The New Student's Reference Work/Commerce

Commerce. The idea of commerce is a part of the idea of property, and property implies that a thing has value to oneself and also to others.  In commerce there is an exchange of property, in which each party gains what he desires.  But commerce is no longer the mere barter of savages.  It is a vast system in which all the world shares.  It helps to make prices and wages more equal.  It also keeps them more fixed, for, if one group will not pay a fair price, the goods may be sent elsewhere.  It gives a very wide market, so that a country may now produce more butter or meat than it needs, and yet sell all of it by sending the surplus abroad.  It brings people all over the world into greater sympathy with each other, and gives them more knowledge of each other.  Thus a failure in the cotton-crop of the southern states has been the cause of almost a famine in Lancaster, England, where much of the cotton is made into cloth.  Commerce is favored by a large coast-line and good ports; for it is cheaper to carry goods by water than by land.  It depends partly upon soil and climate and the presence of iron and coal in a country; partly, too, upon the cheapness of labor; but more largely upon freedom and security, industry and ease of communication.

So far as is known, the Arabs were the first great overland traders. The Phœnicians, however, a nation of traders whose home was on the strip of coast that lies about Tyre and Sidon, were the first merchants to plan and execute great voyages by sea for the sake of trade.  Their ships roved even to the Atlantic and the distant shores of Britain.  The Greeks also were great traders; and Carthage, a Phoenician colony, became so powerful and wealthy through her commerce that it required all the might of Rome to humble her in the dust. In the middle ages the great trade between Asia and western Europe lay chiefly in the hands of the merchant republics of Venice and Genoa.  But so soon as the route round the Cape of Good Hope to India was found and the new continent of America also came to attract the eye of the European trader, commerce centered in the nations of the Atlantic rather than of the Mediterranean.  At first Spain and Portugal, and afterwards England and Holland became the great world-traders.  In the latter part of the long strife of England and France for colonial empire the United States, having won their independence, became the great neutral carriers of merchandise.

The extent to which commerce grew in the nineteenth century is almost beyond belief.  It was favored greatly by the invention of the telegraph, the success of ocean-cables (q. v.), the building of railroads and the invention of steamships.  It was only in 1819 that the first steam-vessel crossed the Atlantic Ocean.  In England in 1800 the imports were valued at under $29,000,000; in 1900 at over $523,000,000; while the exports in 1800 were valued at under $35,000,000; and in 1900 at over $354,000,000.  Or take the commerce of the United States in the second half of the nineteenth century.  Whereas in 1850 the exports and imports together amounted to $318,000,000; in 1900 they amounted to no less than $2,244,000,000 in estimated values, while in 1907 they amounted to $3,315,272,503.