Abstract: The Drink of Diplomats: Government Intervention in the U.S. Coffee Re-Export Trade

Michelle Craig McDonald


This paper uses coffee trading to explore intersections of economic and political objectives in early America. The importance of Caribbean coffee in U.S. trade revenue grew significantly in the first decades after independence. By 1802, almost half of America's trade income came from re-exported, rather than domestically produced, goods. Coffee was one quarter of this re-export trade, and 10 percent of all U.S. trade domestic and foreign—high figures for a commodity that North America never produced itself. This paper follows the innovative efforts of merchants and diplomats to circumvent European imperial trade barriers and draw in the wealth of the West Indies as the U.S. became one of the leading purveyors of coffee in the Atlantic region and, by 1805, to the world. Coffee traders' willingness to seek new trade alliances mirrored efforts of early U.S. foreign relations and fiscal policies to define and defend neutral shipping rights, argue for free port access, and resist foreign tariffs. U.S.-West Indian trade became, as a result, a testing ground for asserting America's position in a commercial world still largely defined by imperial boundaries.