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.