US foreign trade history: Status after the Spanish American war


Decisive events in American history seem to have been thrust upon us by a power which has come unheralded, unfelt and unseen. There appears to have been an impelling something quite akin to elective force and the laws which govern everything in nature. For thousands of years the light of progress and civilization has been traveling westward, growing brighter and brighter at every step of its steady and measured advance.

Our wonderful country was the home of savage Indians for forty or probably fifty or more centuries during which the vast populations in that part of Asia adjacent to the Pacific Ocean enjoyed many elements of high civilization.

The often repeated expression "Westward the star of Empire takes its flight," which as generally accepted only referred to this country, in reality applies to the progress of all enlightened nations of which we have any positive information.

Persia, Egypt, Greece and Rome successively felt the light and blessing of civilization, perhaps not precisely, but nearly so in their order of western longitude, and finally the Mediterranean became the field of the world's commerce, and the countries washed by its waters became the seat of progress, arts and civilization, England, then barbaric, soon felt the dawn of a new life, and the Atlantic, up to that time unexplored, except near European shores, was crossed and the American continent made known to the world. Settlements upon the Atlantic coast of this new country, and the gradual but steady expansion westward did not result from a matured plan, emanating from a human mind, but it was rather the logical course of events, impelled forward by an unseen hand.

Nearly four centuries were occupied in populating and bringing this country to a high state of civilization, and in establishing a system of government which has become the pride and glory of mankind.

The constant and rapid creation of new and unexpected conditions have always been met by inventive genius, and discovery and development of new elements and resources.

When oil from the whale no longer supplied the needs of mankind, petroleum and gas, either natural or manufactured, took its place. The necessity for rapid travel and communication was answered by steam and electricity. The timber of the forests became inadequate to supply the demand to create heat and to build edifices and ships, and the deficiency was met by the use of coal and iron. The industry, thrift and inventive genius of Americans developed so rapidly that American production became far in excess of the possible consumption of the people of our home market, and those foreign markets to which we enjoyed easy access.

We now produce almost one-half of the steel, nearly one-half of the coal, nearly one-half of the iron ore and finished iron of the world, and more than one-third of the pig iron. We produce one-quarter of the wheat, one-ninth of the wool, three-fourths of the corn, four-fifths of the cotton, two-thirds of the petroleum and three-fifths of the copper, and I can safely say that upon an average the United States now produces very nearly one-half of the staple products of the world. This condition has been reached within the last few years and the increase in American productions is advancing with rapid strides and the productive capacity of our mines, factories and farms will in a few years far exceed what they are to-day.

We have but one-twentieth of the earth's population, and it is evident that we must either seek new markets for the products of American toil, or else our progress in agriculture and manufactures must be checked or curtailed. I feel confident that no American can contemplate any such condition for a single moment.

Heretofore the rapidly developing west has been a wonderful consumer of the products of our growing industries, but now that section of our country is changing from being a valuable consumer to an aggressive competitor, and all thoughtful minds have realized that new markets would soon be essential for the products of American factories and farms.

When the heart of the American people was touched by the cruelty and terrors which were being enacted in the island of Cuba, and when added to this came the distress caused by the harrowing tidings of the destruction of the battleship Maine, and the instant death of 267 of her gallant crew, but one thought pervaded the American heart, and a demand came from every city, town and hamlet that this great Republic do its duty to suffering humanity, and strike a decisive blow in defence of national honor.

War with Spain followed, and the banner of free America led to prompt and glorious victories upon both land and sea, and almost at the same time in both hemispheres of the world. The treaty of peace which was concluded at Paris placed upon our country the responsibilities with which we are now confronted, and as an incident thereto new conditions were presented, with which it has become the duty of the American Republic to deal.

Very frequently during the century and a quarter of our existence as an independent sovereignty diplomatic complications have arisen, all of which have been settled in a manner in every respect creditable to us as a nation. There is no question but that the problem now confronting us will be solved so as to advance the cause of civilization, and work out results not only to our advantage, but also to benefit materially all who are brought under American control and influence. The early completion of the Nicaragua canal, bringing as it will all American ports nearer to oriental markets than those of any other civilized nation, will hasten the realization of this much to be desired end.

The wonderful progress of our country has been due to the individual incentive enterprise and indomitable energy of our people. It is that which has erected manufactories, constructed railroads, and changed forests and trackless prairies into fields of smiling plenty. A people endowed with these characteristics will be prompt to avail themselves of the opportunities which are offered to them.

The Preamble to the Constitution tells us that one of the purposes of the framers of that instrument was to "promote the general welfare." Much has been said and written in the discussion of the purport of these words, the contentions as to the power meant to have been conferred by the framers of the Constitution often taking a wide range, but I believe all concur that it is the duty of the government, so far as possible, to adopt policies which will develop our industries. Certainly one of the best methods to accomplish this is for us to shape our policy so as to give the products of American toil easy access to the markets of the world.

Of course such action should be in strict conformity with the limitations of the Constitution and should be consistent with our system of government. It must protect individual enterprise in its commendable efforts at development, and much can be accomplished by a diplomacy which brings our people nearer those of other nations and establishes between them friendly and commercial relations.

What was the best policy a century or even a half-century ago would not apply to the condition of our country to-day. During the days of Washington, Jefferson and Jackson we were essentially an agricultural country. The question of manufacturing for a foreign market had hardly been considered, and it was years before our farm products were exported to any considerable extent.

Now all is changed; now we far out-rival all nations in the products of both our farms and factories. Our production of cotton, corn, coal, steel, pig iron, finished iron, iron ore, wheat, copper and petroleum far exceeds the production of those staple articles by any other nation.

It must certainly be assumed that those in authority and power will seize every opportunity to assist our people in seeking and entering all markets where American products are in demand.

I have as much respect as any American for the traditions of our country and the expressions of the great statesmen to whom we are indebted for the creation of our present form of government; but we must construe all their expressions in conformity with the great changes that have taken place. We must remember that from the least we have become the greatest producing country, and from one of the weakest the most powerful, wealthy and influential. Half the population of the world is in what we call the Orient. Its productions are very largely articles which the world needs, and which can be produced only under its favoring skies, or at least can be better produced there than elsewhere. This gives a great purchasing power to this vast population. We are among the nations which produce the articles their changed condition will demand.

The needs of all people increase as they advance in civilization. Sewerage systems will be constructed in all their great cities. This alone means the sale of sewerage pipe to the value of many thousands, or rather, many millions, of dollars. This is but one single item.

These people will also want piping and machinery for water-works, electric and gas-works for lighting their cities and houses. Railroads and locomotives will be needed in numbers far beyond our present conception. Then come electric street railroads, telegraphs, telephones, agricultural implements, sewing-machines, typewriters and the thousands of other articles which we manufacture and these people will purchase. American capital will find very profitable investments in the various permanent improvements, such as railroads, including those for city streets, water-works, telegraph and telephone lines, and pipes for sanitary purposes. These newly opened countries will also need structural steel for building. Those who exercise the most energy and good judgment will secure the largest proportion of this trade. Probably the greatest advantage to our country would be the market we would secure for cotton goods. We now produce nearly seven-eighths of the raw cotton which finds its way to the world's markets. The selling price of the annual crop of this raw cotton is about $300,000,000. If made into cloth and thread, its increase in value would be enormous. Even when transformed into the cheapest cotton cloths, its value is greatly enhanced, and when manufactured into thread and fine goods, its increased value would be ten, twenty or even thirty fold.

The southern states produce the articles needed in the far East more cheaply than they can be produced anywhere else on earth. With the Nicaragua Canal completed, our Gulf ports will be nearer to these markets than those of the Atlantic Coast, and far nearer than any of the ports of Europe. The effect of such a condition upon the Gulf states, it seems to me, almost surpasses our comprehension.

Other nations are exercising every means within their command to secure favorable commercial relations with these people, and certainly we will not neglect an opportunity where such advantages are possible to be attained. The question as to whether the war with Spain should or should not have been avoided, and whether or not it was good judgment to provide in the treaty of peace for the cession of the Philippine Islands, are now matters of the past.

While the trade with the Philippines will be valuable, if by no means measures the advantages we can legitimately seek. When we once obtain a foothold in that part of the world, we can successfully compete for a large share of the trade of the vast population of Asia. The superiority and the cheapness of our products give us advantages, but in order to successfully compete with rival nations, it is necessary to establish depots near their great centres of trade.

The conditions in China are interesting, and to many people perplexing. The Chinese have a government with a history extending back 4,700 years. Some writers can see in them no virtues. They denounce them as odious and their religions as abominations. Other writers extol their religious devotion, commend their worship at the tombs of their ancestors, speak in praise of their industries, their endurance, and even write of their soldierly qualities in battle. We have certainly evidence that they possess some of these qualities, and the lack of individual incentive may account for the little progress China has made, when considering her wonderful resources.

I do not hesitate to say that the unlocked mineral wealth of that empire is greater than that found in any other country. Coal is found in limitless quantities, and is worked so easily that in Shansi it sells at thirteen cents per ton at the mines. Iron ore of many varieties, including the best, abounds, and lead, tin, zinc, copper and gold are found in many different localities.

Notwithstanding that these elements of wealth are bountifully possessed by China, her people have not seemed to be disposed to develop resources and encourage industries which would compete with ours, and their principal articles of export appear to be those which we do not and cannot produce.

The same is in a measure true regarding the Philippine Islands. Rice, their great staple, is all consumed in supplying food for that vast population of some 11,000,000 people, and although the soil and climate are adapted to cotton, the inhabitants prefer to produce other articles, and nearly all the cotton used in the one cotton-mill in Manila is imported, and much of it comes from New Orleans.

Sugar is produced in large quantities, but the largest export any year was some eight years ago when it reached 261,000 tons.

It is true that cotton to the amount of one and a half to two million bales is raised in the Chinese empire, but it is substantially all manufactured in the localities where it is grown.

At present the principal imports into China from America are cotton goods, flour and coal-oil. In 1897 the United States exported to China cotton goods to the amount of $7,500,000, coal-oil to the amount of $5,000,000, and last year China took $4,000,000 worth of flour from the United States. This is but a small fraction of the foreign trade of this empire. The exports to and imports from Great Britain alone were $200,000,000 during one year, four years ago, and they have increased steadily ever since that time.

We should send wise and conservative agents among the people with whom we seek to establish trade relations. The importance of using every possible effort to avoid antagonizing prejudices cannot be overrated.

Return to The Great Republic by the Master Historians (Vol 4)