Paper delivered at the Society of Early American Historians Annual Conference, Baltimore, Maryland, July 2012
On August 4, 1814, a small fleet of American ships carrying 800 soldiers sailed north from Detroit intending to recapture tiny Mackinac Island, off the coast of Michigan, from the British forces which had held it since July of 1812. An eyewitness described the military encounter that followed. “Off Mackinac we lay a considerable time and only saw a few Indians to skirmish with occasionally till in the afternoon of the 4th Instant the troops were landed on the west side of the Island, and at some distance from the beach, were virourously [sic] attacked by Indians and others in ambush, aided by four pieces of artillery planted on elevated spots,” he wrote. Then, “a charge, made the enemy fall back but he soon returned to the work of death which lasted until a number fell, when owing to the total impracticability of penetrating to the Fort through the woods, and finding every position of any strength on the road in possession of the British it was judged most advisable to return to the vessel which was effected without opposition, and all the well and wounded were re-embarked before sunset.”
This eyewitness was not a soldier, or a reporter, or even a local resident. He was a businessman, an agent for one of the richest men in America, on a mission to recover goods and merchandise from behind enemy lines. The agent’s name was Ramsay Crooks, a veteran of the fur trade who had just a few years prior returned from a long and brutal overland journey from St. Louis to the mouth of the Columbia River on the Pacific coast of Oregon. This journey was the beginning of his relationship with the man who would become his employer for the next few decades. The expedition to Oregon was part of an effort to establish a fur trading post in the Pacific Northwest called Astoria, and the employer’s name was John Jacob Astor. Astor had arrived in the United States in 1783, at the age of 20, and began a meteoric rise in business. By the outbreak of the War of 1812, he was easily one of the country’s richest men, overseeing a vast fur trade empire, extensive real estate holdings (particularly on the island of Manhattan), and had a burgeoning reputation as a leading financier.
The War of 1812, like most wars, created uncertainty for business, and Astor clearly felt that uncertainty. He worried about the fate of little Astoria in Oregon, he worried about the continuation of restrictions on international trade, but first he worried about the very real merchandise and Indian trade goods he had scattered throughout British Canada and near the Canadian border. Astor’s first concern was to get men he trusted in possession of the goods and work on bringing those goods back to New York City, where their ownership would remain certain. Ramsay Crooks was one of those men. He was dispatched to Mackinac Island, an important center of the Great Lakes fur trade, to recover what Astor believed to be a vast quantity of furs, skins, and Indian trade goods and was to return with them to New York City by any means necessary.
The military effort Crooks described was a failure, and he was unable to recover Astor’s property at that time. But he and Astor would soon have success. The fleet returned to Detroit where Crooks was met shortly thereafter by John Jacob Astor’s nephew George Astor and a private vessel which was to sail under a flag of truce to Mackinac and recover the goods. All of the arrangements had been made. The Secretary of State of the United States, James Monroe, had ordered the appropriate Naval authorities to issue passports and allow safe conduct, and the British government had also guaranteed safe conduct for the ship. Astor was to have his merchandise.
But how did a private businessman end up tagging along on a military mission? How did a private vessel get permission to sail under a flag of truce and cross enemy lines to pick up a load of furs? Why were these two men allowed to simply walk up to the doors of an American fort in enemy hands and remove their boss’ goods? Even given the distance of battle from the public eye, this kind of naked pursuit of private profits in a time of war was certainly considered as unseemly in the early nineteenth century as it would be today. The answer to all of these questions has to do with the ways in which John Jacob Astor wielded his considerable influence with a number of federal officials ranging in rank from a Navy captain to the President of the United States. The story of Astor’s success in this venture not only sheds light on the way influence worked in lobbying government, but also can tell us something about the intimate nature of the entanglement that had so quickly developed between the federal government and the biggest of businesses between the ratification of the Constitution and the outbreak of the War of 1812.
Historians are becoming increasingly aware of the important impact the state, including the federal government, made on the practice of business in the Early Republic. It makes sense, then, to explore the corollary. To what extent did the business community have an impact on the policy-making and regulatory process of the federal government? How did it help shape the political economy? And how was the resulting influence used? While the anecdote shared in this paper cannot fully answer those questions, it does show how the channels of influence created by the vital relationship between the fur trade and the federal government were used in a time of need for both a prominent trader and the federal government.
The way Astor used the great amount of influence he had acquired was personal in nature. He cultivated personal relationships and then expected them to pay off. Letters of introduction from the right people were integral to achieving ultimate goals. Astor knew many of the right people. And he had influence because of his elite position at the top of the business world. As Alexander Hamilton had wished, the health and even survival of the federal government depended on the economic health of America’s largest commercial enterprises. And in return the profits of American commercial ventures often had something to do with the policies of the federal government. This relationship ensured that the voice of business would be heard in Washington, and Washington would need to pay attention. A stark example of government’s reliance on business is the funding of the War of 1812 itself. Astor had picked up $2 million worth of the first $16 million loan issued by the government and helped organize the group of wealthy businessmen that was eventually responsible for a majority of the loan.
Astor’s personal relationships with men in the highest positions of power was crucial in getting Crooks permission to sail with the Navy’s fleet to Mackinac. When the United States declared war in June of 1812, Astor had hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of goods both in Canada and the United States. Most of his furs and skins were either at Mackinac Island or St. Joseph’s Island, the Canadian equivalent to Mackinac, in Lake Huron. Astor was one of the first to hear of the declaration of war as he was on his way to Washington at the time. He reacted immediately, sending word to his associates in Montreal and sending agents anywhere he had property to try to secure that property before it could be confiscated by either side as spoils of war. He reacted so quickly that he was blamed by some at the time of alerting British forces in Canada of the state of war before American forces had the news. It is possible, maybe likely, that he was inadvertently responsible for the capture of Mackinac and, therefore, responsible for the situation in which he found himself, with goods on a captured island.
Astor was quickly successful in getting the American government to relax the enforcement of the Non-Importation and Non-Intercourse Acts, which prohibited importing goods from Britain, and had been construed to include Canada. The United States would allow the importation of goods owned by American citizens prior to the declaration of war. By the end of 1813, he had been largely successful in getting most of his goods out of Canada and sent to New York. However, there were still a number of furs and other goods on Mackinac Island that he wanted back. In October 1813, he sent Ramsay Crooks on his mission to retrieve these goods. Crooks first went to Buffalo, then made his way to Erie, then Pittsburgh and finally Detroit. All along the way he relied on letters of introduction and direct appeals from Astor for special treatment. Most of these letters were to military officials, but some went to territorial governors. Astor was well aware of the chain of command and worked it to his advantage.
Early on in the venture Astor made clear the approach he would take, writing to Crooks, “as it may be of use to you to have letters to some of the commanding officers I have thought best to provide one for you to Commander Perry, and if you will Inform me who of our officers has command at Mackinac and other posts now in our possession I will get letters for you to them also.” It is clear from this letter that Astor intended to utilize military efforts for his private interests. He specifically asked for the name of the commanding officer that would be responsible for recapturing Mackinac. But it is also clear that he intended to use the chain of command to his advantage. The Commodore Perry he refers to is Oliver Hazard Perry who was the hero of a famous naval victory on Lake Erie. His good graces would be worth a lot.
Unfortunately, Crooks had moved further west before the letter to Perry reached him. Anticipating what Crooks would need when he reached Detroit, Astor sent another letter to Crooks, “I sent your letter to Commodore Perry but it came too late. I will get you one to General Cass which may be of use to you.” General Lewis Cass was the newly appointed territorial governor of Michigan. These letters allowed Crooks access, but what he really needed was a relaxation of military policy if he was to use a military vessel to recover Astor’s furs. Crooks wrote to Astor, “The officers having, in consequence of positive commands from the Navy office refused to carry private property of any description, it will be necessary that you apply to the Secretary of that Department for a temporary suspension of this order.” Crooks expected Astor to appeal to the Secretary of the Navy. As we shall see, Crooks was thinking too small.
Crooks suggested in December 1813 that he accompany the naval fleet to Mackinac and added, “I shall be glad of the letter to Gen’l Cass, and if another can be obtained for Captain Elliot, of the Navy, I am confident they will be of great use.” They would be. Any barriers to his participation in a military operation were slowly being eroded. He had moved on to Detroit, but an attack on Mackinac could not happen during the winter. He waited it out until spring. In May 1814, he ran into one more roadblock, a Navy captain named Arthur Sinclair. Crooks wrote to Astor, “Captain Sinclair, the new Commodore, told me it was against express orders to carry private property in public vessels.” Astor responded quickly with letters to another naval officer, Commodore Chauncy, and to General William Henry Harrison. He seemed to know Sinclair might be a problem. “I have wrot [sic] today to Gen’l Harrison on the subject of my business – I have also wrot [sic] to Commodore Chauncy who will write to Capt. Singlair about you.” He added a cryptic postscript, “Say nothing only to Gen’l Harrison of my goods at Mackinac with Capt. Singlair.”
By the 29th of May, Crooks was confident he would be allowed to sail with the fleet, and by the 6th of June Astor was too, writing to Crooks, “Governor Cass as also Capt. St. Clair have instruction, they will no doubt give every facility required.” The instructions Astor referred to likely came from Secretary of State James Monroe. It seems clear that Astor had successfully developed the personal relationships necessary to get what he wanted out of government. Governor Cass and Secretary of State Monroe would continue to be two of his most important contacts.
Astor, like Crooks, knew the military option was not likely to succeed. In fact, this was probably his “plan b.” In April 1814, Astor traveled to Washington to address several concerns. He lobbied for troops to be sent to Oregon to protect Astoria and for the permanent repeal of the Non-Intercourse Act. He also intended to discuss the continued funding of the war. Most important for us he wanted to gain permission to send a private vessel to Mackinac to retrieve his goods. On the 5th of April he wrote to Crooks from Georgetown, “I have stated here my situation as relates to Mackinac and I think I can get an order to permit a vessel to proceed there.” Another two weeks of negotiations, though, left him unsatisfied. On April 20th he wrote, “I wrot to you some time ago from Georgetown when I mentioned that I expected to get permission to send a vessel to Michilimackinac in which I have been disappointed.”
Astor needed to change minds, particularly the mind of Secretary of State Monroe. To do so, he used his most powerful asset -- money. Astor knew that the federal government had been struggling to raise the funds necessary to successfully prosecute the war and had been talking with other merchants and financiers for some time about the need of the government to take out more loans. He knew well, and expressed to others, the opportunities such a situation presented. He wrote to Henry Payson, a Baltimore merchant, “The price for the next loan must altogether depend on the prospect of peace & the manner of our people at Washington will manage; if they require any very large amount speedily I should suppose they must pay dear for it, but that I presume they will endeavor to avoid.”
While there was no explicit quid pro quo, the timing of Astor’s communication to Monroe on the subject of war loans is telling. On April 29th, Astor wrote another letter to Crooks lamenting the chances of getting permission to send a vessel to Mackinac. On April 30th, Astor wrote to Monroe, “Sir, I address you on a subject which though out of your Department must nevertheless be interesting to you, viz (that is) the ways and means for government to get money.” He had also written to the Secretary of the Treasury, “but,” he wrote, “perhaps not so plain as I do to you.” Why had he written so plainly to the Secretary of State on the issue of money? Partly because he was trying to cultivate a new relationship with someone he thought might be powerful for a long time to come, and whom he knew had political leanings that tended to be favorable to immigrant entrepreneurs like himself. But perhaps he also meant to curry favor in his current predicament, and it had immediate results.
On May 19th, Astor wrote to Crooks, “I have just now rec’d a letter from the Department of State with permission to bring from Mackinac my furs and skins.” And by the end of May, word had reached officials in Detroit. Crooks wrote to Astor, “the Commodore (Sinclair) informs me, he was ordered by the Secretary of State … to furnish passports and permit to proceed to the upper Lake, you or your agent, with such a vessel as you or he might think proper…” It took some time, but Astor got his furs back to New York City.
It appears from this incident that Astor’s money bought him, perhaps most effectively during a time of war, a substantial amount of access and influence. Astor was not the most genteel of men in a time when gentility was highly valued, but he seems to have been adept at building the personal relationships necessary to wield his influence effectively. At the very least, this anecdote illustrates the potential importance of studying lobbying activity in the early republic. By lobbying, I mean direct contact by private individuals or groups of private individuals with members of government in order to influence the policy-making process or the enforcement of policy after it has been made. Lobbying and interest group activity has largely been considered to have its origin in the Gilded Age, studied as a byproduct of an increasingly complex economy and technological advancement. However, it is plain that at least something similar to the lobbying activity of the Gilded Age, and even our own time, was occurring in the early republic.
Of course, the economy of the early republic was complicated, in fact global in nature, but if lobbying was not the result of changes in the structure of big business or the vastness of the railroad or the invention of the refrigerated railway car, then perhaps it means there is something more fundamental at work in the relationship between business and government. Perhaps there is something about the structure and purpose of republican government as formed in the United States, on both the state and federal level, that encourages a close relationship in which the state influences business decisions while simultaneously business priorities influence policy or enforcement. This seems to be particularly noticeable when government and business interests align. Because the fur trade was not a manufacturing venture, but rather relied on a natural resource, they, more than other industries, cared deeply about the control of territory. This, clearly, was a priority shared by the state, and federal authorities knew the fur trade was the key to controlling the North American interior. Both the federal government and John Jacob Astor wanted control of the Old Northwest and for many of the same reasons. So it behooved Astor to support the war effort in 1812 and federal officials were more easily persuaded to cooperate with Astor, unseemly as it might have been.
Astor’s efforts during the war demonstrate just how entwined the fortunes of the federal government and business were. A focus on the relationship of business and government also has important consequences for political history. What role did the decline of deference really play, not only in electioneering, but also in policymaking? This structural entanglement may also leave less room than previously imagined between the Hamiltonian vision of American commerce actively trading in an increasingly complex world economy and the Jeffersonian approach relying on the virtues of self-sufficiency. From the perspective of early American politics these differences seem profound, but as the most thoughtful studies of Jeffersonian political economy point out, Jeffersonians did not object to manufacturing and commercial interests per se, but they did object to, as Drew McCoy puts it, “forms of manufacturing that could not survive without government subsidy and special privilege.” But if even Madison’s administration was susceptible to granting special privilege to the largest of businesses during the War of 1812, how significant were the differences between the Hamiltonian and Jeffersonian visions in practice?
There is no evidence in the historical record that Astor broke any laws, or cheated in any way to accomplish his goal of retrieving his merchandise from the dangerous war zone. He used the legal and accepted tools available to him to achieve his ends. He used his personal influence, the result of his wealth and position at the top of an industry considered important by those in power in Washington, to gain favorable treatment for his agents in the field. He used his considerable financial resources to curry favor with the Secretary of State to get passports and permission to send a private vessel across enemy lines.
But there were those who questioned the situation. Captain Sinclair, the rigidly rule abiding naval officer commanding the fleet charged with retaking Mackinac and who would later be ordered by Secretary Monroe to allow Astor’s ship to sail to Mackinac under a flag of truce, felt there was something amiss. Astor was only granted permission to take from Mackinac those goods that had belonged to him before the declaration of war. However, it was well known that he had been moving furs from Mackinac and St. Joseph’s through Canada since the beginning of the war. Sinclair believed that Astor had no more property at Mackinac eligible to be removed, writing to the Secretary of the Navy, “I have proof positive that all such property has long since been brought away.” He continued, “You may rest assured, Sir, that Mr. Astor is taking advantage of the indulgence granted him by the President, and that species of property ceded to him by capitulation (the terms of the surrender of the island), and which property also his permission from the government extends to, had been received by him long since.” But no one in Washington listened. Astor was simply too important and too powerful, and the federal government owed him too much. Washington had bigger problems. Problems that required Astor’s goodwill and money.