men who, by superior cunning, have contrived to get the wealth into their own hands. This statement is an anticipation of facts that will be more cognate in subsequent chapters, but may be appropriately referred to here. There were some exceptions to the general condition of the large fortunes from shipping being compactly held in New England. Thomas Pym Cope, a Philadelphia Quaker, did a brisk shipping trade, and founded the first regular line of packets between Philadelphia and Baltimore; with the money thus made he went into canal and railroad enterprises. And in New York and other ports there were a number of shippers who made fortunes of several millions each.


Obviously these millionaires created nothing except the enterprise of distributing products made by the toil and skill of millions of workers the world over. But while the workers made these products their sole share was meager wages, barely sufficient to sustain the ordinary demands of life. Moreover, the workers of one country were compelled to pay exorbitant prices for the goods turned out by the workers of other countries. The shippers who stood as middlemen between the workers of the different countries reaped the great rewards. Nevertheless, it should not be overlooked that the shippers played their distinct and useful part in their time and age, the spirit of which was intensely ultra-competitive and individualistic in the most sordid sense.


[40] „Hunt’s Merchant’s Magazine,” 11:516-517.

[41] Allen’s „Biographical Dictionary,” Edition of 1857:791.

[42] Hunt’s „Lives of American Merchants”:382.

[43] Allen’s „Biographical Dictionary,” Edit. of 1857:227.

[44] Stryker’s „American Register” for 1849:241.

[45] „The American Almanac” for 1850:324.

[46] „An Economic and Social History of New England,” 11:825.

[47] Hunt’s „Lives of American Merchants”:139.

[48] Life of Eli Whitney, „Our Great Benefactors”:567.

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