Protectionism and Empire: A Toynbee Prize Foundation Interview with Marc-William Palen

Caption: ‘Free Trade England Wants the Earth.’ Pro-Republican Judge magazine depicts US protectionism shielding the country from the British free trade spider’s grasp, 27 Oct. 1888. Source: The ‘Conspiracy’ of Free Trade: The Anglo-American Struggle Over Empire and Economic Globalisation, 1846-1896 (Cambridge University Press, 2016).

The last twenty-four months have witnessed world-wide dissent against the current regime of trade liberalisation. The United States disengaged from the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Britons renounced the EU, and in Tokyo, Sydney, Lima, and other cities across the Pacific Rim thousands protested a potential transpacific trade partnership. While the popularity of protectionism is not unexpected, its recent embrace by political elites everywhere is more surprising. This is particularly true of the United States, which one president ago was still steering the global economy towards freer trade.

In The ‘Conspiracy’ of Free Trade: The Anglo-American Struggle Over Empire and Economic Globalisation, 1846-1896 (Cambridge University Press, 2016), Marc-William Palen traces the roots of this debate to the United States in the 1840s. There began a political and ideological battle between Victorian free trade cosmopolitanism and economic nationalism which lasted the remainder of the century and beyond. Talks about tariffs dominated American political life. Through them, Palen is able to tell a much broader story. The Republican and Democratic parties were transformed in the process. Debates about trade influenced the character of American imperial and commercial expansion, as well as the contours of the Anglo-American struggle for empire and globalisation. Palen’s argument that economic nationalism dominated the period also forces us to rethink received notions of the US Gilded Age, which is usually portrayed as an era dominated by laissez-faire and free trade.

We recently met with Marc-William Palen in Bristol, where he resides. He discussed nineteenth century American political thought, the political economy of Anglo-American globalisation and empire in the Victorian Era, and his future research plans. Dr Palen is a historian at the University of Exeter. The ‘Conspiracy’ of Free Trade is his first book. You can follow him via Twitter: @MWPalen.

Martin Crevier


Can you tell us something about yourself? How did you transition from studying classics as an undergraduate to modern globalization and imperialism as a graduate student?


I was at the right place at the right time. In the summer of 2001, in the middle of my classics degree at the University of Texas at Austin, I registered in a spoken Latin program at the Vatican. At that time, anything after the Holy Roman Empire was journalism to me. However, while I was in Rome, the G8 was being held in Genoa. Rome was filled with anti-globalization protesters, as was the rest of Italy. Things turned violent. A protester in Genoa was even killed by the Carabinieri. This was one of my first encounters with anti-globalism. Then, a week after I came back home to the United States, 9-11 happened. All this awoke an interest in the history of modern globalization and how it had shaped the world today.

Jump forward a few years, after studying the classics I found myself working towards an actuarial science degree. I randomly signed up for a class on the British Empire with someone named A. G. Hopkins because I thought it sounded interesting. As I later discovered, Professor Hopkins had only recently arrived at the University of Texas (UT) by way of Cambridge, Geneva, and Harvard. His teaching, mentorship, and scholarship changed the way I viewed the history of empire and globalization. Sometime in the second semester, he pulled me aside and asked if I had ever considered a PhD in history. Professor Hopkins took me under his wing, and I joined the history PhD program at UT in 2007. There I also had the good fortune to be able to work closely with Wm. Roger Louis, as well as H.W. Brands and Mark Lawrence for the American side of things.

After finishing my PhD in 2011, I crossed the Pacific. I spent a year at the US Studies Center at the University of Sydney. It was a very exciting place to be in the midst of the 2012 presidential election. After Sydney, I briefly taught at Tufts before coming here to Exeter. At the time of my arrival, Andrew Thompson and the department were in the midst of launching the Centre for Imperial and Global History, which has since grown by leaps and bounds.


From this came your book. There you trace the tensions between two economic ideologies that shaped Anglo-American visions of empire and globalization. On the one hand are free traders influenced by Richard Cobden (1804-1865), the Victorian Era’s famed radical British free trade and peace advocate. On the other are ‘Listian nationalists,’ whom you characterize after the German intellectual Friedrich List (1789-1846). We know about Cobden, but List is not a household name. Can you tell us more about him and walk us through the broader debate?


List has actually made a bit of a comeback in recent decades. For example, Ha-Joon Chang, a heterodox economist, wrote a popular book in 2002 (Kicking Away the Ladder) borrowing from List’s 1841 National System of Political Economy. In the 1990s, James Fallows also wrote a fascinating piece about List in The Atlantic (‘How the World Works,’ December 1992) after he came across a Japanese translation of List’s critique of free trade, and Fallows used it to highlight debates about what I would call ‘Cobdenite cosmopolitanism’ and ‘Listian nationalism’ in Japan. But, essentially, List was a critic of free trade. He argued that states needed strong protectionist policies alongside strong national institutions and imperial expansion in order to develop ‘infant’ industries. This was very much the opposite of the hands-off, non-interventionist, anti-imperial, free trade arguments of Richard Cobden and his followers. Continue reading “Protectionism and Empire: A Toynbee Prize Foundation Interview with Marc-William Palen”