The Chamber of Commerce of New York

Building the City > Developing the Harbor

On Evacuation Day in 1783 – when the British had retired after seven years of occupation – less than ten thousand residents remained in the beleaguered City. By 1800, the population had topped sixty thousand and continued to rise. Workers constructed wharves and warehouses; new piers crowded along the shorelines. Fill extended the island into the rivers, allowing even more frontage for ever more slips and quays. Ships cleared for Canton and Madras. This increase required a degree of activity that amazed foreign visitors. “Everything in the city is in motion!” one Frenchman exclaimed; while an English actor watched in wonder as traders, “flying about as dirty and as diligent as porters,” spent their days “rolling, heaving, hallooing, and scribbling.” By 1810, the port of New York handled a quarter of the nation’s commerce.

Other cities could not keep up with New York’s traders. The opening of the Erie Canal – for which the Chamber of Commerce had long agitated – only widened the growing divide. Eager to push ahead their gains, the merchants continually sought to improve the functioning of the port, nominating the people they considered most qualified to wield authority – themselves. “[N]one can be more capable of selecting agents to take charge of their property, than those whose interests are at stake,” members argued, “they are not only the guardian of a capital amounting to upwards of Three Millions of Dollars, but are from usage and a community of interest to be looked upon as the representatives of underwriters throughout the world.”

The Chamber urged the national government to protect American vessels “against the pirates that infest the West Indies and the Gulph of Mexico.” It fought for control of the harbor-pilot service, which had become scandalously inefficient. “Not only is the number inadequate,” the merchants complained to the state legislature, “but so deficient has that number become in zeal and enterprise, that the negligence of the pilots of this port has become proverbial through the Union, and a subject of reproach in Europe.”

“There is scarcely any subject of greater interest to the inhabitants of our cities on the Atlantic, than that of yellow fever,” the Health Officer for the Port of New York wrote in the early months of 1822. “Whenever this pestilence prevails, our commercial prosperity is retarded at home, and embarrassed by long and expensive quarantines abroad.” A few months later, in high summer heat, his words resonated again as an outbreak of the disease struck “with such malignity as to create very considerable alarm.”

Quarantine officers inspected all incoming ships, keeping suspect ones at a station on Staten Island. Nevertheless, in the summer of 1822, the plague killed nearly a hundred residents, and led the Chamber of Commerce to petition the state for harsher laws. “A vessel, on board of which Yellow Fever is known to have been during the voyage,” they argued, “should not be allowed, under any circumstances to approach the city, between the first days of May and October.” Fever being a disease – after all – that “nothing, except frost, has ever been found to purify.” During the 1820s, the City lost five straight health officers to the plague.

Despite pilots and pirates and plagues, the City’s commerce pushed ahead. In 1817, the New York Stock Exchange opened on Wall Street. The next year, a Manhattan merchant instituted the Black Ball Line, the world’s first packet service to run on a fixed schedule. “The regularity of their times of sailing, and the excellent condition in which they deliver their cargoes,” an advertisement for the ships claimed, “will make them very desirable opportunities for the conveyance of goods.” Each year brought new records.

Then, in 1819, the speculative profits ended when “a terrible crash in trade and speculation of all kinds spread ruin throughout the land.” The nation experienced its first financial panic. Shipping fell of drastically. That year, only 993 vessels, carrying nine thousand passengers, cleared customs in New York harbor. Four years later, the number of ships had risen slightly, but they carried fewer than half as many passengers.

The panic bankrupted merchants, but it also devastated the lives of working people. In 1819, the New York Society for the Prevention of Pauperism estimated that 8,000 of the 120,000 residents in the city were in need of relief. The next year, the number had risen to 12,000. And the masses who were unemployed or irregularly employed could not be quantified. Many believed that the citizens of the United States were being punished for their greed. The nation was like an “overgrown and pampered youth … vaulting and bounding to ruin,” declared a speaker of the Society of Tammany, a social club that had not yet taken to politics. Financial panics and even plagues were “the Act of Providence to arrest our hasty strides to national destruction.”

The Chamber of Commerce interested itself in the affairs of the distressed in 1839, when it petitioned the state legislature concerning a measure pending on the issue of imprisonment for debt. The lawmakers wanted to abolish this practice. But, the merchants defended it. “The City of New York from its natural advantages and commercial connexions is the great market for the state of imported merchandise,” they wrote, “and is consequently largely a creditor City, and in both these characters the interests of her merchants is deeply involved in every thing rendering debts … secure.” For local debtors it was easy to exert social and financial pressures to ensure repayment. Resident of other states were not so easily swayed. “In these cases, the New York creditor’s only security is the right to detain his debtors person until delivery of his property, in case of his resort to their City or to preclude him from resorting here to trade.”

This was only fair. “Your memorialists do humbly conceive this to be both politic and equal,” the Chamber noted, “a man unwilling or unable to pay his debts is an undesirable customer in any market: and it is optional with every man to come to a city or not, he cannot justly complain of hard ship, if deprived of work to a market to which he only contributes an increase of bad debts.”

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