US-China Trade, 1784-1862


A review of Trading in Liberty: The Politics of the American China Trade, c. 1784-1862, by Dael A. Norwood.

In the twenty-first century, government officials and corporate America continue to romanticize the desirability of the China Trade. At the same time, why is the concept of the China Trade a critical foundation to American perceptions of economic success within the global economy? Dael A. Norwood’s timely dissertation addresses this important question by returning to the New Republic’s initial involvement in trade with Asia during the last part of the eighteenth century. Norwood periodizes his focus between 1784 to the beginning of the American Civil War. His nuanced analysis opens a window into a series of fascinating questions regarding the ideological impact that U.S. trade with China has had on American development and American political economy. Norwood argues that perceptions of the importance of the China Trade fundamentally shaped American attitudes and politics regarding commerce, labor, and how Americans viewed their country within a global construct. In doing so, his research identifies the importance of the China Trade as a crucial factor for the young Republic to establish its significance among commercially trading nations well into the nineteenth century. Furthermore, he sheds new light on the challenges migratory Asian labor posed in the U.S. prior to the Civil War, when Northern and Southern states were divided over slavery and the concept of free labor. Dael Norwood’s dissertation will be of great use to scholars studying United States diplomacy, foreign policy, trade policy, economic development, sectional politics, labor regimes, and Sino-U.S. relations prior to the Civil War. This review will proceed by providing a narrative account of each of chapter that identifies the contribution to the literature.

Chapter 1 emphasizes that trade in the early Republic was not primarily defined by an “Atlantic matrix,” but by Americans’ relationship with the wider world. Specifically, individuals in America identified trade with Asia as a strategic mechanism to create commercial opportunities under the Articles of Confederation. Due to European control of trade in the West Indies and South American colonies, Americans turned to Asia for its economic prospects. Norwood maintains that America’s first commercial policy stemmed from the nation’s intention to conduct trade with China. During the late eighteenth century, American need for both public and private revenue streams led to the first tariff debates about maritime policy and establishing a commercial trading system. These revenue concerns differed from later tariff divisions between agriculture and manufacturing interests, an area that scholars traditionally focus on. By the late eighteenth century, American economic policies did not focus on internal development due to the nation’s preference to establish mercantile connections. The Early Republic under the Articles of Confederation needed an outlet for its agricultural products. Americans believed that in order for the young country to establish itself as an important and treaty-worthy nation, an established trade network with China was essential for signaling America’s capacity to trade with the world’s premier commercially developed nations, including Britain, France, and the Netherlands. To facilitate international trade, Americans required three key components: navigational expertise, strategic planning, and an abundance of Spanish silver dollars. Because China was halfway around the world, American merchants needed to skillfully manage capital and maintain an adept knowledge of trade conditions. Norwood contends that while scholars generally downplay the origins of the China trade due to Americans’ inability to provide anything of significance for China aside from silver, this trade nevertheless represented America’s moral view of its political economy as a beacon of freedom. Trade with China would enable the United States to step out onto the world stage without being tied to Great Britain. When the U.S. Constitution replaced the Articles of Confederation in 1789, the significance of the China trade was central to the commercial policy of the new Republic.

Chapter 2 focuses on the reasons Americans no longer upheld the China trade as a desirable status symbol by the 1830s. This shift away from China as a focus of American political interest occurred despite American merchants unexpected success in Asia. Norwood finds that between the War of 1812 and the 1819 panic, American views of commerce with China underwent a transformation. Trade with Asia began to be viewed as a threat to the metropole imposed by the dangers of merchant capitalism. American merchants capacity to acquire silver for the China trade contributed to tensions both at home and abroad. Internationally, the War constricted American trade with China, and by 1813, the East India Company no longer had a monopoly over British trade in Asia. Private British merchants competed with Americans in the export of silver to Asia. The 1819 panic further contributed to Americans’ resentment of trade with China due to fears that vast quantities of specie exports threatened the stability of the domestic economy. By the 1830s, Americans no longer viewed trade with China as an important status to uphold and talk of the trade became peripheral as Americans focused on inland development.

In Chapter 3, Norwood addresses how American geopolitics underwent a paradigm shift. In the peace that followed the War of 1812, American merchants and policy makers no longer viewed trade with China as an opportunity to exert its commercial independence in opposition to Great Britain. Furthermore, whereas American merchants once turned to the Chinese for protection against British harassment in trade ports, by the 1820s, Americas found themselves aligned with British merchants based on their mutual interests. American and British traders shared a heritage and language complemented by political views centered on free trade. The increasing integrated fiscal ties between the two groups further promoted their need to cooperate with one another. This alignment with Britain had occurred against a backdrop of trade growth with China due to the smuggling of Opium. Of interest is Norwood’s discussion on silver exports that had once dominated American commerce with China. He observes that credit, and not silver, represented the prime form of exchange requested in London. Southern-produced cotton promoted the extension of British credit to American merchants that could in turn be used in China and India. At the same time, because American merchants could not procure goods or raw materials for export to China, the proliferation of British credit led to an overall decline of silver exports to China. While it is well known that London’s six-month bills shifted silver exports to London, the connection between the rise in bank note usage and decline in American politics over the China trade indicates that Americans could prioritize domestic development for the first time without concerns that its money supply was controlled by Asian influences.

By the 1840s, U.S. concerns at home an abroad ultimately determined the America’s first official American policy with Asia. In Chapter 4, Norwood maintains that by 1843, a new paradigm emerged denoting how Americans perceived the Asian trade. This paradigm differed from American merchants de facto alliance with British traders located in China’s port cities. Norwood identifies this shift as a move from an “American system” to that of an official “American policy.” Whereas American interests in China were once situated within executive interests and political debates about tariffs and development along the Oregon coast, China was now viewed as a critical arena for Americans to gain an international foothold both ideologically and diplomatically as a consequence of the Opium wars. China’s struggles with Britain were viewed as a repercussion of British Tyranny. The creation of an American bureaucracy to address diplomacy concerns with China led to the development of a government controlled channel which was fundamentally shaped by American views of its political economy. This view of the China trade also “re-ignited” American hopes to seize this commerce through efforts to construct a transcontinental railroad that would connect New York to the Pacific coast.

In Chapter 5, Norwood stresses the China Trade’s importance as an idea responsible for instigating railroad development in the American West. Furthermore, the very concept of the “transcontinental” railroad stemmed from ideas promoted during the 1840s to provide an overland route for to connect Asia to the eastern half of the United States. Norwood contends that railroad development could have taken a very different turn in the American West had Americans not been as enamored as they were with the idea of trade with Asia. This chapter makes an important contribution due to its discussion on Missouri’s efforts to join the Union. Norwood introduces the political economy vision of Thomas Hart Benton, an editor of a St. Louis newspaper during the Age of Jackson, whose views were reproduced by political entrepreneurs in the pre-Civil war period. According to Benton, new railroad infrastructure would provide a vital linkage between Missouri and the China trade. This trade route would justify Missouri’s place within the Union. Of significance here is Norwood’s observation that a number of Americans were politically divided along an East-West Axis, and not the Mason-Dixon line.  Norwood maintains that because the concept of Manifest Destiny originated from ideas about the importance of the China trade, the added benefit of railroad construction placed added importance to the settlement of the American frontier and decision over which territories would be Union worthy.

In Chapter 6, Norwood transitions from his discussion regarding how ideas about the China Trade impacted U.S. settlement and development in the American West to identifying a new obstacle to U.S. interests in China—the introduction of the “coolie trade.” Norwood skillfully identifies the challenges that Asian labor posed to existing labor regimes based on white contractual “free labor” and “slavery.” During the 1850s, concerns in the Northern and Southern states over issues of states’ rights and sectionalism were central to onset of the Civil War. However, this is story is complicated by Norwood’s observation that a key debate regarding the concept of free labor and slavery was significantly impacted by the presence of migratory Asian labor pools.  Americans who supported slavery feared that contract-based Asian laborers posed a threat to the plantation system and objected to Northern merchants’ role in procuring indentured Asian labor. They feared that Asian labor would replace slaves and make slavery uncompetitive. Antislavery advocates, on the other hand, reasoned that contract labor using Asian migrants was simply slavery by another name. These arguments worked in tandem to preclude the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. In addition, Norwood makes a new contribution to the literature by identifying how American perceptions of the Pacific middle passage between Asia and the United States resonated with ideas about the former African Middle Passage based in the Atlantic. This negative image further reinforced American objections to Asian immigrants. Lastly, because both Southern and Northern states opposed the presence of Asian labor, American politics minimized the importance of the China Trade due to a newfound consensus rejecting U.S. involvement with the “coolie trade.”

As Dael Norwood is in the process of revising his dissertation for a book, I am certain that he will continue to address how American ideological beliefs about labor fundamentally altered perceptions of the importance of the China Trade. In doing so, he will potentially be able to elicit comparisons to contemporary attitudes in America today regarding the importance of Asian markets and American fears of competition from cheap labor abroad. Furthermore, his discussion on the establishment of the first transcontinental railroads based on ideas and attitudes in American political economy that romanticized the importance the China Trade bears further discussion within the existing literature. To date, it is not entirely clear to what extent American investors and government officials funding the construction of railroads in the American West were motivated by U.S. trade with Asia aside from proclaiming its potential. Finally, Norwood opens up a new avenue to consider how American attitudes to secure trade with China paralleled the French and British experience during this period. Ultimately, Dael Norwood’s excellent dissertation will help scholars recognize that the United States’ domestic politics, international identity, and involvement in global commerce was fundamentally shaped by American perceptions of Asia and the idealized importance of the China Trade.

Kashia Arnold
Graduate Student
Department of History
University of California at Santa Barbara

Primary Sources

Dael Norwood skillfully uses the writings and papers of American merchants trading in Canton and the United States’ founding fathers and leading politicians. The most critical sources used here:

Writings and papers of:
1. Asa Whitney, former China merchant
2. Caleb Cushing, U.S. diplomat in China
3. Thomas Hart Benton, Senator from Missouri
4. Thomas Jefferson
5. James Madison

Dissertation Information

Princeton University. 2012. 461 pp. Primary Advisor: Sean Wilentz.

Image: View of Foreign Factories, Canton, 1825-1835, attributed to Lam Qua, Guangzhou, China, Oil on canvas (photo: Sexton-Dykes, Peabody Essex Museum, 2007), Visualizing Cultures, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, CC-BY-SA, accessed September 28, 2014,

1 comment
Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You May Also Like