NYYM and the Rise of the New York Seaport

by Mitchell Santine Gould 
Curator, LeavesOfGrass.org


NYYM’s Spark has asked historians: “How do modern Friends relate themselves to Quakers of the past?” I’m afraid the answer is: not well enough. Even the leading authorities have not yet crafted an accurate perspective on Friends’ contribution to modern society. Had they done so, every Friend would appreciate the great influence Quakers had over the meteoric rise of the New York Seaport, prior to the Civil War—a story well-known to maritime historians.


The greatest role for Friends in the triumph of the Port of New York was the introduction of the packet-shipping scheme by English immigrant Jeremiah Thompson in 1818. With the end of the War of 1812, there came a pent-up demand for import goods, and Thompson must have conceived the daring notion of the packet scheme in order to expedite a boom in trade. Commensurate with relaunching his business, Thompson accepted the role of Clerk of New York Yearly Meeting, a post he held until 1824. 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. Within a few years after a rocky start, the packet business took off like a house on fire. Other Friends quickly established a competitive service: the Red Star line.


Charles Dickens captured American pride in her “noble” packets, as well as Friends’ bankruptcies, in his 1842 volume, American Notes, recalling how he 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.” 


The law of supply and demand 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 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. Bankruptcy took Thompson from a position of Quaker leadership as a former clerk of New York Yearly Meeting to disownment by his monthly meeting. 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 J.A. Scoville.Thompson died in 1835.


Southern businessmen expressed their envy. “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 introduced “the celebrated packets of New York,” indeed, “no nation can boast of vessels, public or private, comparable to them.” These ocean-liners, along with other innovations championed by Friends (such as Robert Bowne’s crucial advocacy for the Erie Canal) enabled Manhattan to “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].”