Marc-William Palen’s new book The “Conspiracy” of Free Trade: The Anglo-American Struggle over Empire and Economic Globalisation, 1846-1896 is relevant not only to historians of imperialism, capitalism, and economics, but to the 2016 American presidential primary election. Once again, free trade has become a central campaign issue during a presidential election. While Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have discussed the consequences of free trade, they have provided very little historical context to help voters understand the rationales behind free trade and protectionism. Palen’s book explores a world when American extreme economic nationalism came into conflict with Britain’s advocacy of global free trade. Palen’s book focuses “upon the ideological debates surrounding free trade and protectionism” within the United States and Great Britain.
Here is the interview with Marc-William Palen.
If someone asked you to quickly summarize your book, what would be your 2-minute elevator version?
Briefly, The “Conspiracy” of Free Trade provides a new interpretation of Anglo-American imperialism and economic integration from the mid to late 19th century. The issue of free trade dominated the era’s political scene like no other. But whereas Britain turned to free trade as a national policy and ideology by mid-century, the United States turned to economic nationalism. The book thus argues that Anglo-American economic globalization was driven by this political and ideological conflict between free trade and economic nationalism from the 1840s onward.
The “Conspiracy” of Free Trade also offers a timely reminder that the Republican Party was, for much of its history, the party of protectionism and imperialism. The GOP dominated the executive throughout most of this period and it viewed any attempts to lower US tariff walls to be part of a vast transatlantic free trade conspiracy to undermine the American economy. The GOP also oversaw the era’s various imperial projects, culminating in numerous colonial acquisitions in the wake of the Spanish-American War.
My book explores how this conspiracy-laden ideological conflict over trade policy shaped the imperial course of Anglo-American economic development and globalization throughout the latter half of the 19th century. It would also lay the ideological groundwork for the subsequent US turn to trade liberalization after the Second World War.