Merchant Marine

views updated May 08 2018


MERCHANT MARINE. There was marked merchant marine activity, especially in New England, in the colonial period. Much of New England's cargo of lumber and fish went to the West Indies to be exchanged for sugar, molasses, or rum; some went along the coast to be exchanged for grain or flour; and some crossed the Atlantic. England's Navigation Laws, aimed at developing a self-sufficient empire, benefited the merchant marines, for a vessel built and manned on Massachusetts Bay or Casco Bay qualified as an English ship with an English crew; many of the cheaply built New England vessels, moreover, were sold to English owners. By 1700, Boston ranked third, after London and Bristol, among all English ports in the tonnage of its shipping. By 1730, Philadelphia passed it in commerce, but the New England coast remained the center of shipping activity.

The American Revolution brought short-lived dislocations of trade; then, during the long Anglo-French conflict, the merchant fleet quickly expanded and prospered. After the Revolution, American vessels no longer enjoyed British registry, could not be sold in England, and were barred from the profitable and mutually advantageous triangular trade with the British Caribbean sugar islands. On the other hand, American ships no longer had to buy all their return cargoes in Britain and were free to trade with countries in the Mediterranean and the Baltic, and with India and China. The long Anglo-French wars, starting in 1793, put a premium on the neutral status of American-flag shipping, which could visit ports where the belligerent British or French flags would be vulnerable. At the risk of occasional capture and confiscation in this "heroic age" as they ran afoul of belligerent regulations, the Americans reaped a rich profit. The registered tonnage of American ships rose from 346,000 in 1790 to 981,000 in 1810, while the combined exports and imports in those same years jumped from $43 to $152 million, about 90 percent of which was carried in American bottoms. Eventually, the American Embargo Act and Nonintercourse Act hurt the trade, while the British blockade during the War of 1812 eventually almost cut off the United States from the sea, forcing merchants to ship southern cotton and other goods over land.

In the relatively quiet period between 1815 and 1845, steam navigation and the performance of the transatlantic sailing packets laid the foundation for a long period of expansion of the merchant marine. Successful steam navigation is normally dated from the voyage of Robert Fulton's Clermont up the Hudson River from New York to Albany and back in 1807. New York quickly utilized the sheltered waters of Long Island Sound as a steam approach to New England, while other local uses of steam for ferries and tugs developed. The ability of steamboats to ascend the Mississippi and its tributaries revolutionized and promoted traffic on western waters. On the longer ocean runs, however, the early engines required so much coal—in contrast to wind, which was free—that steam was not profitable. The pioneer ocean crossing of the auxiliary steamer Savannah (1819) was unsuccessful. Permanent transatlantic steam navigation did not take off until 1838 when two British steamships, the Sirius and the Great Western, arrived at New York on the same day. American sailing packets from New York to Liverpool, London, and Le Havre, meanwhile, began dominating the North Atlantic run in 1818. These "square-riggers on schedule, " sailing on specified dates with passengers, mail, and fine freight, demonstrated the value of regular line service previously unknown.

By the 1840s the Irish potato famine, Britain's repeal of its Corn Laws and Navigation Laws, and the discovery of gold in California were combining to bring the American merchant marine to its golden age in the early 1850s, almost equaling Britain's shipping in tonnage and surpassing it in quality. Irish immigrants arrived in America in huge numbers, followed shortly by a large migration of Germans. The Yankee ships that carried them could, with the repeal of the Corn Laws, carry back American grain. The California gold rush led to the construction of large numbers of fast clippers in which cargo capacity was sacrificed for speed, and to the establishment of subsidized steamship lines converging from New York and San Francisco upon the Isthmus of Panama. The British example of subsidizing the mail steamers of Samuel Cunard led Congress to support steamship lines to Bremen and Le Havre. Finally, Congress gave even more generous support to Edward K. Collins for a line to Liverpool to "beat the Cunardes." For a time, Collins was successful, but when speed led to the loss of two ships, Congress withdrew its support and the line failed.

This peak in American shipping was followed by a long depressed period accentuated by the panic of 1857. The clipper craze had been overdone, and the building of square-rigged ships, which reached its peak in 1855, fell off sharply. Moreover, depredations from British-built Confederate naval raiders sparked a panic disproportionate to the number of Union ships caught. War-risk insurance rates escalated such that shippers sought foreign flags that called for no such extra expense. Scores of the finest American square-riggers were consequently transferred to foreign registry and were not permitted to return afterward. After the war, the shift of the nation's interest and capital investment from the sea to westward expansion contributed to this decline.

One cause of the decline was the shift to steam. The development of the compound, reciprocating marine engine at last made it practicable to transport bulk cargoes, such as coal, wheat, and sugar, by steamship rather than by sailing vessel. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 furthered reliance on steamships, for sailing ships had great difficulty in traversing the Canal and the Red Sea. Steam gradually pushed sail off all but a few of the longest runs to Europe, such as those carrying grain from California, nitrates from Chile, jute from India, and wool and grain from Australia. The big American Down Easter square riggers found business on some of these runs but were gradually crowded out.

The most important cause of the new difficulties probably lay in the effect of the cost of iron or steel on steamship building. In the past, wooden vessels had been built more cheaply on the American side of the Atlantic because of the ample supplies of ship timber close to the seaboard, but Europe had gained the advantage of lower costs because of its iron deposits and technological advantages for manufacture. Although the value of foreign commerce between 1860 and 1910 grew from $762 million to nearly $3 billion, the share carried in American bottoms shrank from 66 percent to 8 percent.

Domestic trade, which had been protected by law from foreign competition since 1817, was a different story. From the 2,974,000 tons of enrolled and licensed shipping in 1860, a slight fall occurred during the 1860s and 1870s; however, by 1890, volume had climbed to 3,496,000 tons, continuing on to 6,726,000 by 1910—almost nine times the foreign trade total. The construction of certain river, Great Lakes, and Long Island Sound steamers was too specialized for oceangoing use, but, between the major coastal ports, some quite substantial and effective vessels performed regular cargo and passenger service, which long held its own against railroads parallel to the coast. Much of the coastal bulk cargo of lumber, granite, anthracite coal, and lime was still carried by sail, especially in the Northeast, in little two-masted schooners. Gradually, larger schooners came into use, with three-and four-masters carrying ice and southern lumber. Eventually, big five-and six-masters competed with barges and later with steam colliers in carrying bituminous coal northward from Hampton Roads. Tankers began to carry Gulf petroleum up around Florida to ports "north of Hatteras." On the West Coast, small "steam schooners" carried lumber southward to California, while big secondhand square-riggers brought the salmon catch down from Alaska.

The experiences of World War I produced a drastic transformation in the American merchant marine, leading it once more back to the distant sea routes. On the eve of the war, some 92 percent of the nation's foreign commerce was carried by British, German, and other ships that offered generally satisfactory service. When that was suddenly disrupted by World War I, the United States suddenly realized how serious it was to lack shipping flying its own flag. This was especially brought home to the nation when South America, Africa, Asia, and Australia suddenly offered rich opportunities for American exporters. American-owned vessels, which had been under foreign flags for reasons of economy, were glad to be admitted to neutral registry under the American flag, while sailing vessels had their last chance for large-scale useful service in supplying those distant markets.

An amazing expansion of American shipping resulted from the emergency building program undertaken in 1917 to offset the heavy Allied losses from Germany's unrestricted submarine warfare. The Shipping Board, which had been established by Congress in 1916, began an ambitious program to set up numerous new yards, the largest being at Hog Island just below Philadelphia. Much of this activity was continued after the war suddenly ended late in 1918. By 1921, the United States had overtaken Great Britain for first place among the world's merchant fleets; it had some 700 new large steel freighters and 575 smaller ones.

About a third of those new large ships found employment in a new intercoastal trade between the East and West coasts through the Panama Canal, opened in 1914, which cut the New York–San Francisco run from 13,122 to 5,263 miles. It was thus possible to carry steel, machinery, and similar heavy cargo westward and to bring back lumber and canned goods at rates about one-third cheaper than by rail.

More nearly permanent in national merchant-marine policy, however, was the use of many of the other new freighters on government-supported "essential trade routes" to all parts of the world. The wartime experience had shown how important it was to have regular service on certain runs to provide outlets for American exports and dependable sources of essential imports. At first, the new lines were operated directly for the Shipping Board, which absorbed the initial deficits. However, as soon as they were on a paying basis, the ships were auctioned off at bargain rates to private operators who agreed to maintain regular service on their lines for a period of years. In 1929, the Jones Act provided generous grants, in the name of mail payments, to those approved lines that agreed to build new ships. The falling-off of trade during the depression that started that year left the shipping industry in difficulties, particularly because of competition against cheaper foreign operation and construction costs.

To address that situation, Congress in 1936 passed the Merchant Marine Act, which remained the basis of American shipping policy a quarter century later. The former supervisory functions of the Shipping Board passed to the Maritime Commission, which, in 1950, gave way to the Federal Maritime Board for policy and the Maritime Administration for operation. To enable American-flag vessels to compete with foreigners, Congress established "operating-differential" and "construction-differential" subsidies that were intended to meet the difference between American and foreign costs both in the operation and building of vessels.

The operating subsidies went only to lines approved for specific "essential trade routes"; there were usually from a dozen to fifteen such lines on thirty-odd routes from Atlantic, Gulf, or Pacific ports. To avoid excessive profits in boom periods, the government "recaptured" half of all profits in excess of 10 percent. About three-quarters of the operating subsidies went to meet the difference in pay between American and foreign officers and crews. Aggressive action on the part of new maritime unions in about 1936 began to push American wages far ahead of foreign wages; the daily wage cost on a medium-sized American-flag freighter rose from $141 in 1938 to $552 in 1948 and to $1,234 in 1960—about four times as much as in the principal foreign merchant marines. Consequently, unsubsidized vessels found it increasingly difficult to operate under the American flag, and large numbers of them shifted to the "flags of convenience" of Panama or Liberia.

The construction-differential subsidies, designed to keep American shipyards going, absorbed up to half the cost of construction in foreign yards. Lines receiving operating-differential subsidies had to build in American yards, and certain other ship owners were also eligible.

During World War II, the subsidized merchant marine fully demonstrated its high value through its adequate ships, trained mariners, overseas contacts, and operational skill, all of which did much to provide logistical support for the far-flung military operations across the Atlantic and Pacific. Once again, the government undertook a tremendous emergency building program, which produced 5,777 vessels, about half of them slow, capacious "Liberty ships."

The foreign services on the essential trade routes continued on a fairly successful basis after the war. Some of the other shipping also benefited by the congressional "50–50" stipulation that at least half of the cargo sent abroad in the various foreign-aid programs must be carried in American-flag vessels. Domestic shipping, however, fell off sharply in the coastal and intercoastal trades. Part of this decline was blamed by the shipping industry on the "railroad-minded" Interstate Commerce Commission, which in 1940 was given control of all transportation rates. Part of the trouble also arose from the still-mounting wages of mariners and longshoremen, and from the competition of trucks.

Continuing labor disputes with longshoremen, along with inefficiencies that accompanied marine shipping, prompted the invention of "containerization" in the 1950s by Malcolm McLean, a former truck driver and founder of McLean Trucking. (A container is a box up to forty feet long and eight feet wide that is transported on land by the use of a chassis pulled by a truck; containers are double-stacked without a chassis when hauled by train.) McLean sought an inexpensive way to return containers from New York to Texas, and fitted two tankers with platforms above the decks for carrying thirty-five-foot boxes. He purchased Pan-Atlantic Steamship Corporation and Waterman Steamship in 1955. In April the next year, Pan-Atlantic's Ideal X, the world's first container ship, sailed from Port Newark, New Jersey, to Houston. Pan-Atlantic announced that it would convert other ships into container ships. When these vessels went to sea, McLean told their captains not to bother him with nautical nonsense; they were ship drivers at sea. The first fully containerized vessel, Gateway City, began regular service between New York, Florida, and Texas in 1957. Pan-Atlantic Steamship Corporation changed its name to Sea-Land in 1960. In sending freight across the oceans, the container revolution proved as influential as the shift from sail to steam. The Gateway City had a capacity for 226 thirty-five-foot containers. It could be turned around in one day by two shore-based gantry cranes. With break-bulk, this would have taken weeks. Once the system came into full operation, damage and pilferage decreased dramatically. Matson Navigation helped to make containerization a familiar word in the shipping industry; the company developed a gantry crane that could handle 520 containers every twenty-four hours.

Other developments quickly followed. During the early 1960s, a division of American President Lines known as Pacific Far East Line (PFEL) transported military supplies to Vietnam. No one knew how long that war would last, and it seemed unwise to consider building docks and erecting gantry cranes at Cam Ranh Bay in South Vietnam. PFEL used a lighter aboard ship (LASH) system. Sea-Land, the original innovator, then introduced another novelty, this time in the pattern of trade employed by container ships voyaging to East Asia. Because Sea-Land ships were returning to Oakland, California, with empty containers, the company sought business in Japan, and, without waiting for cooperation from the Japanese government, arranged gantry cranes and other container equipment in a Japanese port, thereby giving Sea-Land a profitable back haul. The result was worldwide competition. After Sea-Land's move in Japan, local shipping firms installed U.S. equipment. In a short time, Japanese companies built container ships and were competing with U.S. companies. British shippers also moved to develop container capability.

McLean eventually overreached himself in attempting to create a worldwide line specializing in container ship commerce. After selling Sea-Land in May 1969 to the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, which was seeking to diversify, McLean acquired the United States Lines and purchased another old American line, Moore McCormack. He signed contracts in 1983 for twelve new container ships, to be built in the huge Daewoo yards in South Korea. The $570 million order represented the largest single peacetime shipbuilding contract and the largest expansion of the U.S. Merchant Marine in its entire history. McLean conceived of a remarkable commerce, in which a Daewoo-built ship would depart an East Asian port for the Panama Canal, and after transit calls at East Coast ports, sail to Western Europe. After leaving the Mediterranean, passing through the Suez Canal, and calling at Middle Eastern ports, the ship would move on to the East Asian port of origin, thus completing a worldwide loop. He described the proposed route as his Sea Bridge. He intended to reach all areas of the world with the Sea Bridge except for West Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. The Sea Bridge operation began in December 1984, but after a few months of operation, McLean's venture turned into bankruptcy, with a loss of nearly $100 million in a single quarter. In 1987, the Econships, as they were known, were sold, then began operating under U.S. flag and Sea-Land ownership.

Shipping received a boost when Congress passed the Merchant Marine Act of 1970, which generously extended and liberalized the terms of the 1936 act. No longer were the fifteen or so lines of the specific "essential trade routes" to have a virtual monopoly of the subsidy benefits. The construction-differential subsidies were expanded to produce thirty new ships per year for the next ten years. Partly because of the growing need for oil and gas from overseas, bulk-cargo ships became potential beneficiaries. The act declared that "the bulk cargo carrying services should, for the promotion, development, expansion, and maintenance of the foreign commerce of the United States and for the national defense or other national requirements be provided by United States–flag vessels whether or not operating on particular services, routes, or lines." The construction subsidy was cut below the old 55 percent maximum; the operating-differential subsidy was extended in a more tentative and restrictive manner but was made to apply to areas rather than rigid lines, and the basis of computation was modified.

The act had an immediate quickening effect on merchant shipping; numerous applications for both kinds of subsidies were made, and plans were laid to build vessels far larger than any previously built in the United States, together with facilities to accommodate their construction. But the initial exuberance was suddenly dampened when President Richard M. Nixon's 1973 budget slashed funding of the program from $455 million to $275 million.

It was remarked that shipping underwent more drastic changes around 1970 than in any period since the mid-nineteenth century. The increased speed resulting from jet airplanes virtually drove out regular ocean passenger service (the transatlantic passage had dropped from five weeks with the sailing packets and five days with the crack liners to five hours in an airplane). The passenger liners were laid up, sold, or participated in the fast-growing development of pleasure cruises. The old economic self-sufficiency gave way to increasing need for seaborne cargoes. Oil tankers increased more than tenfold in size, special ships were developed for natural gas, and bulk carriers were developed to bring iron and other ore from overseas.

U.S. container ships continue to carry much world commerce. From 1985 to 1995, the volume of exports of containerized cargo from New York harbor alone jumped by 53 percent. The value of this shipping rose from $9.59 billion to $17.14 billion, a 32 percent increase after factoring in inflation. Part of the Port Authority's increase in business was caused by modernization, including new railway links, crucial because containers go directly from freighters onto trucks and trains all the while tracked by computers. Labor relations in the Port of New York area improved, but the principal reason for the resurgence of the New York–New Jersey area has been the efficiency of container ships. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey estimated that ocean shipping generated 166,000 regional jobs in 1998, and $20 billion in economic activity.


Albion, Robert. G. Seaports South of Sahara: The Achievements of an American Steamship Service. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1959.

Butler, John A. Sailing on Friday: The Perilous Voyage of America's Merchant Marine. Washington, D.C.: Brassey's, 1997.

De La Pedraja, René. The Rise and Decline of U.S. Merchant Shipping in the Twentieth Century. New York: Twayne, 1992.

Gibson, Andrew, and Arthur Donovan. The Abandoned Ocean: A History of United States' Maritime Policy. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2000.

Kendall, Lane C. The Business of Shipping. Centreville, Md: Cornell Maritime Press, 1793; 1992; 2001.

Kilmarx, Robert A., ed. America's Maritime Legacy: A History of the U.S. Merchant Marine and Shipbuilding Industry since Colonial Times. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1979.

Lawrence, Samuel H. United States Merchant Shipping, Policies and Politics. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1966.

Niven, John. The American President Lines and its Forebears, 1848– 1984. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1986.

Robert G.Albion

Charles V.ReynoldsJr./f. b.

See alsoMaritime Commission, Federal ; River and Harbor Improvements ; River Navigation ; Shipbuilding ; Shipping, Ocean ; Shipping Board, U.S. ; Trade, Foreign .

Merchant Marine Act of 1920

views updated May 14 2018

Merchant Marine Act of 1920

Michael McClintock

The President of the United States has just been briefed by the national security advisor on a critical situation developing overseas. A close ally of the United States has come under attack from a hostile nation, and the president has decided to immediately deploy U.S. military forces to assist the defense of our ally. To whom will the president turn to in order to get the majority of U.S. military personnel, equipment, and weapons overseas? The answer is not the Army, Navy, Air Force, or Marines. Rather, the job of transporting our military forces and equipment in such a scenario is the job of the U.S. Merchant Marine.

The U.S. Merchant Marine is the fleet of civilian owned and crewed ships carrying imports and exports during peacetime, which becomes a naval auxiliary during wartime to deliver troops and war material. The Merchant Marine, as a cohesive and distinct arm of U.S. commerce and defense, began during the Revolutionary War and was then known as the Colonial Merchant Marine. The best known captain in the Colonial Merchant Marine was John Paul Jones, who committed his private merchant fleet to the development of the United States Navy. The Merchant Marine Act of 1920 is commonly referred to as the "Jones Act," named after the legislation's sponsor, Senator Wesly L. Jones of Washington, though it is a common misconception the act is named after Captain John Paul Jones.

At the turn of the nineteenth century the United States had completed a period of continental development and overcome the turmoil of the Civil War. By the dawn of the next century, the need for a strong and viable modern merchant fleet had become a political priority, driven by several factors. One consideration was the ascension of Britain as a world power, based in great part on its merchant fleet, control of the world's shipping lanes, and its steadfast adherence to a national maritime philosophy embodied in the quote by Sir Walter Raleigh, as "Whosoever commands the sea commands trade; whosoever commands the trade of the world commands the riches of the world, and consequently the world itself." Another important factor was America's need for a large sea lift capability in time of defense, realized during World War I. Lastly, the most important maritime development in this period was the converson of ships from coal to oilburning, made possible through the development of a process to refine petroleum. Before World War I approximately only one percent of the world's merchant and naval vessels burned oil for fuel. By the end of 1918 the number of oil burning ships had risen to nearly 15 percent and continued to climb until coal-burning ships had become totally obsolete by the commencement of World War II.

At this same time, however, the volume of cargo and international trade for the U.S. merchant fleet had drastically decreased due to the economic decline and global turmoil caused by World War I. Further complicating the ability of the U.S. merchant fleet to compete in international commerce were higher construction and operation costs. For example, in 1926 the comparative monthly crew costs for ships of equal size were: $3,270 for the United States; $1,308 for Great Britain; and $777 for Japan. Historically, the United States curbed the impact of such issues through "cabotage laws," which are government measures used to protect or foster a domestic shipping industry by reserving all or a portion of international sea commerce to ships which fly the national flag.

Cabotage laws were first introduced with the Shipping Act of 1916. The Shipping Act provided, among other things, that only citizens of the United States, or companies in which a controlling interest was held by a citizen of the United States, could own a U.S. vessel. Additionally, the secretary of transportation had strict control over the transfer and chartering of U.S. vessels to foreign companies, and the Shipping Act provided for the regulation of rate agreements to avoid rate wars.

Subsequently, Congress passed the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, which was arguably the nation's most important cabotage law. At the time the Merchant Marine Act was passed into law, the act represented both the commitment of the United States to maintaining a strong and viable merchant fleet for commerce and defense, and its awareness that its merchant fleet could not profitably operate in unregulated competition. The opening paragraph of the act, entitled "Purpose and Policy of the United States," summarized this commitment:

It is necessary for the national defense and for the proper growth of its foreign and domestic commerce that the United States shall have a merchant marine of the best equipped and most suitable types of vessels sufficient to carry the greater portion of its commerce and serve as a naval auxiliary in time of war or national emergency, ultimately to be owned and operated privately by citizens of the United States; and it is the declared policy of the United States to do whatever may be necessary to develop and encourage the maintenance of such a merchant marine.

The Merchant Marine Act provided many measures to protect and foster the U.S. Merchant Marine. Most important, the act restricted the transport of goods from points within the United States to vessels constructed and registered in the United States and owned by U.S. citizens or companies. In this regard, the act further provided that any vessel lawfully engaging in the coastwise "Jones Act" trade must never have been foreign-owned at any time and never registered under a foreign flag or rebuilt abroad. Any cargo shipped in violation of the Jones Act is subject to seizure and forfeiture to the U.S. government.

The U.S. merchant fleet, however, continued to be plagued by its inability to compete in unregulated international commerce despite the passage of the Merchant Marine Act of 1920. The U.S. merchant fleet has declined steadily since the end of World War II and, from 1947 to 1999, the U.S. merchant fleet fell from approximately 4,400 vessels to less than 500 vessels. Numerous reasons are thought to have contributed to the decline, including lower standards of health, welfare, and safety for foreign merchant mariners leading to lower operating costs; discrimination by foreign countries against U.S. merchant vessels engaged in international trade; tax advantages of operating foreign-registered vessels; aggressive labor unions in the United States; and the decline of the nation's steel production industry. It is also important to note that many of the merchant fleets of other countries are highly subsidized by their governments, making it more difficult for the U.S. merchant fleet to compete in international commerce.

In response to the continual decline of the U.S. merchant fleet, Congress passed new legislation to assist the maritime industry, including the Maritime Security Act of 1996. Pursuant to this act, the government acquired and has been maintaining a fleet of merchant ships, known as the "Ready Reserve Fleet" (RRF) to ensure that there are sufficient U.S. merchant vessels to support military operations worldwide. Further, the United States continues to fund and operate the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, New York, a four-year military academy vital to providing properly trained officers and executives for the transportation industry.

See also: Shipping Acts.

Jones Act

views updated May 21 2018


Enacted in 1920 (46 U.S.C.A. § 688) the Jones Act provides a remedy to sailors for injuries or death resulting from the negligence of an owner, a master, or a fellow sailor of a vessel. The federal Jones Act defines the legal rights of seamen who are injured or killed in the course of maritime service. It entitles them, or their survivors, to sue their employer in the event that their fellow workers or shipmasters are negligent (unreasonably careless), and to receive a trial by jury. Prior to the law's passage in 1920, sailors did not enjoy these rights, largely because of antiquated legal concepts and court opinions that tended to protect employers. A milestone in liability law, the Jones Act was intended to demolish such barriers in recognition of the special risks taken by sailors. Interpreting the law has been a long and difficult challenge for the federal courts, which have exclusive jurisdiction over Jones Act claims. The crux of the problem is the Jones Act's failure to define the term seaman, which courts have generally, but not always, construed to mean "a shipmaster or crew member."

Until the early twentieth century, the rights of sailors were limited. If a sailor was injured through the negligence of another sailor or the master of the ship, the injured party could not hope to win a suit against the employer. Nor could survivors of a sailor who died in the line of service win such a suit. Under general maritime law, sailors were entitled to "maintenance and cure"—a form of contractual compensation that provided a living allowance for food, lodging, and medical expenses. Only when a ship was proved to be unseaworthy could sailors recover damages from their employer.

The U.S. Supreme Court emphasized these limitations in 1903 in The Osceola, 189 U.S. 158, 23 S. Ct. 483, 47 L. Ed. 760. In that case the Court ruled that the owner of a ship was not responsible for a sailor's injuries simply because those injuries were caused by the negligent order of the ship's master. The decision had its roots in a common-law doctrine known as the fellow-servant rule. This now outdated concept shifted blame partly, and sometimes entirely, from employers to fellow workers. If sued because a worker was injured on the job, employers could avert liability by blaming the accident on the negligence of fellow employees. In Osceola the Court based its reasoning on a socalled fellow-seaman doctrine, thus curtailing the legal remedies available to an injured sailor.

Several historical developments motivated Congress to give sailors greater legal rights. The sinking of the Titanic in 1912 heightened public awareness of the perils of service at sea, and it was soon followed by concerns about merchant marines at the onset of world war i. In 1915 Congress enacted safety requirements for vessels through the Act to Promote the Welfare of American Seamen in the Merchant Marine of the United States (Act of March 4, 1915, ch. 153, 38 Stat. 1164). This act overruled the Supreme Court's decision in Osceola, explicitly stating that the fellow-seaman doctrine could not be used as a defense. But the law had little force. In 1918 the Court ruled that Congress had failed to provide a remedy for negligent acts, and therefore allowed a lower court's dismissal of a sailor's negligence suit to stand (Chelentis v. Luckenbach Steamship Co., 247 U.S. 372, 38 S. Ct. 501, 62 L. Ed. 1171). Federal lawmakers viewed the decision as undermining their will.

Two years later Congress responded by passing the Merchant Marine Act of 1920 (46 App. U.S.C.A. § 861 et seq.), section 33 of which has come to be known as the Jones Act. Lawmakers defined the rights of sailors to sue in explicit language:

Any seaman who shall suffer personal injury in the course of his employment may, at his election, maintain an action for damages at law, with the right of trial by jury…. and in case of the death of any seaman as a result of any such personal injury the personal representative of such seaman may maintain an action for damages at law with the right of trial by jury.

Though Congress had eliminated the barriers that the Supreme Court had erected, a key question remained: who qualified as a seaman? In 1927 Congress provided a partial answer through the passage of the Longshoremen's and Harbor Workers Compensation Act (LHCA) (33 U.S.C.A. § 901 et seq.). The LHCA provided workers' compensation benefits to dockhands, who by that time had replaced sailors in the tasks of loading and unloading ships. But the LHCA specifically excluded any crew member of a vessel from its coverage; thus, by extension, sailors were not eligible for the benefits afforded dockworkers.

Because Congress did not see a need in 1920 to define seaman, it remained ambiguous who qualified to bring a suit under the Jones Act. Nevertheless, the courts had little trouble deciding until 1940, when the Supreme Court ruled that a crew member was not a seaman if his duties did not pertain to navigation (South Chicago Coal & Dock Co. v. Bassett, 309 U.S. 251, 60 S. Ct. 544, 84 L. Ed. 732). Yet, over the next several decades, some courts liberally construed both who constituted a sailor and what constituted a vessel. More confusion followed as a result of the Supreme Court's 1955 decision in Gianfala v. Texas Co., 350 U.S. 879, 76 S. Ct. 141, 100 L. Ed. 775, which reinstated the district court's ruling that the determination of a sailor's status belonged to the jury. The definition of seaman came to include workers on dredges and floating oil drilling platforms. Still, no precise test existed, and the result was an explosion of Jones Act litigation. Between 1975 and 1985, nearly one hundred thousand Jones Act suits were filed in southern states.

During the 1980s critics of the Jones Act called for reform. They asked Congress to limit the act's scope, and the Supreme Court to define whom the act covered. Although Congress did not act, the Court returned a partial answer in 1995 in Chandris, Inc. v. Latsis, 515 U.S. 347, 115 S. Ct. 2172, 132 L. Ed. 2d 314. The decision established two elements that must be met by a plaintiff in order for the plaintiff to qualify as a sailor: the worker's duties "must contribute to the function of the vessel or to the accomplishment of its mission," and the worker "must have a connection to a vessel in navigation (or an identifiable group of vessels) that is substantial in both its duration and its nature." One key result of the decision was that sailors could now sue under the Jones Act even if their work required going ashore. But scholars did not believe Chandris was a conclusive ruling on all matters of interpretation in the law.

further readings

Beer, Peter. 1986. "Keeping Up with the Jones Act." Tulane Law Review 61 (December).

Buckley, William F. 1995. "The Jones Act: Its Applicability Clarified." Rhode Island Bar Journal 44 (October).

Dripps, Roy. 2001. "The Seaman's 'Election' Under the Jones Act." University of San Francisco Maritime Law Journal 14 (fall).

Kelly, Wendy A. 1995. "Chandris, Inc. v. Latsis: The Supreme Court Addresses the Vessel Connection Requirement for Seaman Status under The Jones Act." Tulane Law Review 70 (December).

Peltz, Robert D., and Vincent J. Warger. 2003. "Medicine on the Seas." Tulane Maritime Law Journal 27 (summer).

Robertson, David W. 1985. "A New Approach to Determining Seaman Status." Texas Law Review 64 (August).


Admiralty and Maritime Law.

Jones Act

views updated Jun 11 2018


JONES ACT, or Organic Act of the Philippine Islands, passed by Congress on 29 August 1916, provided for the government of the Philippines and committed the United States to the future independence of the archipelago. The act gave the right to vote to all male citizens over twenty-one years of age who could read and write. The two houses of the Philippine Congress were made wholly elective; the president of the United States was to appoint, subject to confirmation by the Senate, justices of the Philippine Supreme Court and a governor-general. Full independence of the Philippines was realized in 1946.


Carlson, Keith Thor. The Twisted Road to Freedom: America's Granting of Independence to the Philippines. Diliman, Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 1995.

Paredes, Ruby R., ed. Philippine Colonial Democracy. Southeast Asia Studies Monograph Series, no. 32. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Southeast Asia Studies, Yale Center for International and Area Studies, 1988.

John ColbertCochrane/t. m.

See alsoInsular Cases ; Paris, Treaty of (1898) ; Philippines ; Tydings-McDuffie Act .

merchant marine

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mer·chant ma·rine • n. (often the merchant marine) a country's shipping that is involved in commerce and trade, as opposed to military activity.

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Merchant marine

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