Article Review 478- "Foreign Relations in the Gilded Age: A British Free Trade Conspiracy?"

George Fujii Discussion

H-Diplo Article Reviews
No. 478
Published on 1 August 2014

H-Diplo Article Review Editors:  Thomas Maddux and Diane Labrosse
Web and Production Editor: George Fujii
Commissioned for H-Diplo by Thomas Maddux

Marc-William Palen.  “Foreign Relations in the Gilded Age: A British Free Trade Conspiracy?”  Diplomatic History, 37:2 (April 2013):  217-247.  DOI:  10.1093/dh/dht003.


Reviewed by Phillip W. Magness, George Mason University

An oft-repeated maxim holds that, outside of slavery, no issue so thoroughly captured the American political discourse of the nineteenth century more than the tariff. While slavery and the sectional conflict it engendered saw a resolution in the outcome of the Civil War, the tariff issue persisted as a primary point of economic policy contention in the Gilded Age. In this article Marc-William Palen explores a neglected dimension of nineteenth century tariff politics by contextualizing and partially resituating them within a broader transatlantic discourse over free trade. The primary framework for this inquiry is Cobdenism and particularly its neglected dissemination in the United States.

Following their British namesake Richard Cobden, American adherents of the postbellum ‘Cobden Club’ movement generally espoused a philosophy of free trade, economic non-interventionism, and anti-imperialism - the last somewhat ironically though, as hostile circles frequently charged them with serving as the agents of a British-backed exercise in economic imperialism through their intended disruption of the American protectionist status quo. To this end, tariff debates in the late nineteenth century, and particularly during the heated pressing of the issue in the two nonconsecutive Grover Cleveland administrations, often descended into a frenzy of conspiratorial accusations alleging that significant portions of the American government had become captive and willing agents of British free trade.

Drawing upon the heated rhetoric around President Cleveland’s tariff war, Palen uses this protectionist charge of a British-backed conspiracy as a starting point for his investigation into the transatlantic dimensions of trade policy, and indeed there seems to be some weight to the charge at first glance. Cleveland’s cabinet included a veritable who’s who of Cobdenite free traders in its ranks, along with such unofficial advisors such as David A. Wells and Edward Atkinson. The same could be said of the eclectic mixture of free traders on the Republican side that composed the electorally disruptive Liberal, Half-Breed, and Mugwump coalitions of the 1870s and 1880s. Yet was theirs a movement of conspiratorial collusion with the crown, or rather a more benign intellectual kinship with free trade reformers from across the sea who had fought their own political battles with the tariff interest a generation prior?

Palen’s evidence points to the latter, and indeed compliments a growing cognizance in the historical literature of the tariff’s Anglo-American intellectual connection. Whereas U.S.-centric studies have traditionally viewed trade as a domestically aligned sectional issue - particularly before the Civil War - historians would do well to remember that the last major trade reform push before the failed Morrison Tariff was Robert Walker’s successful Tariff of 1846, adopted and consciously timed to coincide with Cobden’s own repeal of the Corn Laws.[1] Similarly, as Palen’s own work elsewhere has show us, the resumption of protection on the eve of the Civil War had an under-recognized souring effect upon Anglo-American relations at precisely the point that antislavery - that other classical tenet of Cobdenism - was in ascendance.[2]

Turning to the postbellum, Palen’s contribution brings out another point of subtle significance in illustrating that the common propensity to interpret the tariff along north/south or industrial/agrarian lines is at best a severe simplification. This hallmark of antebellum politics persisted somewhat into the latter part of the nineteenth century when high tariff protectionism supplanted antislavery as a primary supposed binding glue of the Republican Party, yet Palen’s story reminds us of complexities all around wherein the Democracy’s political economy found kinship with the Cobden Clubs of New England, and where an anti-tariff common ground drew such dissimilar and sectionally diverse voices as Manton Marble, William Lloyd Garrison, Roger Q. Mills, William Graham Sumner, L.Q.C. Lamar, Charles Francis Adams, and Thomas Bayard into common membership through the Cobden Clubs. With ranks including Democrats, Republicans, Mugwumps, former Abolitionists, former Confederates, these clubs show a political movement that defies easy compartmentalization in the era’s political scene. Perhaps these events point to a continuation of the observations suggested by the recent work of scholars such as John Majewski and John Moore suggesting a complicated dissipation of the tariff’s famed sectional character at an earlier moment than is conventionally assumed.[3]

What brought these Cobdenites together? The charge of conspiracy pervaded the campaign trails, though this was more a relic of caricature and Anglophobic electioneering around a deeper intellectual divide. American economic thought was very much in flux in the late nineteenth century, and though free traders eventually won the academic debate, they came of age amidst the political economy of protectionism - and protection’s intellectual advocates of distinct traditions from the Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and Cobden-infused tariff reformers. These were the followers of Alexander Hamilton, Freidrich List, and Henry C. Carey; the University of Pennsylvania’s Simon N. Patten standing opposite to Harvard’s free trader Frank Taussig; the Henry Carey Bairds to Cobdenites Wells and Francis Amasa Walker. The ‘Free Trade conspiracy’ - asserted and validated upon the ‘evidence’ of Cobden Club memberships that were far from concealed - might best be interpreted as simply a baser political manifestation of this same intellectual struggle over matters of divergent political economy. Indeed, American electoral history is far too often a testament to the effectiveness of peddling tales of suspicious foreign plots in place of substantive intellectual discourse.

A great and final irony accompanies the political language of a Cobdenite conspiracy, at least insofar as Palen finds little evidence to sustain the electorally charged allegations that the anti-tariff men were acting upon the orders of British enablers or, worse, were on their payroll. For all the protectionist bluster about Cobdenite plots and Anglophone free trade conspiracies, a much simpler and more common form of collusion gravitated to the pro-tariff side of the debate in the form of good old fashioned political graft.

Though it was hardly a product of conscious design, the protective tariff schedules of the late nineteenth century attained their political durability from the businesses that they served and insulated from import competition. Thus did protectionist powerbrokers in Congress such as Henry Cabot Lodge, William McKinley, and Nelson Aldrich become the collusive partners of another form of interest group arising much closer to home, and thus did pro-tariff academics and publishers find a willing patron for their work in the protectionist industrialist Joseph Wharton. This was not conspiracy though, but a simple and common aligning of political and economic interests with far more enduring clout between them than any club-based homage to a British tariff reformer from a generation prior. For all their free trade agitation, the Cobden Club-aligned tariff reformers would have to settle for setbacks and disappointments until the economic and constitutional disruptions of a later generation finally elevated free trade to its current place in the political mainstream.

Phil Magness is a policy historian and Academic Program Director at the Institute for Humane Studies. His research focuses on the history of taxation in the 19th century United States and the history of slavery. He is the coauthor of the book Colonization after Emancipation: Lincoln and the Movement for Black Resettlement (University of Missouri Press), and has published in numerous scholarly and popular outlets including the Journal of the Early Republic, Slaver & Abolition, the Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, and the New York Times.

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[1] Scott C. James and David A. Lake, “The Second Face of Hegemony: Britain’s Repeal of the Corn Laws and the American Walker Tariff of 1846” International Organization, Vol. 43, No. 1. (Winter, 1989): 1-29.

[2] Marc-William Palen, “The Civil War’s Forgotten Transatlantic Tariff Debate and the Confederacy’s Free Trade Diplomacy.” Journal of the Civil War Era 3:1 (March 2013): 35-61.

[3] John Majewski, Modernizing a Slave Economy: The Economic Vision of the Confederate Nation (University of North Carolina Press, 2009); John A. Moore, “Interests and Ideas: Industrialization and the Making of Early American Trade Policy, 1789 – 1860” Doctoral Dissertation, Wayne State University, 2013.