Prior to 1860, all the great fortunes of the country had come from the sea, and so, inevitably, from the earliest days and until the glory of the American merchant marine had passed away, ships and shipping were the most conspicuous feature of New York business life, and the water front was the centre of interest. — The Bank of Manhattan, 1915 Ships and Shipping of Old New York (New York: Bank of Manhattan Company, 1915), 38-9.
A corrected version of this essay has been published in Quaker History, copyright © 2019 Friends Historical Association
Walt Whitman's recurrent references to Quakers and Quakerism aligned him with impressive economic forces behind the rise of New York. The greatest role for Friends in the triumph of the New York Seaport was the introduction of the packet-shipping scheme by English immigrant Jeremiah Thompson in 1818, an innovation so revolutionary that it helped transform Manhattan into the nation’s commercial center. “To a Yorkshireman, New York owes much,” wrote Robert G Albion in 1939, “It was through his initiative that the city prospered so much from two other British projects — the inception of the transatlantic packet service, and the ‘Cotton Triangle’ to provide return cargoes for the packets.”Robert G Albion The Rise of New York Port (New York: Charles Scribner’s Son, 1970), xvi.
By the time that Friends introduced fixed schedules for square-riggers, however, they had already taken an instrumental role in establishing the colonial Port’s financial and philanthropic infrastructures, as we shall see momentarily. Quaker influence on transatlantic navigation, however, actually began with a far-ranging contribution to the merchant marine: the discovery of the Gulf Stream by whalers. Their findings were communicated to Benjamin Franklin by his cousin, Nantucket Quaker Timothy Folger. In 1768, while he was managing the American post office in London, Franklin learned that mail packets between Falmouth and New York were generally a fortnight longer than voyages from London to Rhode Island. When Franklin expressed his skepticism that such was possible to Folger, the whaling captain replied that Rhode-Island captains were acquainted with the Gulf Stream, but English captains were not. Friends informed these packets that they were fighting a current running at three miles an hour, and advised them to get out of it, but they were “too wise to be counselled by simple American fishermen,” grumbled Folger. Benjamin Franklin appreciated that a vessel from Europe to North America could easily shorten her passage by avoiding the current, and a vessel from America to Europe could just as easily improve her speed by remaining inside it, using an overboard thermometer to detect the stream’s Gulf warmth. Franklin then asked Folger to design a chart to benefit navigation. When his chart was first distributed, English sailors again dismissed the advice, but after engravings of the map returned from France, there began a revolution in Atlantic commerce. Benjamin Franklin “Containing Sundry Maritime Observations” and “Gulph Stream” in: The Complete Works, in Philosophy, Politics, and Morals, of the Late Dr. Benjamin Franklin: Now First Collected and Arranged: with Memoirs of His Early Life, Written by Himself; in Three Volumes, vol 2 (London: J Johnson, and Longman, Hurst, Rees and Orme, 1806), 162-205
At the time, Philadelphia was the nation’s largest city, with an estimated population of 40,000, and New York was the next largest, at roughly 25,000. Lawrence Yun “Largest Cities in the United States in 1776, and in 2076” http://economistsoutlook.blogs.realtor.org/2012/07/03/largest-cities-in-the-united-states-in-1776-and-in-2076/ To a significant degree, the future development of this seagoing rival depended upon prosperous merchants from the Quaker quarter, near Manhattan’s early Pearl Street Friends Meeting; most notably, Walter Franklin and Robert Murray. Members of the Religious Society of Friends, recalled Rufus Wilmot Grisworld in 1856, could be found as far out as Chatham Street, and the more affluent families settled as far south as Maiden Lane: “the Pearsalls, the Pryors, the Embrees, the Effinghams, the Hickses, the Hawxhursts, the Hulletts, the Havilands, the Cornells, the Kenyons, the Townsends, the Tituses, the Willetts, the Wrights...”Rufus Wilmot Griswold The Republican Court Or American Society in the Days of Washington (New York: D Appleton and Company, 1856), note page 33 Pearl Street Meeting hosted worship and the concomitant social networking of Friends until its demolition in 1829. James Hardie The Description of the City of New York (New York: Samuel Marks, 1827), 163. See also: “Friends in New York City” Friends Intelligencer, vol 45 (1888), 779 Eventually, the Meeting’s location at the intersection of Pearl, Cherry, and Dover Streets would be named Franklin Square; not, as is commonly believed, for Benjamin Franklin, but for Walter Franklin, a wealthy merchant whose magnificent gardens were originally planted at this spot.
Friends of the Chamber of Commerce
Walter Franklin was born in 1727, the oldest child of Thomas Franklin and Mary Pearsall, from whom he inherited a fortune. He invested his windfall in trade with China, Russia, and other exotic marketplaces. Upon his retirement, he lived in the “style of a nobleman,” driven hither and thither in an “elegant chariot,” in an era in which private coaches were still rare in the city. Samuel Rhoades Franklin Memories of a Rear-admiral (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1898), 5. John Furey, “Some Catholic Names in the United States Navy List” [Catholic] Historical Records and Studies, vol 6, Part 1, 1911
The Pearl Street Meeting House was situated directly behind Franklin’s mansion. His home was regarded in those days as “perhaps the finest house in New York.” A fitting place, later on, for the first President of the United States to reside, when the nation’s capitol was still in New York City. Cementing the status of the Franklin dynasty, one of Walter Franklin’s daughters married DeWitt Clinton: United States Senator, Mayor of New York City, and sixth Governor of New York.
In 1753, leaving behind a Quaker community in North Carolina, Robert Murray arrived in New York. Shipowner, dockowner, freight broker, indigo importer, insurance executive, and whaling speculator, like Franklin, he profited greatly from the Seven Years’ War between Britain and France. On the other hand, some of the tea dumped into the Boston harbor during the Tea Party protest belonged to Murray. Charles Monaghan “The Murrays of Murray Hill” Quaker History, vol 87, no. 1 (Spring 1998), 35-56. Hugh Barbour, Christopher Densmore, Robert Winternitz, and Peter Wosh “City Philanthropists and Social Concerns 1787 – 1857” Quaker Crosscurrents (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1995), 77. Robert Murray’s personal estate, called Inclenberg, or Belmont, vied with Franklin’s for the title of Manhattan’s most fashionable digs, and today, the neighborhood is still known as Murray Hill. In 1768, Robert Murray united with Walter Franklin, among other Friends, to establish the New York Chamber of Commerce. During this time, he also served on the most powerful of the Yearly Meeting’s committees, the Meeting for Sufferings. His brother John was another vital figure in civic affairs. Yet another contemporary who represented the power of Friendly commerce, culture, and social concerns was Thomas Eddy. Eddy is far better known to Quaker historians, because of his prominence as a gospel minister, as well as an adversary to Elias Hicks, and therefore we shall not describe him here. Barbour et al, 79-85.
Consider now Robert Bowne, grandson of John Bowne of “Flushing Remonstrance” fame. In 1775, he left rural Flushing for a career in the infant metropolis. His storefront displayed stationery, printer’s supplies, cloth, cutlery, and, in particular, furs. Prosperity enabled to him to serve as one of the first directors of the Bank of New York and as a governor of New York Hospital. In 1784, he was among the founders of the New York Chamber of Commerce, alongside Franklin and Murray. The era’s archives routinely show the same handful of Quaker names turning up in voluntary societies and also “on a project that neatly combined Friends’ skills in finance and philanthropy, the New-York Savings Bank, spun off from the Society for the Prevention of Pauperism.” Barbour et al, 78 Robert Bowne’s example and influence, it was recalled, helped to establish the city’s early ethic of philanthropy. Memoir of Robert Bowne Minturn (New York: D Anson, F Randolph, and Company, 1871). “Of Men and Dreams” https://www.robertbownefoundation.org/ofmenanddreams.php In addition to his charitable activity, perhaps his most significant historical role was in lobbying state legislators with a radical plan to expand the economy. DeWitt Clinton honored the late Canal Commissioner Bowne as an influential advocate for the epochal Erie Canal, owing to his “wise counsels” and “intelligent views.” The firm which Robert Bowne founded exists to this very day — the oldest company listed on the New York Stock Exchange.
Bowne’s grandson, Robert Bowne Minturn, continued the family’s shipping pedigree by founding Grinnell, Minturn, & Company. Minturn served as a member of the US Congress, as a president of the New York Chamber of Commerce, and president of the Phoenix Bank, as well as Collector of Customs at the port of New York. Originally engaged in the lucrative China trade, Grinnell, Minturn, & Company subsequently became universally known in 1851 for their clipper ship “Flying Cloud,” the fastest ship to sail from New York to San Francisco — a record unbroken for twenty-three years. Minturn was one of the founders of the Mutual Fire Insurance Company of New York, and according to legend, he purchased many slaves for the purpose of setting them free. He also acted as Commissioner of Emigration in 1847, during the Irish potato famine. George W Sheldon “Old Shipping Merchants of New York” Harper's New Monthly Magazine, vol 84 (February, 1892), 457-471. Central Park was created, in part, from land donated by Minturn. Edmund A. Stanley Of Men and Dreams (New York: Bowne, 1975). Like countless other social climbers, he left the faith of his ancestors to join the Episcopalian Church. Memoir of Robert Bowne Minturn
Millionaires & Quaker Mentorship
Turning now from Bowne’s grandson and back to Robert Bowne himself, his legacy as an adviser to young or failed businessmen was something remarkable. He was the first to mentor a short, brawny young German immigrant named John Jacob Astor, whose physical strength suited him to a start as a stevedore and a “beater” of furs. Beating furs was not, as assumed by historians, intended to remove vermin, but rather, to drive powdered dye into the roots of the hairs. Insisting that Astor call him “Robert,” Bowne boarded young Astor in his own house, made him a clerk, and in 1785, awarded him with a silver pocketwatch. Elbert Hubbard John Jacob Astor (East Aurora, N.Y. : The Roycrofters, 1909) When Bowne sent him to trade for furs in Canada, Astor began his gradual climb to the era’s greatest wealth. For reasons lost to history, young Astor soon left Bowne for a partnership with furrier William Backhouse, another Quaker, and another member of the Board of Governors for New York Hospital.
Friend Backhouse lived in a house at 57 Wall Street which was already old during the American Revolution. There he hosted boarders of a “high class,” accordingly, charging “rather high.” Over the years, dozens of New York’s first merchants resided there. During the 1780s, he was on the board of the Chamber of Commerce, along with Friends William Laight and Robert Murray. By 1790, he was a partner with William Laight. Joseph Alfred Scoville The Old Merchants of New York City: Second Series (New York: Carleton, 1863), 264 Although John Jacob Astor never displayed any particular interest in Quakerism per se, he was so grateful to Backhouse that he named a son after him.
The other immigrant lucky enough to tap into the flush of Friendly finances through Backhouse’s mentorship was Cornelius Heeney. Arriving in Philadelphia from Ireland in 1784, he entered what was then, along with Boston, the nation’s premier seaport, but his vessel was struck by lightning, and an oyster boat was obliged to rescue the passengers from the wreck. Heeney was unable to pay the dollar fee that the rescuer demanded from the passengers, but a Quaker (now-nameless) paid it for him. Urban myth insists that his obsession with the Society began at that moment: “henceforth all through his life he entertained a high esteem for the Quakers, and would never permit a disparaging reference to the sect in his presence, to pass unrebuked.” Henry Reed Stiles A History of the City of Brooklyn, vol 3 (Brooklyn: privately printed, 1870) Lifelong a staunch Catholic, Heeney’s flamboyant and paradoxical adoption of obsolete Quaker garb would never be forgotten; indeed, later journalists — unable to understand how the late Heeney had reconciled a Quaker’s freedom of conscience with the strict catechism of the Church, not to mention the Society of Friends’ ingrained antipathy to “priestcraft,” given the papist hierarchy of Roman Catholicism — wryly referred to him as a Catholic Quaker.
After he landed in the Quaker City, a lumber merchant named Mead gave the young Irishman his first job, but during his time in Friend Mead’s lumberyard, a fellow clerk advised Heeney to seek his fortune in New York, where he soon impressed Friend Backhouse, and was hired to work alongside Astor, as an accountant. The Backhouse fur company was based in Britain, where Backhouse intended to retire. Once Astor and Heeney purchased the company, Astor visited England for a year. Practically as soon he returned, Astor and Heeney argued over money. While Heeney was a skilled bookeeper, Astor was illiterate and poorly prepared for business management. Unable to make sense of the books, he accused Heeney of embezzlement. Heeney then effectively split the lucrative Canadian fur enterprise with Astor, going into business alone, and his fortunes rose in parallel with Astor’s, although never to the same dizzying degree. Eventually, though in Brooklyn, rather than Manhattan, Heeney followed the example of generous philanthropy so well established by New York Friends.
A Web of Financial Partnerships
While educated Americans readily recognize the “Peaceable Kingdom” painter, Edward Hicks, and students of Quaker history recognize the controversial theologian Elias Hicks, almost no one today is aware of their influential cousin, Isaac Hicks. Long Island Hickses were the progeny of the early Hempstead pioneer, Thomas Hicks, born 1640. One of Thomas’s sons, Jacob, became the grandfather of Elias Hicks. Thomas’s other son, Isaac Hicks, left rural Long Island to seek his fortune in the seaport, alongside other kin such as Samuel and Willet Hicks. He started small, with a grocery in the city’s farmer’s market, Fly Market, where Maiden Lane approached the waterfront. Isaac’s store not only specifically addressed the provisioning needs of departing ships, but his own relationship with the customers was of a rather intimate nature: after he drew his shutters closed and dusted his goods, one might find him seated cross-legged on his rear counter, sewing up a sea captain’s trousers. Robert A Davison Isaac Hicks: New York Merchant and Quaker, 1767-1820 (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1964)
Isaac transitioned from selling to Nantucket whalers to purchasing from them. Whaling captains sent sloops from Nantucket to Fly Market to sell their products. Hicks offered to act as a commission agent for these goods, freeing the whaling sloops to return to Nantucket for more cargo. Prior to the year 1800, he became “one of the wealthiest merchants of New York. He said that he never owned a ship until he was worth a hundred thousand dollars, but he afterwards owned many ships.” Thomas Clapp Cornell Adam and Anne Mott: Their Ancestors and Their Descendants (Poughkeepsie: AV Haight, 1890), 374
Once Isaac Hicks was able to hire clerks, they boarded with him in classic period fashion, eating an early breakfast by candlelight in order to insure that that store was always open at dawn. His kindness and generosity towards employees was legendary. One of these clerks later went on to fame and infamy: the future elite financier, Friend Jacob Barker. Having tapped into the commercial heart of the Nantucket-Manhattan axis, Isaac Hicks made his first fortune selling whalebone, oil, and spermacetti, until that business fell off, circa 1800. He then became a broker and wholesaler of imported dry goods, and finally, a prominent banking and insurance executive, before retiring to Westbury, Long Island at the early age of 38. Isaac accompanied Elias on some of his famous missions into what was then the Far West; territories such as Ohio. Davison has explained how Elias Hicks’s traveling ministry spun not only a religious network linking New York with Philadelphia and Nantucket, but a powerful, albeit subliminal, web of financial partnerships with such merchants, whalers, and shippers as “Henry Drinker, Joshua and Miers Fisher of Philadelphia, Samuel Rodman, William and Thomas Rotch of New Bedford and Nantucket.” Davison, 56 Isaac Hicks died of a heart attack at the age of 57, leaving old Elias to mourn his passing.
All the Captains Loved Him
Despite their testimonies against slavery, some Friends of the seaport could not have possibly been any more heavily engaged in the Cotton Triangle. Ports such as Savannah, Charleston, Mobile, or New Orleans connected with New York, and then New York connected with Liverpool, in this open-ended triangle. Initially, the Cotton Triangle was served by “transient” or “tramp” ships, which had no established “line” between ports, and which ran on no regular timetable. Rather, they accepted whatever sufficiently lucrative destinations they were offered, leaving port after their holds filled with freight, but not until the weather was favorable. The innovation of packet shipping by Quakers Jeremiah Thompson and Isaac Wright — a truly daring scheme to leave on a fixed schedule, regardless of tonnage or weather — would put an end to such delays and uncertainties. The term “packet” was a reference to the leather mail pouches used for international mail.
Both the tramps and the packets principally imported manufactured goods from Great Britain. England’s financial infrastructure and factories were far superior to America’s. English firms were also willing to sell at a loss, on occasion, to frustrate American competition. Since Northern manufacturers could not supply enough products to compensate for this trade imbalance, the merchants of Old New York relied upon coastal tramps to convey raw cotton and naval stores (such as turpentine, rosin, pitch, and tar) from the South. Exported from Gotham by the merchant marine, these raw materials found a ready market in Europe. Indeed, cotton, the cheap product of slave labor, became America’s most important export.
Fact-checking was no staple of journalism in Victorian America; therefore it is not feasible to perfectly resolve competing tales about how four English Quakers, together with their English colleague Benjamin Marshall, revolutionized the merchant marine with packet shipping. But we know that the story begins in the 1790s, about the time the United States government itself was forming. The first arrival among the five immigrants who would eventually launch the Black Ball Line seems to have been Isaac Wright. He began as a neighborhood blacksmith, but found that importing iron goods from Great Britain was more lucrative. “Jeremiah Thompson” Neptune’s Needle (online) http://neptunesneedle.wikischolars.columbia.edu/Thompson,+Jeremiah One legend describes Isaac and his son William as “Quakers of great intelligence, and of a high character,” Joseph Alfred Scoville The Old Merchants of New York City, vol 4 (New York: Carleton, 1866), 217 and claims that Wright hailed from Long Island, but in 1892, he was identified as an immigrant from Sheffield.Sheldon, George W. “The Old Shipping Merchants of New York” Harper's Magazine, vol 84, 1892, 462 In 1798, a fellow Yorkshireman, Francis Thompson, arrived in New York City to sell his family’s woolen products, and in 1801, Jeremiah Thompson joined him. The early accounts often refer to Francis and Jeremiah as brothers, but Francis was apparently Jeremiah’s paternal uncle. Albion, The Rise, 40
Quakers were allowed to marry only within the faith, and Francis Thompson soon married Isaac Wright’s daughter. Francis and Jeremiah then came to occupy Wright’s home in the Stuyvesant mansion, which was located “in the country” of undeveloped Manhattan, at the site of the future Thirteenth Street. This was within walking distance of Isaac Wright’s dry-goods shop on Beekman Street; there was no mass transit at the time, even of the horse-drawn variety. Some claim that Jeremiah married another Wright daughter. Thomas Bassett “Cobbett on Quakers” Quaker History, vol 68, no 1 (Spring 1979), 44-47 Several Victorian accounts, on the other hand — including one by the Victorian-era historian of business Joseph Alfred Scoville, who personally knew Thompson — emphasize that Jeremiah was a lifelong bachelor, and Scoville admired his “large, well-proportioned dimensions, and with all a true specimen of an English Quaker,” recalling that he “kept house and entertained in the most hospitable manner,” adding, “All the captains loved him.” Scoville, 122
In 1803, young Benjamin Marshall and his brother Joseph, while engaged in the sales of English fabrics, landed during a cholera epidemic. Benjamin was not a Friend, but the Wrights and Thompsons invited him to escape the worst risk of the city’s plague in their suburban home. In terms that sound more like a marriage than a business partnership, one antebellum account says that “His acquaintance with these friends ripened into an intimacy, leading to a connection in business which was terminated only by their death.” John Livingston “Benjamin Marshall of New-York” Portraits of Eminent Americans Now Living, vol 3 (New York: Lamport & Company, 1854), 2
After the War of 1812, Benjamin Marshall and Jeremiah Thompson recommenced their suspended import businesses, establishing stores on Pearl Street. Livingston, xxii Commensurate with relaunching his business after its destruction by war, Jeremiah Thompson accepted the role of Clerk of New York Yearly Meeting, a post he held until 1824. Cox, 135 Scoville claimed that among Friends, this was regarded was a position of power analogous to a New York Diocese’s archbishop. In modern Quakerism, the Clerk is viewed as a servant of Meeting, not a leader. Ironically — considering that so much of the cotton wealth Thompson first accrued, and then lost, was the direct beneficiary of Southern slavery — Thompson also acted as secretary of New York’s Manumission Society, which assisted slave-owners in legally freeing their slaves.
With the war’s end, there came a pent-up demand for import goods, and Thompson and Marshall must have conceived the notion of the packet scheme in order to expedite a boom in trade. On October 27, 1817, the New York Commercial Advertiser announced the first regularly-scheduled departures of their new ship, the James Monroe. The packets of the new Black Ball Line would leave on fixed days twice each month from New York and Liverpool, regardless of the weather and whether or not they held much cargo. The Monroe shipped out on January 5, 1818, “in the teeth of a howling nor'easter.”Neptune's Needle Within a few years after a rocky start, the packet business took off like a house on fire.
The Black Ball packets, identified by a big black dot painted on their fore topsails and a swallowtail flag, inspired their own mariner chanteys, such as “Homeward Bound,” “Bullgine Run,” “Hurrah for the Black Ball Line,” and a song which remains familiar even today: “Blow the Man Down.” Given their unprecedented emphasis on speed, it took an especially “bucko,” or vicious, first mate and an especially tough crew to drive these “blood ships” as hard as possible, through all changes in Atlantic weather. These crewmen were known as “packet rats,” and deemed even more scurrilous than the common sailor. In the hands of the police, a packet rat was a likely candidate for A blow with a ﬁst, and then it's a fall, if you're a sailor aboard a Black Ball. WS Birge “The Chantey-Man’s Songs” The National Magazine, vol 46, 1917, 281-285
A Ship Named Amity
But there is a wrinkle to this history, because the simplistic legends of sailing packets gloss over the changes of the ‘Twenties, ‘Thirties, ‘Forties, and ‘Fifties, as sailing ships increasingly struggled against competition from faster, surer, steam liners. Significantly, the tough discipline aboard square-riggers, which increased under economic pressure, was relatively absent when Friends first introduced the concept of liners. “Altogether,” writes Albion, “there seems to have been a progressive deterioration in the character and the behavior of the packet sailor during the period.” He cites the account of Frances Wright, who crossed from Liverpool to New York on the second westbound trip of the Black Baller Amity [The Amity was constructed by the respected Quaker shipbuilder Forman Cheeseman in 1816. John Harrison Morrison History of New York Ship Yards (WF Sametz & Company, 1909), 42] in 1818:
I observed much and often upon the quietness as well as the matchless activity of the crew. No scolding on the part of the captain, nor sulky looks on the part of the men. By the former, authority was exercised with kindness, and (a sure consequence of this) obedience was, by the latter, yielded with good humour and alertness. The ship, indeed, was well named the Amity… Albion, 146
Frances Wright understood the ship’s name, Amity, to be an expression of the Quaker ideal of Brotherly Love. The origin of the name “the Black Ball Line,” however, has never been explained. Of course, the nautical term “line” refers to a fixed path, such as the geodesic line between New York and Liverpool. Today, the term “blackballing” survives as an idiom meaning “ostracism,” ultimately deriving from a time-honored method of secret balloting. One black (negative) ball introduced into any number of white (affirmative) balls is enough to veto the proposition (for example, membership in a gentlemen’s club). It was the perfect physical embodiment of rule by consensus, and therefore, resembles the protocol of Quaker Meeting for Worship with Attention to Business. The most likely explanation is that the five partners — all but one of them being Quaker, and Benjamin Marshall’s wife, Niobe Stanton, was a Quaker — conducted their business by consensus.
The relationship between Jeremiah Thompson and Frances Wright was more than shipowner and passenger. Despite the shock and horror with which many Friends regarded The Red Harlot of Infidelity — going so far as to disown Friends who championed her or her colleague Robert Dale Owen, Ryan P. Jordan Slavery and the Meetinghouse: The Quakers and the Abolitionist Dilemma, 1820-1865 (Indiana University Press, 2007), 12-14 Thompson responded favorably to her request for practical aid for her scandalous free-loving, mixed-race commune, Nashoba. The cotton broker agreed to act as her buying agent, and contributed the first shipment of goods out of his own pocket. Celia Morris Fanny Wright: Rebel in America (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992), 112, 120
Scoville characterized Thompson as the quintessential mind behind a global shipping empire, beginning with his role as the chief importer of English textiles, and then becoming the nation’s most important cotton exporter. Although these shippers kept their thumb on the pulse of national trade, and there was potentially a boundless fortune to be made, the fundamental law of supply and demand still applied to Southern exports and English imports. Price volatility gave rise to rampant speculation, and to the great risk which that entails, especially in the absence of timely transatlantic financial news. The Morse telegraph would not appear until 1844, and the great transatlantic cable was first completed in 1866. The perils of speculation account for the breathtaking rise and fall in Friend Jeremiah’s fortunes, who failed in 1828 while making trades in ignorance of a sudden burst in England’s cotton bubble. Robert Greenhalgh Albion Square-riggers on Schedule: the New York Sailing Packets to England, (Hamden: Archon Books, 1965), 114 Looking back upon these days, Nathaniel Lynne Griswold estimated that only seven out of a hundred merchants ever prospered; the remaining ninety-three percent, he said, went bankrupt. Albion, The Rise, 285-6
Bankruptcy took Thompson from a position of Quaker leadership as a former Clerk of New York Yearly Meeting to disownment by his Monthly Meeting. In those days, a failure to repay debts was arguably the nearest Quaker equivalent to Catholicism’s mortal sin. But it is crucial that we not conceive of Quaker disownment as akin to the draconian Amish practice of shunning. Disownment only meant that Meeting refused to endorse the character of the believer. Disowned Friends frequently continued to be welcome at Meeting for Worship, and, indeed, often pursued this opportunity each First Day. Thompson’s willingness to gamble on cotton proved his undoing: “the crash in the autumn of 1827, [extinguished] his career as a merchant as suddenly as you extinguish a gas chandelier. He lived but a short time afterwards,” concluded Scoville. Scoville, vol 4, 218 Thompson died in 1835.
New York’s second packet company, the Red Star Line, was founded in 1822 by a Quaker outfit known as Byrnes, Trimble, and Company. The firm had long been profitably running tramps hauling Chesapeake Bay flour. One of this firm’s silent partners was yet another Friend, Richard Loines, a sometime partner to Isaac Hicks. Loines’s daughter married Thomas Shipley Byrnes. “At times it is hard to tell whether the marriage resulted from common business interests or, as is more likely, the reverse,” wrote Albion. Albion Square-riggers, 119 Byrnes was a victim of the unremitting Victorian epidemic, tuberculosis: he died aboard a Red Star packet in 1825, and then his shares in the company were purchased by Manhattan merchants related to Elias Hicks: Samuel, John H, and Henry W Hicks.
Charles Dickens captured American pride in her “noble” packets, as well as Friends’ bankruptcies, in his 1842 volume, American Notes, recalling how he (Dickens) wound his way, baking and blistering in the sun, down Wall Street, walking underneath the bowsprits of vessels regarded as the “finest in the world,” — spars which nearly thrust themselves through the shippers’ Wall Street windows. “Many a rapid fortune has been made in this street, and many a no less rapid ruin. Some of these very merchants whom you see hanging about here now, have locked up money in their strong-boxes, like the man in the Arabian Nights, and opening them again, have found but withered leaves.” Charles Dickens American Notes (London: Chapman and Hall, 1842), Chapter 6
New York Is Much Indebted
Dickens was hardly the only outsider keenly appraising Gotham’s merchant marine. Southern businessmen, chafing at any chance to bypass the expensive charges levied by Quaker middlemen, had already expressed their envy over the shipping opportunities which had been denied to them. “New York owes much of her prosperity to the commercial energies of a single individual,” said the Southern Literary Messenger in 1839, alluding to Jeremiah Thompson, who
conceived the beautiful idea of running a line of express ships to and fro across the Atlantic, and thus gave rise to the celebrated packets of New York. As sailers and carriers they have become proverbial among seafaring men on both sides of the Atlantic. For strength, safety, fleetness and beauty; and for a combination of all the requisites of a good ship, in such admirable proportions, no nation can boast of vessels, public or private, comparable to them. They, added to her other resources, gave New York commercial advantages, in the enjoyment of which she has prospered, and is every day growing stronger, more wealthy and great… They control the trade of New York with France and England.
And therefore, to Thompson’s enterprise...
...New York is as much indebted for her prosperity, as the South for hers, to [Eli Whitney’s cotton gin]… The packets have been similar, in their effects, to rail roads and other internal improvements: they have extended business and social relations; opened new channels of commerce; multiplied the demands of trade; and by increasing the facilities of international communication, they have drawn more closely the bonds of peace and friendship with other countries. “Direct Trade with the South” Southern Literary Messenger, vol 5, 1839, 3-12
It is a commonplace (or perhaps an embarrassingly unexamined cliche) that historic Quakers were so prosperous because they made the most trustworthy business partners. But admiration for Friends was periodically contradicted by accusations that Quakers could be crafty, insular, and hard-bargaining. William Cobbett, today known mostly as a defender of Thomas Paine, once lived near the Long Island home of Elias Hicks. Cobbett was a great admirer of hard-working (and decidedly Luddite) rural Friends such as Elias Hicks, but contemptuous of wealthy Quaker middlemen.
Such are the effects of loans, of funds and of paper-money... which in [their] very nature takes the dinner from the poor [white] man and gives it to the rich; takes away his clothing, his bedding, his fuel, makes him a slave ten thousand times more miserable than the slaves in Jamaica. This system has enabled that sly, sleek, meek, money-getting tribe, the Quakers, to suck up no small part of the earnings of the people. Nothing can be more striking than the effects of this system with regard to the Quakers. Its tendency is to draw money into great masses; to create middle men, who hand the produce of the earth about from one to the other; in such a way as to give a profit upon a bushel of wheat to seven or eight of them, before that bushel of wheat gets from the farmer to the consumer. This cunning sect form a large portion of these middle men.
Cobbett, who had previously feuded with Thompson, Albion, Square Riggers, 231-2 was particularly infuriated by the risk-taking, once-wealthy developers of packet shipping, Jeremiah Thompson and Isaac Wright, after their speculations failed:
[That] saintly old blackguard, Isaac Wright… is one of the elders of the meeting at New York, and who is now, God be praised, in a state [of bankruptcy], along with his sons-in-law, the Thompsons of Yorkshire, full as happy as I wish him to be... You far exceed the Jews in point of turpitude, for they do work in certain ways... though they cheat like the Devil, still a considerable part of them do some sort of labour; whereas your whole sect live without labour, and by preying constantly, from the beginning to the end of your lives upon the vitals of all those who labour. William Cobbett “To John Treadwell, Esq., Salisbury Place, Long Island” Cobbett's Political Register, vol 57-58 (1826), 369-373
Having worked extensively as a personal assistant to Jacob Barker (and for years, as a clerk for John Jacob Astor as well), poet Fitz-Greene Halleck was in an excellent position to speak to the matter: “They are the most dangerous of dishonest men. They will never cheat you, not they; but, by the help of plain, friendly, and apparently sincere manners, they will manage so that you will cheat yourself.” James Grant Wilson The Life and Letters of Fritz-Greene Halleck (New York: D Appleton, 1869), 18
Neither Walt Whitman scholars nor Quaker historians have yet to appreciate the crucial role these Friends played in the utter transformation of global shipping, not to mention of New York City, although it is a very familiar story to New York historians — not to mention Whitman's own contemporary readership. This page has attempted to establish awareness of forgotten Quaker roles in the merchant marine, the Erie Canal, finance, philanthropy, and the spectacular development of New York City. A true history of Quaker power in antebellum New York would properly include influential physicians such as Valentine Seaman and his students at New York Hospital, Valentine Mott and John C Cheeseman, James William Beekman Centenary Address Delivered Before the Society of the New York Hospital (New York: The Society of the New York Hospital, 1871), 40 and utopian reformers such as Cornelius Blatchly Sean Wilentz Chants Democratic: New York City and the Rise of the American Working Class, 1788 – 1850 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, Twentieth-Anniversary Edition, 2004), 158-62 and Marcus Spring. “Marcus Spring” (Obituary) New York Times August 22, 1874
But it is best to conclude now with the last considerations given by New York Friends, as the faded recollections of the heady Age of Sail slipped away. William S Wood reminded the new twentieth century that in 1830, when the city’s population was about 90,000, it contained 1826 members of the Society of Friends (about 2 percent of residents). At the turn of the century, New York boasted 1,850,093 inhabitants, and roughly 1,200 Friends (Orthodox and Hicksites combined), which was less than 1 percent. William S Wood Friends of the City of New York in the Nineteenth Century (New York: privately printed, 1904), 7-8 Referring to Orchard Street Meeting, he wrote, “Those who do not remember this meeting before 1850 can have little idea of the size of the congregation.” Wood, 65 Wood had charted for himself the antebellum rise to wealth, down the years, among Friends, as revealed by swelling contributions in the minutes of the Monthly Meeting, adding:
I think everyone acquainted with the present status of Friends in this city must easily see that they have few, very few, members left who have any public standing; who hold positions of trust and of importance as citizens. From various causes the Society has lost the membership of the descendants of the men of whom I have been speaking, which was its only hope. These men were great men, — men who would have been great anywhere. They were founders of names, and, dying, they, in most cases, left fortunes to their children to enable them to develop themselves still further in education and culture of all sorts, in courtly manners and Christian graces. Where are these descendants? Why are they no longer members of this congregation?
Historians William S Wood and John Cox, Jr were some of the lonely few in their day capable of comprehending the sheer magnitude of Quaker leadership in antebellum Manhattan. For an impatient, dismissive world, Wood wrote, “It may safely be said that Friends in New York between 1825 and 1875 were more prominent and influential as citizens, better educated and relatively more cultured, and I feel inclined to assert, more spiritually minded and intellectually vigorous, than at any other epoch in their history.” Wood, 5-6