During the period from 1789 to the Civil War, American trade did not develop evenly, but nevertheless it expanded rapidly enough to furnish employment to a fleet second in size only to that of Great Britain. European countries relaxed their navigation laws in favor of American-flag ships (usually in reciprocal arrangements for similar privileges in American ports); peculiarities in those navigation laws made certain commerce available for American bottoms; and on many routes, international competition was not an important factor. Because American shipping enjoyed low construction costs and reasonable operating costs, shipowners could offer superior service at lower rates. Moreover, they prosecuted their business with vigor and energy, and maintained wellestablished trading connections. Although it should be remembered that foreign trade was then triangular, American ships traded in six broad groupings: Europe, South America, the West Indies, the Mediterranean, the Baltic, and the Far East.
From 1817 on, the direct carrying trade between England and the United States was on the same level of competition as far as the laws of the two countries were concerned, and, as will be shown later, the cotton trade gave American-flag ships a most decided advantage. Brazilian ports were opened to foreign ships in 1808, and the revolutions that started in 1810 made the carrying trade of South America available to fast American ships. The West Indies trade, extremely important as the third point on the triangular European-American trade, was opened gradually. By 1830, United States ships had entry to all European possessions there. New England merchantmen used southern cotton, rice, and tobacco; sugar and molasses from the West Indies; coffee from Brazil; and wool, hair, hides, sheepskins, and tallow from the River Plate area as the cornerstones of a flourishing three-cornered trade between Boston, South America, and Continental Europe and the British Isles.
The China trade had been opened in 1784 with the Empress of China, a "commodious and elegant ship" of 360 tons. The heyday of the East Indiamen was from 1792 to 1800. By the latter date, those ships had made Salem, Massachusetts, one of the wealthiest towns in the world for its size. In the Oriental trade, American ships were second only to the British, and a large share of the cargoes were for reexport. Because American shipowners could supply the Baltic cities with Indian shawls and Chinese silks, and because they could supply Russian and Swedish merchants with sugar and other West Indian products, American shipping occupied a dominant position in the Baltic. Around 1809, when Napoleon had closed the ports of western Europe to all neutral vessels, 200 American ships were trading with Russia. In 1840, 64 New England vessels visited St. Petersburg, which imported much of its Far Eastern goods via Boston. During that era of tramping, trading, and reexporting, American tradershipowners were important in world commerce. American shipping declined when those trading techniques became anachronisms and when the steamship replaced the sailing vessel.