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America, Russia, hemp, and Napoleon: a study of trade between the United States and Russia, 1783-1814

By Alfred Worcester Crosby


Thesis (Ph.D.)--Boston University.Trade between the United States and Russia has never been given much attention by American historians, particularly by those American historians specializing in studies of our early national period. Therefore, he who would do research on early Russo-American commerce must pore over the manuscript consular and ministerial reports of the American State Department archives, the Massachusetts Historical Society microfilms of the diary and letters of John Quincy Adams, and the manuscript log, letter and account books of the Peabody Museum and Essex Institute of Salem, Massachusetts. In the early national period of the United States no field of economic endeavor except agriculture was of greater importance to our young republic than our overseas trade. The merchant marine was one of the most important tools in the creation of American economic viability and in the reinforcement of the political independence so recently won. Our merchant marine a.n:i our navy could not have operated without Russian imports: iron, sailcloth and -most important of all - hemp and hemp cordage. In the age of sail, hemp was as critically important as is oil today, for hemp cordage was the ligaments and nerves of the sailing ship. Some hemp was raised in the United States, but of such poor quality that when exposed to brine or to salt spray it quickly deteriorated. Most hemp used on American ships was grown in Russia. Russo-American trade was also important in the history of Russia and Europe as a whole. Russia was an ally of Napoleon when he created his Continental System by forbidding his empire and allies to trade with the British. However, Russia's best market was Britain and Britain's best source of essential naval stores was Russia. At the same time, Americans were discovering that the economic warfare between France and Britain was making the ports of all of Europe directly or nearly directly under Napoleon's control very dangerous for American shipping. Even the usually peaceful Danes, for instance, seized several hundred American merchantmen between 1807 and the outbreak of the War of 1812. It was inevitable that Russia, the continental European nation farthest from Napoleon's center of power, would become one of our most important trading partners. In 1811, for example, one tenth of all America's exports went to Russia. It was also inevitable that many Americans would engage in smuggling goods to and from Russia fer the British. And it was inevitable that Britons would disguise their own merchantmen with American flags and papers, and continue direct trade with Russia under false colors. Thus it was that from 1808 through 1812 the foreign flag most commonly seen in Russia's Baltic and White Sea ports was the Stars and Stripes. In the summer of 1811, for instance, a hundred vessels flying the American nag lay in Kronstadt harbor at one time. Napoleon sent demand after demand to Tsar Alexander I to halt all trade with American vessels. All Americans, the Corsican claimed, were either British or sailing on British account. From 1809 through the winter of 1812 Napoleon's ambassadors to Russia, Caulaincourt and Lauriston, fought America's minister to Russia, John Quincy Adams, for Alexander's favor. Adams won, because Alexander knew that the bulk of Russia's foreign trade was now being carried in American bottoms. To sever trade relations with the United States would have had a disastrous effect on Russia's already staggering economy. Probably Russia's lax enforcement of the Continental System against shipping flying the American colors was as important as any other single factor in convincing Napoleon that he must invade Russia, and therefore in bringing the French Einpire to wreck upon the white reefs of the Russian winter of 1812

Topics: Hemp, United States, Russia, International trade, Agriculture
Publisher: Boston University
Year: 1961
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