The Commercial Relations between the North and South
New York Times, December 7, 1860
It is often said that the apprehension of danger is worse than the danger itself. It is not easy to say what evils would follow a dissolution of the Union,—but they could scarcely be more serious than the general fear of that event has already caused to our business interests. Our people have been told so often by the Herald and other political or professional alarmists, that our commerce, which is our life, will be utterly destroyed by disunion,—that our Shipping, with all its incidental branches of employment, will be instantly transferred to Southern ports, and that property of all kinds will fall to one-fourth of its present value, that they have actually come to believe it. And many of them seem already inclined to sell their property in Railroads, Real Estate, Banks, &c. at almost any sacrifice rather than risk the threatened depreciation.
We believe these apprehensions to be greatly exaggerated. And it may not be wholly useless to set forth the grounds on which this belief is based. We propose, therefore, to discuss, at some length, the whole question of the commercial relations between the North and South; to see upon what they are based; how they are to be influenced by a change of political relations, and to estimate the effect or value to ourselves, in dollars and cents, of the threatened rupture.
And what are these relations? The Southern States are exclusively devoted to production, from the soil, of two or three staples, relying upon the North for ships with which to distribute them, and for the greater portion of whatever enters into their domestic economy. In other words, they make New-York their principal factor for the distribution and sale of their products, and for the purchase of such articles as they may stand in need of. New-York was selected to this office, not, primarily, from her own choice, but because, from her position, skill, industry and wealth, she could fulfill its duties better than any other agent. She stands in similar relations to the whole country, and, by virtue of her advantages, imports for the whole; is the seat of its moneychangers; of its pleasures; and is, in fact, the great heart whose pulsations send life and energy into the commercial and industrial operations of the country in all their extended ramifications.
But a certain portion of the people threaten to change this commercial order, or system, which is but a sequence, or result of natural laws; to destroy all our wealth and greatness at a blow, and by a simple act o f volition to transfer it to other ports and plant it in other soils.
In determining whether this can be done, the first thing to be considered is the basis upon which our present supremacy rests. The primary ground is undoubtedly that of position—on the best harbor in the country, the most convenient of access from the interior as well as our coast line, and lying on the exact parallel where soil and climate combine to produce the best results of which man is capable; so far south as to be unobstructed by snow and ice in Winter, and far enough north to be, in the Summer, just outside the line of the yellow fever—that inexorable enemy which has forever forbidden the existence, south of Baltimore, of a city in which can be harmoniously blended all the elements necessary to constitute a great metropolis. It has a climate salubrious all the year around; one in which the manufacturer can ply his trade without ceasing, and the merchant always remain in safety at his desk or counting-house. No ship has to avoid us to escape epidemics annually occurring, or go elsewhere to be manned, fitted out or repaired.
Such are some of the natural advantages of New-York. Her artificial works are on a corresponding scale. In neither has she a rival or a parallel. For a few dollars the ton she collects within her spacious harbor, the products of the most distant interior, which in turn she supplies. It is these advantages that have rendered her the convenient point for the distribution of our domestic products and foreign merchandise, and which have brought to us South Carolina on the one hand, and Illinois and Maine on the other. They come to us quite as much for their advantage as our own; and more—because within New-York is collected the greater part of the available capital of the country, which is sought to carry forward business and enterprises in every portion of it. When New-York withholds supplies all these enterprises come to a dead stand.
If the relations of the past have resulted from the mutuality of interests, why should they not for the same reason continue? With the progress of the country each portion becomes the more necessary and valuable to the other. The vast population of New-York creates an excellent market for the most distant West, and on the other hand every year is adding to its means for performing more cheaply and expeditiously her office of general factor. There is no suggestion that a single advantage, of all that have drawn the country to us, is to be lost or even weakened. On the contrary, the experience of every day only tends to strengthen and confirm them.
How, then, is New-York to lose its Southern trade? If at all, from political considerations alone. South Carolina says, I do not like your political sentiments, and will have nothing to do with you. She is not as tolerant as the Jew who would buy and sell with the Christian, but not eat or drink with him. But will, or can she deliberately persist in any course in violation of her own interest? No! The thing is impossible. It has not an example in all history. If there be a law unerring in its action, and firmly engraved upon the popular mind, it is that men will sell in the dearest market and buy in the cheapest, and will always take the shortest and most convenient method to accomplish their ends. South Carolina can no more stay away from us than matter can refuse to obey the laws of gravity, which is not a whit stronger in its way than is the law of self-interest with the individual.
South Carolina starts upon the assumption that upon ignoring the North, she is going to construct a commercial system of her own; send her products to Europe; bring back the proceeds in her own bottoms and make her cities great depots of commerce rivaling New-York. In this way she is to keep her wealth at home, and throw off a dependence which she asserts has sapped her means, and placed her in a state of humiliating vassalage. Let us look at the practicability of such a scheme.
In the first place, if the South succeed with the programme laid down, it will be the first success of the kind recorded. Success such as New-York has achieved in commerce, and New-England in commerce and manufactures, does not proceed from any preconceived method, but is the simple unfolding or development of certain aptitudes or faculties which seek gratification or employment in the line of their own inclinations. There is no other success. If there were—if it were to be found in resolutions, in party zeal, and extravagant boastings, Charleston would now be immeasurably ahead of New-York in every particular. For some fifteen weary years have great Commercial Conventions been held at various points in the Southern States, where annually it has been resolved that the South ought to become a great manufacturing and commercial people—that she should become such—the methods and results being fully laid down. At the appointed place of meeting the present year, when, if ever, their very millen[n]ium is drawing near, not a soul appeared! Now, during all this period, did these Conventions, which collected the foremost minds of the South, exert the slightest tendency to promote their objects? Did they inspire a love of industry and subordination, or of maritime adventure in the soul of a single Southron?
Not one. From their sounding manifestoes and barren results they became a laughing-stock at home, so that for the last few years they only served as occasions for the Yanceys and De Bows to paint the beauties of the Slave-trade, and the excellency of a Southern Confederacy.
But suppose, to carry out its plans of independence of the North, the South commences the construction of ships, using the timber which she now exports to the State of Maine, what would be the result? Why, a ship constructed at Charleston would cost fully a third more than at Portland or Bath, and not half so well built at that. They have plenty of timber at the South, but neither skill nor industry qualifying them for ship-building. If they should seek to import these qualities, the malaria which is constantly exhaled from the lowlands which skirt the whole sea-coast from the Chesapeake to the Rio Grande, would be a complete bar to all such attempts. The unacclimated white man can labor in Southern seaports only a portion of the year. No great enterprises can be carried on under such conditions. Southern built ships, consequently, could never come in competition with Eastern built. From the lower cost and superior management of the latter, the former would have to lay up, or be run without profits; for we take it there is not much doubt that the purchaser of the cotton would patronize the cheapest carrier. How long, with such a result, would it be before a second southern ship would be built, or commercial independence reached?
Northern people make sailors, because their genius inclines them in that direction. The boy goes aboard a ship, with the resolution in a few years to command it. There are plenty of competitors for such a prize. In the South there are no such aspirations, nor any class of which sailors can be made. All useful labor is performed by slaves, with whom the forecastle would hardly be trusted. The poor whites have too little energy or ambition for such a profession. If the whole commercial marine of the United States were given to the South on condition that they were to man and run it, it would in one years time be found idle or rotting in their harbors. After a few big speeches and convulsive efforts, the whole thing would be given up. The South never has sent, and never can send its cotton to Europe in its own bottoms. It could not do so without a loss greater than the whole cost of transportation. Nobody would buy their cargoes except at a dead loss to themselves. The Yankee skipper who understood his business, from the laying of the kelson to the last coat of paint, would always be spoiling the market, till he drove all Southern competition fairly out of it. It would be a contest in which the most thorough training in the school of necessity, and in a profession exactly suiting the inclinations of the Northern rival, would be brought to bear against those enervated by climate, who, without the slightest qualifications, were seeking to realize an independence of which people are very apt to dream who have not an idea of what real independence costs. We shall, then, continue to carry Southern cotton, except in case of war, precisely as we have done, and so long as we can underbid competitors to the extent of a cent a bale. After the gusts of passion have subsided, this cent will always place us on as good terms with our Southern brethren as have ever existed between us.
We shall hereafter discuss other relations of this general subject,and we think there will be very little difficulty in arriving at the same conclusion.