House of Representatives, January 31, 1794.
Mr. MADISON insisted that trade ought to be left free to find its proper channels, under the conduct of merchants; that the mercantile opinion was the best guide in the case now depending; and that that opinion was against the resolutions.
In answer to this objection, he said it was obvious to remark that, in the very terms of the proposition, trade ought to be free before it could find its proper channel. It was not free at present: it could not, therefore, find the channels in which it would most advantageously flow. The dikes must be thrown down, before the waters could pursue their natural course. Who would pretend that the trade with the British West Indies, or even with Great Britain herself, was carried on, under the present restrictions, as it would go on of itself, if unfettered from restrictions on her part, as it is on ours? Who would pretend that the supplies to the West Indies, for example, would not flow thither in American bottoms, if they flowed freely? Who would pretend that our wheat, our flour, our fish, &c., would not find their way to the British market, if the channels to it were open for them?
It seemed to have been forgotten that the principle of this objection struck at every regulation in favor of manufactures, as much, or even more, than at regulations on the subject of commerce. It required that every species of business ought to be left to the sagacity and interest of those carrying it on, without any interference whatever of the public authority.
The interest of the mercantile class may happen to differ from that of the whole community. For example; it is, generally speaking, the interest of the merchant to import and export every thing; the interest of manufacturers to lessen imports in order to raise the price of domestic fabrics, and to check exports, where they may enhance the price of raw materials. In this ease, it would be as improper to allow the one for the other as to allow either to judge for the whole.
It may be the interest of the merchant, under particular circumstances, to Confine the trade to its established channels, when the national interest would require those channels to be enlarged or changed. The best writers on political economy have observed, that the regulations most unfriendly to the national wealth of Great Britain have owed their birth to mercantile counsels. It is well known that, in France, the greatest opposition to that liberal policy which was as favorable to the true interest of that country as of this, proceeded from the interests which merchants had in keeping the trade in its former course.
If, in any country, the mercantile opinion ought not to be implicitly followed, there were the strongest reasons why it ought not in this. The body of merchants who carry on the American commerce is well known to be composed of so great a proportion of individuals who are either British subjects, or trading on British capital, or enjoying the profits of British consignments, that the mercantile opinion here might not be an American opinion; nay, it might be the opinion of the very country of which, in the present instance at least, we ought not to take counsel. What the genuine mercantile American opinion would be, if it could be collected apart from the general one, Mr. M. said he did not undertake positively to decide. His belief was, that it would be in favor of the resolutions.