Early American Trade with China
Trade Routes & Trading Strategies

Economics of the China Trade

Contrasting Views of Trade

Life on a Merchant Ship


Unit Overview

Lessons in This Unit


Connections to the Curriculum

Economic development in the United States after the Revolutionary War.

Main Ideas of the Unit

  • After independence, the United States found itself closed out of the markets it had relied upon while under England’s rule and constrained by the mercantilist policies of the other European nations. Direct trade with China, from which the American colonies had been barred, held the promise of great wealth.

  • The potential for making large profits in the China trade (which Americans recognized upon witnessing the lucrative English trade with the East Indies and China) is evidenced by the willingness of American merchants to make a long and difficult journey in order to participate in the China market. Trade with the East Indies and China created America’s first millionaires and brought needed capital to other businessmen whose investments helped to develop the young United States.

  • To pay for the tea which Americans most wanted from China, merchants had to find commodia ties the Chinese wanted to buy. Silver was always in demand in because China did not have large domestic supply and silver was the country’s standard monetary metal. Silver, particularly minted Mexican dollars, became a mainstay of the American-China trade while Americans continuously sought other commodities to replace it.

  • U.S. trade with China made up only a small part of total American foreign trade in the 19th century, but the idea of China as a great potential market captured the American imagination in the late 18th century and the idea remains potent today.

  • As the supply and demand for different commodities in the China trade changed over time, American merchants responded by developing different trading routes and strategies. The western coast of North America gained importance as a source of furs and provisions. Travel through the Pacific made seemingly far away and insignificant places like Hawaii and the Philippines important to the United States as vital spots for provisioning and repairing ships. These interests affected U.S. policy in the Pacific in the 19th and 20th centuries.

  • China had a different view of American and European enthusiasm for developing international trade, interpreting these trade relations as an unnecessary and unwelcome interference in China’s cultural and economic life.

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