It Didn’t Start with the Jones Act

A tanker carrying LNG arrives at the French Mediterranean port of Marseille. (Photo by Gerard Bottino/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images)

As Ecclesiastes tells us: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” War, death, poverty—and protectionism, too, which very often is a contributor to the other three. 

I have had Puritans on the brain lately—and not the nice Plymouth Rock kind of Puritans but the angry ones who fought the English Civil Wars. I am particularly struck by the fact that when Oliver Cromwell et al. got around to abolishing the British monarchy, they created what was only the second Protestant republic of any real consequence in Europe at that time, joining the Dutch. The two republics had more in common than theology: The English had been supporters of the Dutch Republic in its long struggle for independence from Spain, and Spain had been a military and political problem for Catholic England long before it was a military, political, and religious problem for Protestant England. With similar cultures, similar religious orientations, and a vast array of shared political and economic interests, it was natural that the English and the Dutch should have been fast allies. In fact, they had so much in common that the English actually proposed uniting their countries into a single confederation and dispatched a senior diplomat to open negotiations. 

Of course, the two brother republics almost immediately went to war with one another. 

In a sense, the two countries were too much alike. The British would one day be the world’s unquestioned masters of the seas and the greatest power in international trade, but the Dutch were a few years ahead of them still in the middle of the 17th century. In fact, most trade between England and English colonies overseas was conducted by means of Dutch merchant ships. This rubbed the English the wrong way but, instead of creating the economic and political incentives at home that would have encouraged and supported the development of the kind of merchant navy that England needed, the aptly nicknamed Rump Parliament simply passed a law trying to force one into existence, mandating that foreign ships could not transport goods from distant ports—Asia, Africa, or the Americas—to England or to English possessions, while European merchant ships would be allowed to dock in English ports only to unload goods from their countries of origin. Anticipating our Jones Act, the Navigation Act of 1651 mandated that goods coming from distant ports must be transported to England in English ships with English owners and crews that were in the majority English. 

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