Charles R. Morris: We Were Pirates, Too ... Why America Was the China of the 19th Century





Charles R. Morris is author of The Tycoons, The Trillion Dollar Meltdown, winner of the Loeb award as the "Best Business Book of 2008." This article is drawn from his recent book The Dawn of Innovation: The First American Industrial Revolution.

The ship carrying Francis Cabot Lowell and his family home from England in the summer of 1812 was intercepted by a British war squadron, which held the passengers and crew for some days at the British base at Halifax, Canada. Lowell's baggage was subject to several intensive searches, for his captors had been warned that he may have stolen designs for power textile weaving machinery, a serious crime in England. Lowell, indeed, had done just that -- but, aware of the risk, had committed the designs to memory.
 
The British rarely accorded outsiders the privilege of touring their cotton plants. But Lowell was a leading Boston merchant who imported a great deal of British cloth and had solid relations with his British counterparts. One can imagine him on one of his tours, feigning languid disinterest even as he diligently filed away details on gearing and loom speeds. By the gentlemanly codes of the day, it seems dishonorable.
 
Today, it's China that is the rising power, and the United States that is the hegemon wary of the young upstart. To China, the United States appears much as Great Britain did to Americans two centuries ago. The U.S. Navy is an intrusive presence on its coasts, while U.S. support for Taiwan parallels British sympathies for southern separatists. Most threatening for Beijing is the appeal of America's raucous democracy for China's rising masses...


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