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  • Friends of the New York Seaport:Antebellum Quaker Commerce, Culture, and Concerns
  • Mitchell Santine Gould (bio)

Prior to 1860, all the great fortunes of the country had come from the sea, and so, inevitably, from the earliest days and until the glory of the American merchant marine had passed away, ships and shipping were the most conspicuous feature of New York business life, and the water front was the centre of interest.

—The Bank of Manhattan, 19151

The greatest role for Friends in the triumph of the New York Seaport was the introduction of the packet-shipping scheme by English immigrant Jeremiah Thompson in 1818, an innovation so revolutionary that it helped transform Manhattan into the nation's commercial center. Shortly before the Revolution, Philadelphia was the nation's largest city, with an estimated population of 40,000, and New York was the next largest, at roughly 25,000.2 Ironically, it was Quaker merchants who were largely responsible for New York's supremacy over the "Quaker City." "To a Yorkshireman, New York owes much," wrote Robert G. Albion in 1939. "It was through his initiative that the city prospered so much from two other British projects—the inception of the transatlantic packet service, and the 'Cotton Triangle' to provide return cargoes for the packets."3

Yet even before Friends introduced fixed schedules for square-riggers, they had already taken an instrumental role in establishing the colonial port's financial and philanthropic infrastructures, as we shall see momentarily. Quaker influence on transatlantic navigation began with a far-ranging contribution to the merchant marine: the whalers' discovery of the Gulf Stream. Their findings were communicated to Benjamin Franklin by his cousin, Nantucket Quaker Timothy Folger. In 1768, while he was managing the American post office in London, Franklin learned that [End Page 25] mail packets between Falmouth and New York generally took a fortnight longer than voyages from London to Rhode Island. When Franklin expressed his skepticism that such was possible to Folger, the whaling captain replied that Rhode Island captains were acquainted with the Gulf Stream, but English captains were not. Friends informed these ships that they were fighting a current running at three miles an hour, and advised them to get out of it, but they were "too wise to be counselled by simple American fishermen," grumbled Folger. Benjamin Franklin appreciated that a vessel from Europe to North America could easily shorten her passage by avoiding the current, and a vessel from America to Europe could just as easily improve her speed by remaining inside it, using an overboard thermometer to detect the stream's Gulf warmth. Franklin then asked Folger to design a chart to benefit navigation. When this chart was first distributed, English sailors again dismissed the advice, but later, after receiving engravings of the same map from France, they reconsidered, and there began a revolution in Atlantic commerce.4

Fifty years later, there were many prosperous merchants in the Quaker quarter, near Manhattan's early Pearl Street Friends Meeting. Members of the Religious Society of Friends, recalled Rufus Wilmot Griswold in 1856, could be found as far out as Chatham Street, and the more affluent families settled as far south as Maiden Lane: "the Pearsalls, the Pryors, the Embrees, the Effinghams, the Hickses, the Hawxhursts, the Hulletts, the Havilands, the Cornells, the Kenyons, the Townsends, the Tituses, the Willetts, the Wrights."5 Pearl Street Meeting hosted worship and the concomitant social networking of Friends until its demolition in 1829.6 Eventually, the meeting's location at the intersection of Pearl, Cherry, and Dover Streets would be named Franklin Square; not, as is commonly believed, for Benjamin Franklin, but for Walter Franklin, a wealthy merchant whose magnificent gardens were originally planted at this spot.

Walter Franklin was born in 1727, the eldest child of Thomas Franklin and Mary Pearsall, from whom he inherited a fortune. He invested his windfall in trade with China, Russia, and other exotic marketplaces. Upon his retirement, he lived in the "style of a nobleman," driven hither and thither in an "elegant chariot," in an era in which private coaches were still rare in the city. The Pearl Street Meeting House was...