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Reviewed by:
  • James C. Williams (bio)
The Way of the Ship: America's Maritime History Reenvisioned, 1600–2000. By Alex Roland, W. Jeffrey Bolster, and Alexander Keyssar. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2008. Pp. xv+521. $35.

The standard view of American maritime history celebrates the era of blue-water sailing and the introduction of steam power and laments the merchant marine's steady decline after the Civil War. The authors of The Way of the Ship revise this view by taking a global perspective and by bringing domestic coastal, lakes, and river shipping into the story. They do this while following five analytical threads: economics, policy, labor, military, and technology. What results is not only a major new interpretation of the nation's maritime history but a truly fresh account of American history in general, couched in its maritime milieu.

Jeffrey Bolster opens The Way of the Ship with a lively retelling of the colonial and revolutionary maritime experience. Largely rejecting the simplistic "triangular trade" explanation for colonial commerce, Bolster provides a thorough and nuanced analysis of the era's "complicated pan-Atlantic trading system" (p. 36), which is much more satisfying than the traditional tale. He moves from Richard Hakluyt's earliest maritime plantations through New England's maritime foundations and the rise and eclipse of Boston as America's leading shipping center. He focuses on the enormous extent of coastal and inland-waters trading, treating readers to a marvelous tour of British North America in which a rich understanding of local history fleshes out the larger story. [End Page 741]

In part 2, which covers the period 1783–1861, Alex Roland continues the narrative with the same clarity and liveliness as Bolster. In "a tale of two ports"—the decline of Salem, Massachusetts, and the rise of New Orleans—Roland illuminates "the transformation of the American shipping industry in the first half of the nineteenth century" (p. 100) as a story of policy, economics, technology, war, and labor. He leaves no doubt that the United States was more a "brownwater" than an oceanic nation. Indeed, "the most far-reaching provision" of the 1817 Navigation Act, observes Roland, "was to restrict coastal and inland shipping in the United States to American vessels" (p. 128). This policy of cabotage assured that by mid-century brownwater and coastal shipping would far surpass oceanic shipping in economic importance.

Roland also examines the nation's canal craze, the gold rush and brief heyday of the fast clipper ship, and the rise of steamships and scheduled transoceanic voyages. In looking at the development of America's maritime infrastructure—the role of government in coastal surveys, charting oceanic and inland waters, and naval and commercial shipbuilding—he points out that the decision to develop naval shipyards rather than rely on commercial facilities resulted in a "lack of cross fertilization in the production and maintenance of commercial and naval vessels." This hampered innovation, limited capital, and "contributed in its way to the eventual decline of the American maritime industry" (p. 175).

Alexander Keyssar covers the period 1860 to 1900, following Roland in arguing that during the Civil War the U.S. Navy continued separating itself from commercial shipbuilding and design, thereby adding impediments to technological transfer. After the war, the nation "turned its back on most of the opportunities" for becoming a world shipping power (p. 193), and its merchant marine found its strength in shipping on the Great Lakes and rivers and in coastwise shipping. Keyssar concludes by looking at failed efforts to establish a national maritime policy, changes in shipbuilding, and labor developments. Here, the narrative loses its liveliness and the story seems uninspired.

In parts 4 and 5, which take us through the twentieth century, Roland brings the narrative back to life. He presents an insightful account of the rise of America's naval might under Alfred T. Mahan and Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson's effort to build up an oceanic merchant fleet during World War I, and Robert Dollar's attempts to find a business model that would "achieve Wilson's dream of a strong merchant marine" (p. 280). Roland then turns to "the brief and fruitful alliance of seamen and...


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