Re-thinking “Open-Door Imperialism”

Nicole M. Phelps
University of Vermont

Review of Marc-William Palen. The “Conspiracy” of Free Trade: The Anglo-American Struggle over Empire and Economic Globalisation, 1846-1896. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016. 331 pp. $99.99 (hardcover).

[For full review and citation, see: Nicole M. Phelps, “Re-thinking ‘Open-Door Imperialism,'” Diplomatic History 41 (Jan. 2017): 211-214.]

conspiracy of free trade coverStill basing your Gilded Age foreign policy lecture—perhaps reduced now to just a PowerPoint slide—on the quest for markets a la William Appleman Williams’s The Tragedy of American Diplomacy and Walter LaFeber’s The New Empire?1 Marc-William Palen convincingly argues that it is time for a change. According to Palen, lumping all the Gilded Age administrations from Grant to McKinley into proponents of an undifferentiated “Open Door imperialism” misses essential differences between the Democratic Grover Cleveland administrations and those of the Republicans and, more importantly, falsely paints free traders as imperialists and obscures the protectionist, closed door bent of the actual imperialists. By focusing our attention on the debate over tariffs waged by Cobdenite free traders and Listian economic nationalists—protectionists—from the early days of the Republican Party through McKinley’s election in 1896, Palen offers important contributions to our understanding of imperialism, the development of American political parties, and Anglo-American relations. In so doing, he smooths out the story of nineteenth-century U.S. foreign policy, which often skips abruptly from the end of the Civil War to the start of the Spanish-American War.

The free traders in Palen’s account are adherents to the ideas of Richard Cobden (1804–1865), the politician who skillfully organized the Anti-Corn Law League in Britain in 1838, successfully advocating for the “cheap loaf” that would be obtainable if the British government lifted its ban on grain imports. Cobden went on to argue that free trade—by which he meant a tariff rate that covered a government’s operating expenses, but did not generate a surplus—would bring about increased trade, and that the denser web of connections that trade generated would produce world peace. His ideas guided British policy for the rest of the century. Cobden also worked with U.S. abolitionists to link the repeal of the Corn Laws and then free trade more generally to the end of slavery. That commitment to abolition helped to unite American Cobdenites like William Lloyd Garrison with proponents of the protectionist American System long enough to form the Republican Party and fight the Civil War.

With the achievement of abolition, infighting over the tariff among the Republicans intensified. The Cobdenites were generally more committed to free trade than to a specific political party, and they organized—and then quickly lost control of—the Liberal Republican Party in 1872. The Cobdenites also supported the gold standard, as opposed to free silver or bimetallism, and civil service reform. With that combination of commitments, Cobdenites were the core of the Mugwumps—those erstwhile Republicans who supported Democrat Grover Cleveland in the 1884 presidential election. With Cleveland’s election, several leading American Cobdenites entered the cabinet or served the president in an advisory capacity. Cleveland’s foreign policy actions, including quashing a Nicaraguan canal that violated the 1850 Clayton-Bulwer Treaty with Great Britain and declining to become further involved in the governance of Samoa, demonstrate the Cobdenite opposition to both formal and informal empire. Those commitments were even more clearly on display during Cleveland’s second term, especially with the withdrawal of the Hawaiian annexation treaty in 1893.

The primary opponents of the Cobdenites were economic nationalists, who followed the ideas of Friedrich List (1789–1846) and his key American proponent, Henry Charles Carey (1793–1879). Although List did envision free trade as an ultimate economic endpoint, he argued that infant industries needed protection to grow into viable competitions in a global marketplace. In this theory, there was also room—indeed, necessity—for obtaining access to foreign markets, and that could be achieved through either formal or informal empire. James G. Blaine, secretary of state under James Garfield and Benjamin Harrison, was essential in connecting List’s ideas to U.S. foreign policy, seeking regional hegemony for the United States in Latin America, in large part via reciprocity treaties. Blaine’s actions were definitely imperial, as Williams, LaFeber, and their fellow Revisionists pointed out, but the door was closed, rather than open. [continue reading]

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