Tuesday, May 12, 2009
Ograbme, Part I
Some of my readers are familiar with my current book project, "Engines of Diplomacy," a study of the trading posts that the U.S. government operated in Indian country between 1796 and 1822. As part of my research for the book, I've been reading about early nineteenth-century federal trade policy, particularly the restrictions that the U.S. government imposed on trade with Britain in retaliation for Britain's curtailment (through the 1806-07 Orders in Council, which allowed the Royal Navy to seize American ships trading with Europe) of American commercial rights. The American trade restrictions included the Embargo of 1807-09, a total stoppage of trade with the rest of the world (one of its critics called the policy the "Cursed Ograbme"); a non-intercourse act directed against Britain and France; and finally an anti-British non-importation act (1811-12) which ended when Congress finally tired of playing the economic sanctions game and declared war on Britain.
What particularly interested me about all of these trade restrictions, and what I thought might interest my readers, were the various means by which resourceful American merchants tried to evade them - usually by exploiting loopholes in the law. My next few posts will describe some of the more creative evaders.
For instance, the 1807 Embargo law allowed the president to authorize diplomatic voyages to foreign ports. Under color of this exception, the wealthy fur trader John Jacob Astor received permission to take Punqua Wingchong, a Chinese official, back to Canton, along with that eminent officer's personal property. The ostensive mandarin was actually a merchant, who had come to New England in 1807 and been stranded by the Embargo, and his "personal property" consisted mainly of trade goods and bullion to the amount of $50,000, which Astor sent to Canton in Wingchong's ship and exchanged for $200,000 worth of Chinese imports. Thus, Astor was able to continue making profits in the China trade while his competitors were denied permission to leave port. (Kenneth Porter, John Jacob Astor [Cambridge, Mass., 1931], 1:142-150; see also this site.)